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Where does this story begin? Well, back before Lyndon was president, while he was Vice President, he became acquainted with an Austin, Texas area boat dealer and wonderful person named Bill Gaston. Bill also happened to be co-founder of the Glastron Boat Company, located in Austin as well. Bill is a key figure in the story of Lyndon and his Glastrons and the current research of these boats. “What?” you say. Glastrons, as in more than one? Yes, according to Mr. Gaston, LBJ’s people purchased a 1961 19ft. outboard model from his dealership while LBJ was vice president.
Many former presidents had boats too, but the boats seem to be more elusive and harder to track down. Most of the presidents’ cars had special modifications that made them unmistakable, but their boats were usually used for recreation and had no difference from another boat of the same year and model. Unless the boat was kept track of for its entire life, it could be sitting in a driveway or junk yard and no one would be able to tell what it was.
Such is not the case of this very special boat that belonged to President Lyndon Johnson. In fact, President Johnson’s connection with his cars and boats is much more personal than any of the other presidents in my opinion. From the presidential libraries many fascinating facts, images (both still and moving) and accounts bear this out. Lyndon Johnson was quite a personality and he really loved his Lincolns and his boats. He wasn’t driven in them as a passenger unless necessary. He loved to drive them! Almost exclusively Lake LBJ (formerly Granite Shoals Lake) was the site where LBJ most often boated and his cruiser served as an island from which to operate his speedboats. He’d pick up and drop off passengers and then zoom by at high speed grinning like a “little kid” according to his wife, Lady Bird. In nearly every account or image LBJ was the one at the wheel, and he clearly loved every minute of it. In Ladybird’s memoirs she often mentions the haunting stress and anguish LBJ suffered over the Vietnam war. But she also states that when LBJ got at the wheel of his “fast boat” he forgot all his worries and became happy again.
While he always kept some sort of small cruiser, Lyndon liked to be out driving runabouts, and the one he kept through nearly his entire presidency was this 1965 Glastron V-204 Gulfstream with a 409 engine. That boat is what this article is all about.
In 1965 a new and exciting motor option was being offered by Mercruiser, the 310 horsepower Mercruiser II 310 with the legendary 409 Chevrolet big block motor. LBJ loved outrunning the smaller Secret Service boats trying to keep up with him, so he just had to have a Glastron with one of these new powerful motors. Bob Hammon, Bill Gaston and Jerry Wilhoit, longtime Glastron Production manager, were excited about the new high powered motor option from Mercruiser and LBJ’s V-204 would be the first in line to receive it.
Hammond, recounts that a V-204 was pulled off the line and special modifications were begun on it, including a special hull bottom and floor with extra layers of fiberglass. Bob states that the interior of the boat was not standard either. Different side panels were installed and a fixed 5 foot removable lounge is also with the boat.
Bill Gaston delivered the boat to LBJ around June 13, 1965 complete with a commemorative plaque by the stern throttle that reads: “Custom Built for President Lyndon Johnson by Glastron Boat Company.” Bob spent the majority of the day with LBJ on the boat orienting him with the controls and other features, and also as his guest. Bob remembers a little trouble they had when they got into a shallow part of the river and the boat got grounded. The two Secret Service agents that were along had to go into the waist deep water and push the boat to deeper water.
Guests seen on the boat include the longest serving Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas. Also seen is supreme court justice Abe Fortas, LBJ aide and longtime director of the Motion Picture Association, Jack Valenti, Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall and others. And, of course, Lady Bird, who also took great pleasure resting atop the still cruiser and swimming.
Here is a video shot on April 13, 1965 that shows how much fun LBJ had with the boat.
Jerry Wilhoit recounted that he clearly remembered a lot about the boat, mostly because Secret Service agents were always involved. He said that he was assigned to do the tune ups on it at a shop where he also worked as a mechanic. What was incredible was that when LBJ’s people brought the boat in there were 2 secret service agents assigned to sit in the boat the entire time it was being worked on and Jerry was the only one allowed to work on it.
Jerry Wilhoit, mentioned earlier, remembers well the fleet of Donzi Sweet 16s that the Secret Service used to try to keep up with LBJ. While they were great boats, they just couldn’t quite keep up with the V-204 if LBJ decided to pull away at full power. Above is a good shot showing one of the Secret Service Donzis with radio gear and certainly some weaponry within easy grasp. Here is Jerry’s recollection of “LBJ’s Navy” as he called it:
Jerry asked me: “You know about LBJ’s navy, don’t you?” I said no. “Oh yes, Johnson had
Glastrons before becoming president, but once in office we fixed him up a nice 204 (1965 Gulfstream V-204). It had the big 409 in it. I did all the work on it. They wanted me to do all of it, so I did. Whenever he went out, here went all these Secret Service guys trying to keep up with him. And he liked to get away from them! The Secret Service guys kept asking me to slow the boat down, but the president wanted me to keep it fast. Shoot, I did what the president said. Yeah, that was LBJ’s Navy.” Watch this 2 minute video of LBJ and these Donzis trying and failing to keep up with him. Note the camera man had nothing to film but the other Donzis once LBJ was a spot in the distance.
The boats were kept on the Haywood ranch which is about 25 miles north of the President’s LBJ Ranch near Johnson City. LBJ bought the ranch around 1963 with A.W. Moursund, a lawyer and rancher in Johnson City who became one of the trustees for the extensive business and property holdings of the President and his wife. There were three boat houses on the ranch where they kept LBJ’s Navy on the banks of the Llano river.
Anyone wishing to document this boat can submit a history request (Ownership History PWD-763) to the Texas Parks and Wildlife and find this TX registration number and serial number matching and on file as the boat LBJ personally used. A sworn affidavit to this effect by Bill Gaston is included in this ownership history. Bill Gaston, Bob Hammond, Jerry Wilhoit all saw this boat at the July 28-30, 2006 Glastron 50th Anniversary convention and they all confirmed the obvious, that this is no doubt LBJ’s Glastron.
According to the third video in 2006 Bill Gaston donated the boat to the Boy Scouts. They took it to a boat salvage yard in Austin where it sat for three to four years. Then someone bought the boat hoping to protect and restore it, but he soon discovered that the engine block was cracked in three places. The project just proved to be too big for him to undertake. He then donated the boat to the Glastron Owners Association. Right now, the trail ends here but there is more research to be done.
Fast Forward to 2017
In late October, 2017, I was looking at boats for sale on Craigslist. We live near Lake LBJ and we wanted to get back on the water, but also wanted something interesting. Maybe a historic wooden boat? I came across an ad from a guy in Houston who said he had the boat that LBJ had on Lake LBJ when he was President. That sounded like a pretty good story.
I knew the boat had to be restored, it did not have a motor in it. We spent a couple of days reviewing how he was authenticating the boat. He had a letter from the custodian of records from the Boat Titling and Registration Section, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department with 11 pages of records from the Certified Ownership History Report for the boat identified TX 8059BH.
It took a while to sort out because President Johnson had purchased several boats from Bill Gaston and most of the pictures were in black and white, making it hard to identify which was which. To further complicate things many of the President’s purchases were made by Earl Deathe Jr., who managed many of LBJ’s legal affairs. Registrations on many of LBJ’s cars and boats were put in Mr. Deathe’s name for obvious security precautions.
There was a signed Affidavit of Facts recorded in the Texas Parks and Wildlife boat title archives dated July 13, 2000 signed by Bill Gaston, co-founder of Glastron Boats that said that this was LBJ’s boat and that after the President died, the Johnson children traded in the boat for a new ski boat. Bill said he put the boat in a warehouse but never used it.
There were many pictures, most from The Library of Congress or the LBJ Museum that showed the President with the Secret Service agents, with his family, and many different visitors to the LBJ Ranch. I did my own research and was convinced that it was authentic.
I bought the boat and the seller delivered it to the ranch about 11 PM one night. He was hurrying back to Houston to catch an Astros game the next day, but I think the real reason was that he did not want me to see the boat in the light of day! When I went out the next day, it was in much worse shape than I realized. But, even in that poor condition, it was pretty cool.
Within a few days I sat down with Rick Hartley at Lake LBJ Marineland in Kingsland. Rick has been in the boat business for decades and his passion for restoring classic boats and cars told me I had found the right person for the job. He said, “If I’m going to put my name on it, it is going to be done right.” He said it would take some time and it would not be cheap. We shook on it. He was right on both points.
The restoration process took 10 months. There were endless hours put in on the fiberglass hull. Dents and scratches were filled and multiple coats of gelcoat were applied. Rick and his team refinished it three times.Once it was ready they put in a new engine and propulsion system, new gas tanks, a new electrical system and controls. Then, the boat went to Jim Teer at The Lakes Custom Upholstery for new seats, carpet and a custom cover.
Rick test drove the boat at almost 60 MPH, but at that speed the boat started porpoising. So, concerned about safety, he went back and installed hydraulic trim tabs. Now it runs perfectly smooth.
Today it looks fantastic and while mechanically it is a brand new boat, it is as true to the original condition as was possible. The paint color is a perfect match, we were able to restore the bright work around the windshield and railings. The windshield is original.
We are so pleased to be able to not only restore the boat, but to put it back on the same lake it was originally launched into around June 13, 1965. She is sporting a new name, “Lady Bird.” Here is a link to a story KXAN on the restoration project.
If I have anything wrong, or you have more information about the boat email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 512 203-6309.