One of the longest-running and enduring family dynasties in the Australian marine industry is also, quite possibly, one of the least known. The Melbourne-based Jackson Brothers marine business started in the 1950s and operates today as R Marine Jacksons, with Stuart Jackson – the third generation of the founding family – at the helm.
At the very height of the recreational boating boom in Australia, brothers Bob and Des Jackson – the second generation – were household names. They sold the best brands in boating and on weekends raced with the Victorian Outboard Club, regularly winning championships and setting speed records.
The Jackson Brothers era began in 1958 with Bob and Des’s father, Jim, and his brother Tom. Together, they ran a successful motorcycle and, later, car-servicing business in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Abbotsford. One of their automotive service clients, a Collins Street dentist, had bought a new outboard engine, but couldn’t find anyone to service it. So the little 25hp outboard launched the Jackson Brothers name on the Australian marine scene.
Outboards were the latest plaything of the well-heeled and word soon spread that the place to get them serviced was Jacksons. Servicing outboards took over the business, which relocated to the bayside suburb of Mentone in the early ‘70s and turned its focus from cars to boats and engines. At about this time, Tom retired and Jim pulled back his day-to-day involvement, with sons Bob and Des assuming more prominent roles in the business.
The move to Mentone was a masterstroke. One of Melbourne’s most affluent areas at the time, Mentone was well-placed in the event of a boating boom – and the boating market didn’t just boom, it went berserk, with the Jackson boys in the front row.
Prior to relocating to Mentone, an Evinrude outboards franchise had been secured, which remained with the business as its sole outboard brand. Fibreglass boats had come into their own and, through the 1970s and ‘80s, Jackson Brothers was an agent for leading Australian-made brands, including Pride, Caribbean, Yalta, Swift Craft, Bell Boy and Doggett. There were US imports, too, from Sea Ray and Glastron.
Recreational boating was new and affordable for suburban families, with demand high and showing no signs of abating. The business was selling some 350 Evinrude outboards a year, but the Australian importer couldn’t keep up.
“Outboard engines were becoming hard to get, so we bypassed OMC (Outboard Marine Corporation) in Bankstown and started to bring them in from America ourselves,” Bob recounts.
“This didn’t go down at all well with the OMC bosses in Sydney and many OMC dealers in Melbourne were coming under some serious pressure from the factory because of the direct imports. So the principals of the seven biggest marine dealers in Melbourne got together and decided there was strength in numbers if we were to stand up to OMC. We formed a major buying group under the banner of the Big Seven.”
While Jackson Brothers and the other six dealers continued to trade under their own names, they also used the Big Seven’s collective buying power to have boat hulls built and branded as a Big Seven build.
Specialised recreational marine insurance wasn’t available at the time, so the group developed its own insurance product. Initially named Marine Hull, the insurance business was eventually rebranded as Club Marine under the stewardship of Fred Wilson.
During the Big Seven era, Jackson Brothers prospered and embraced new technologies – including plastics manufacturing. By working with a roto-moulding company, Bob designed and produced a plastic fuel tank as a replacement for the ugly five-gallon steel tanks supplied by the outboard companies. Thus was born the Pacemaker brand of marine products.
Pacemaker also produced outboard midsection conversion kits, which would convert a short-shaft outboard to a long shaft. It became such a strong brand that another property in Mentone was bought.
In the mid 1970s, while boating was enjoying unsurpassed popularity, Bob and Des looked ahead to bigger boats – specifically, vessels over 25ft. On Port Phillip Bay, there was only one modern marina that could accommodate larger boats – at St Kilda. To create the ‘parking lots’ for the boats they wanted to sell, the brothers took a giant leap of faith, purchasing farmland alongside Patterson River at Carrum.
“We bought a chook farm. I reflect now and think we must have been crazy,” Bob said.
“This was rural land in Melbourne’s southern area, alongside a river that was really a river in name only. McLeod Road, the access road, was just a dirt track passing through the paddocks.
“A project manager was appointed and, over five years, we built Whalers Cove Marina at just $280 per dock.”
But the long-term project drained the brothers financially and, when they were ready to dig out the bank and let water flow in from Patterson River, they didn’t even have enough money for a bottle of champagne to celebrate, remembers Bob.
Whalers Cove Marina proved to be an outstanding success, accommodating some 400 boats and a boat-sales business. At its peak, Jackson Brothers Marine employed more than 120 staff and had sold 67 Bertram cruisers, along with other brands such as the sporty Formula and Diavlo boats. In 1979, Whalers Cove was appointed as a Mercury dealer.
In 1987, Bob’s son Stuart joined the family business at Whalers Cove, cutting his teeth in one of the most influential and busiest marine businesses in Australia.
Riding a massive high, fuelled by big demand as the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne expanded, Jackson Brothers needed to raise funds to meet demand and sustain its growth. They took in a partner and became a publically listed company. At this time, Bob and Des were directors of Capital Resorts Group, which owned and managed the marinas – Whalers Cove Marina (now Patterson Lakes Marina) and Runaway Bay Marina (Qld) – with retail outlets at Whalers Cove Marina, Hastings Marina, St Kilda Marina and Runaway Bay Marina.
“We raised $20 million from Capital Resorts Group. In 1989 our boat sales peaked at $22 million, an amazing figure for the time,” recalls Bob.
“Jackson Bros held the Victorian and Tasmanian dealerships for Riviera, Bertram, Markline, Steber, Mariner, Fastlane and Northshore Yachts. But it wasn’t to last. In hindsight, I should have taken my share and retired.”
Although Whalers Cove Marina was performing well, other business ventures within the Capital Resorts Group were failing and eventually the whole group went bust. After taking a break from business for a few years, Bob and Des moved into property development, with one of their better-known projects being Pier 35 Marina on the Yarra River in Port Melbourne. However, they eventually decided to pursue separate business ventures.
Bob remained true to his passion of boat retailing, establishing Jackson International Yacht at Hastings. Then, in 1994, Bob and son Stuart secured the Victorian Riviera agency and soon relocated to the glamorous Sandringham Yacht Club (SYC).
“In 1994 and ‘95 we were agents for both the Caribbean and Riviera brands, but we came under pressure from both to be exclusive dealers. So we chose Riviera, without a moment of regret; we absolutely made the correct choice.”
The business is still strong at its SYC location and trades under the banner of R Marine Jacksons Vic, with Stuart holding the reins.
“Riviera is the premier big-boat brand in the Australian market, with their superb product and factory support,” Stuart said.
“I have been selling Rivieras since 1987 and have a great relationship with the management, many of whom I’ve known for more than 20 years. Another aspect of my position I have grown to appreciate is the long-term friendships that have developed from all the years of brokering boats – I get to see families develop and being a part of this is a privileged role and something I never take for granted.”
RACING IN THE BLOOD
In the ‘golden era’ of powerboat racing – from the 1950s to ‘70s – Bob Jackson was a household name. He enjoyed an enviable three-decade powerboat-racing career, driving outboards in circuit, ski and offshore racing.
Beginning as a 16-year-old in 1957, Bob was supported by his father, Jim Jackson. His first boat was a home-built outboard runabout powered by a Champion Sweet Sixteen engine. Working on race engines to extract the very best performance possible was Bob’s passion – in some respects, driving was secondary to the pre-race preparation.
In his early hydroplane racing days, Bob imported plans from famed American race-boat designer Hal Kelly. His first race motor was a British-built Anzani model. The next exotic race motor to arrive was the German 20 cubic inch König outboard and he secured the first model to arrive in Australia. Applying his technical knowhow, Bob successfully experimented with alcohol fuel to achieve even better power from the little German engine.
In the late ‘60s, tunnel boats appeared overseas and piqued Bob’s interest, with his first boat an Australian-built fibreglass Nipper powered by a 60hp Evinrude engine. The passion was reignited, with Bob purchasing tunnel hull plans from America.
Meanwhile, OMC had taken up the challenge to beat Mercury on the race circuits and launched its Evinrude Strangler race engines. As an OMC dealer, Bob secured a Strangler and went from strength to strength with a series of tunnel hulls, all raced under the Avenger moniker.
With Jackson Brothers the agent for Glastron pleasurecraft, Bob acquired a legendary Glastron-Carlson fibreglass tunnel boat from America. The iconic metal-flake red hull was powered by an Evinrude Strangler and named Avenger Too. It went on to win the Eppalock Four Hour enduro in 1971 and successfully contested the Barwon River Enduro.
In 1971, Bob teamed up with skiers Robert and Graham Dance to win outright the Southern 50 (now the Southern 80) on the Murray River, with Avenger Too the first outboard-powered boat to win the event’s Unlimited Open class.
The need for speed had taken a firm grip on Bob Jackson. He had the tunnel boat Avenger III built in Australia to a US de Silva design and sought an Australian speed record at Lake Glenmaggie in 1973, but fate stepped in on the second run. The first run had surpassed the speed record, but on the return Avenger III kited high and crashed. Bob escaped badly shaken but, fortunately, otherwise unhurt.
The next Avenger was the latest European-design tunnel hull – a 17ft Cesare Scotti from Italy that arrived in Melbourne as a bare hull and was rigged by Bob. In 1974, Bob headed to Paynesville for the Victorian Championships and Gold Cup. Again, fate intervened and Avenger blew over backwards, cartwheeling twice at 160km/h and injuring Bob.
Feeling that he wasn’t getting equal access to the good equipment from OMC, Bob switched to Mercury … the irony of a long-standing Evinrude dealer racing a Mercury engine was not lost on Bob. Once again, he turned to the best and imported a hull from Dave Burgess in the UK. With a Mercury 650 XS race engine on the transom and with Bob Jackson at the wheel, Tri Star quickly became the dominant team.
Fittingly, Bob Jackson hung up his race helmet as a winner, with his last race at the 1979 Australian titles at Thunderbird Lake, Echuca. His achievements include five Australian speed records, seven Australian championship titles, nine Victorian speed records and 17 Victorian championship titles.
Today, Bob expresses his love for the sport through his involvement with son Stuart, who races a tunnel hull with the Victorian Outboard Club and is emerging on the national circuit with his Formula Opti-Max team … a Mercury team, at that.