Remembering K&C Thermoglass

Posted by Howard on Jun 25, 2015

During the 1970s and 1980s British Columbia emerged as a leader in the manufacture of small boats for the leisure market and one of the pioneers in the industry was a Richmond company called K&C Thermoglass. The K of K&C was German immigrant Peter Kaufman, who died on March 3, 2009 at the age of 69 and the C was his partner Andy Cruden. Kaufman's father Bruno was also a partner. The B.C. boat builder constructed thousands of pleasure and small utility boats still in use40 years later, and was famous for having created the "world's largest bathtub" that served as an official guide boat in early Nanaimo-Vancouver bathtub races.The Richmond-based boat building company produced up to seven boats a day and employed 200 people at its peak in the 1970s.
"It was the largest boat building company in the world at the time," said his sister, Hanne Nolte.
K&C was commissioned to build a 24-foot fibreglass bathtub -- christened Spirit of Nanaimo -- to promote Nanaimo as the "bathtub capital of the year" and the city's annual bathtub races. The Loyal Nanaimo Bathtub Society had the giant tub painted with slogans for the visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip to the city in May 1971.
Kaufmann was born April 7, 1940, in Treuenbrietzen (now Sabinchenstadt), near Berlin, to Bruno and Charlotte Kaufmann, who met in a beer garden during the 1936 Olympics in the German capital.
Nolte remembered her older brother, at the age of 13, built her a doll house complete with lights and furniture. It was the envy of her three friends, whom Kaufmann surprised with doll houses of their own the next Christmas.
"He was always with my dad, building things," said Nolte at her Coquitlam home. "He just picked things up. He built beautiful furniture."
He was protective of his younger and only sibling, once rescuing her from a fall into water when they were climbing trees and carrying her all the way home.
Their father, a master cabinet maker, built a wooden boat named the Sabine to enable the family to escape from East Germany down the River Spree in 1953. Nolte remembers the family being threatened by a Russian soldier to turn back or he would shoot, but the family got away unharmed.
"Peter and I thought we were going fishing but I remember my grandparents crying," she said.
The family emigrated to Canada and, at the age of 16, Peter found work at Sangstercraft in Vancouver. At 19, he was promoted to foreman.
Nolte remembers a 17-foot boat, the Mecki, her brother and father built in the front yard of their house on Alberni Street in Vancouver's west end, before they started K&C.
Their company, founded in 1960, was a frontrunner in designing and manufacturing boats, said Peter's stepson Richard Kaufmann, one of six children from two marriages.
Peter Kaufmann had plans for mass production with an auto-maker-style assembly line, an idea "well ahead of its time" that got sidelined by the economic downturn in the late 1970s.
However, his hull designs are still being used today, said Richard.
Richard Greenlaw of Thunderbird Yacht Sales in Sidney said K&C was a forerunner in the business. He noted that Kaufmann's design for a 26-foot boat was adopted by Commander when K&C ceased production in the late 1970s and is still being manufactured today.
"It was such a great design, it's virtually unchanged over 32 years," he said. "It was such a fabulous boat. They still command a huge dollar compared with other boats" of the same size and design -- around $150,000 new.
After K&C folded, Kaufmann continued designing boats for Cooper Yachts, said Nolte.
He may have had limited formal training as a naval architect despite his apprenticeship at Sangster Craft, but he had a natural creativity which was also evident in his photography, said son Thomas Kaufmann of Edmonton.
"He was a very creative thinker," he said. "He was always looking at a design and asking how can we improve things."
Daughter Heidi Johnson remembered her father as a big joker, who liked to light firecrackers in the house, and made friends even on a trip to the corner store.
Family holidays were usually spent outdoors, fishing and on boat camping trips.
Nolte remembered her brother's fondness for the home-grown fruit, vegetables, meat and fish they grew up on. He continued to grow produce and made his own preserves in Canada. "My brother never liked anything artificial," she said.
Kaufmann baked his own heavy German rye bread because of what bakeries in their adopted homeland offered. "We don't eat white bread," said Nolte. "My father used to say, look, you put water on it and it's that small." Her brother also "loved going to church and singing in the choir," she added.
Kaufmann, a lifelong smoker, survived lung cancer but later suffered a stroke. He died in hospital on March 3 after developing pneumonia.
He leaves his wife, Beate, six children and nine grandchildren.
The Spirit of Nanaimo, since decommissioned and replaced by the Spirit of Nanaimo II, is still used for land displays and a picture of it in earlier days is featured at the Nanaimo Museum, said Bill McGuire, Commodore of the Loyal Nanaimo Bathtub Society.
"The first big tub is certainly part of the history of bathtub races and the city of Nanaimo," he said.
(From an article in The Province by Susan Lazaruk)