In 1959, Chris Fitzgerald, the founder of Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc., happened to view a television program about the British Saunders Roe Nautical Model One (SRN1) crossing the English Channel. He was 15 years old, living in Melbourne, Australia, and this program sparked in Fitzgerald a dream that would become his life's work: to invent a smaller version of the hovercraft and market it to the world.
Today, Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc. is the world’s original and most experienced light hovercraft manufacturer, with clientele in 50 nations, and Neoteric light hovercraft are recognized as the industry standard for rescue, commercial and recreational hovercraft.
We share with you the detailed history, with photographs, of how a young man’s dream evolved into a global industry…
The genesis of Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc. occurred in July 1959 when the company's founder, Chris Fitzgerald, viewed a television program about the British Saunders Roe Nautical Model One (SRN1) Hovercraft crossing the English Channel. He was inspired by the prospect of being able to fly safely, albeit close to the ground, without having to be immensely rich like an aviator. Even though Chris was only 15 years old at the time, he began pondering the idea of inventing a smaller version of hovercraft, and marketing it to the world for a vast number of applications ranging from recreation to rescue.
At the time of the SRN1's crossing, Chris' father, Gerald, and his two uncles Bill and Jack were the Fitzgeralds' third generation to own and run the family sheet metal business, which started when the family arrived in Australia from Ireland during the 1850s Ballarat Gold Rush in Victoria. They supplied billys, buckets, pans, funnels, and many other sheet metal items needed on the gold field. When the gold source was eventually depleted, the Fitzgeralds moved to Melbourne where they started W. Fitzgerald and Sons in a half basement on Elizabeth Street, causing them to be known as the "Underground Tinsmiths". By the time of World War I, the family had become so prosperous that they had to expand to two locations, one at the Haymarket in a building that still stands in the alley-way behind the Melbourne Motor Inn, and one on Swanston Street that later became Melbourne University's Child Minding Center. In 1972, W. Fitzgerald and Sons was sold to a private individual.
The Fitzgerald independent spirit so influenced Chris that in 1956, when he was 12 years old, he was already in the business of creating and selling model aircraft. At age 14 he joined the Royal Australian Air Force Air Training Corps and, at the same time, became the youngest member of the Australian Experimental Aircraft Association (then known as the Ultralight Aircraft Association of Australia), seeing both affiliations as an introduction to the world of flight. When, at age 15, he started working on his own hovercraft designs, Chris attracted the interest of the Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne and they soon employed him as a technical assistant. Work was done on various hovercraft projects such as crevasse jumping and ejector driven recirculation annular jets. During this time, Chris served as a Technical Assistant to Dr. David Warren, who was then developing the world's first "Black Box" flight recorder. (Early boxes were not black, but bright orange.) He was also an assistant to Bill Howard, Dennis Frith, Murdock Culley, Alan Cox, and others.
In the early 1960s, while in the Royal Australian Air Force Air Training Corps, Chris found a ready supply of material with which to develop his hovercraft designs, and formed a club/business relationship with several fellow Cadets to help expedite his goal of creating a functional, personal-sized hovercraft. Together, Chris, Robert Wilson, Peter Kolf, and Alan Schwartz, as well as other members from outside the Air Training Corps — Eddy Thomas, Arthur Boyd, Bernard Sutcher, Laurie Fair and Sam Ciliauro - established the Hovercraft Research Organization. Their home base was located in a suburb of Melbourne at the Brunswick Boys’ Club, and the partners operated a Jazz Club to raise funds for their hovercraft research.
As an interesting side note, during this time they hired a new band, known as The Seekers, to perform at the Jazz Club. The very next week, The Seekers were called to England to perform the title song of the 1966 British film Georgy Girl, starring Lynn Redgrave. The title song became a hit single and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The Seekers were the first Australian popular music group to achieve significant chart and sales success in the United Kingdom and the United States.
In the mid-1960s, the Hovercraft Research Organization changed its name to Australian Air Cushion Vehicles Development. More than 50 Melbourne businesses agreed to donate materials to aid the group in the building of an experimental man-carrying model. Considered an extracurricular activity at the Air training Corps, the Cadet members worked after hours at the facility, and then at various backyard sheds and garages, crafting many different models and test rigs. Most valuable to the project at this time was Robert Wilson, who is still involved today with design and product development at Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc. David Atkins, who was introduced to the team by Arthur Boyd, is still the company’s aesthetic and ergonomic design engineer. Other members have gone on to such professions as Qantas Performance Engineer, Royal Australian Navy Engineer, Professor of Naval Architecture, General Motors Australia Design Engineer and Pfizer Australia Marketing Manager.
Construction of the hovercraft that introduced practical engineering design concepts took place at Melbourne University’s Mechanical Engineering School from 1962 to 1964; this craft was entered in the World’s First Hovercraft Race on March 14, 1964 in Canberra, Australia. Much to the chagrin of the University’s Chancellor, it made its first run on his back lawn during the early part of 1964. After participating in the first race, the group moved into W. Fitzgerald & Sons factory on Swanston Street in Melbourne, where development continued.
By 1968 Chris had left Aeronautical Research Laboratories and joined the family business along with Robert Wilson. Involvement at W. Fitzgerald & Sons lasted until 1969 when Robert Wilson resumed his engineering education and Chris Fitzgerald won a Rotary Club scholarship to study aeronautical engineering in the UK at the Farnborough Technical School and to work as an intern at British Hovercraft Corporation (formerly Saunders Roe), and then to travel the world to survey the latest in hovercraft technology.
In 1973, Australian Air Cushion Vehicles Development was renamed and incorporated as Neoteric Engineering Affiliates Pty Ltd. In 1975, Chris moved to the United States and incorporated Neoteric, Inc. in Indiana. It also traded as Neoteric USA Inc. and much later became Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc.
The 1970s were a decade of significant change for the emerging Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc., including the move of its headquarters from Australia to the USA in 1975. Australian Air Cushion Vehicles Development evolved into Neoteric Engineering Affiliates Pty. Ltd, incorporated in Australia, with Rob Wilson serving as president of Neoteric’s Australia division.
The company’s first comprehensive business plan was developed and marketing efforts were begun in earnest. Neoteric’s first major magazine feature appeared in Popular Mechanics, followed by more than 120 articles in publications across the world. In addition, Chris Fitzgerald incorporated the Hovercraft Club of America, Inc. and expanded its membership to more than 700. Fitzgerald also created and served as editor of Hovernews, the Hovercraft Club of America newsletter. Both the Club and the newsletter continue to thrive today.
Laying a solid foundation for its future growth, Neoteric designed and patented new technology worldwide and, in addition, developed hovercraft kits for home builders and marketed the kits worldwide.
The 1980s established Neoteric as a global entity, as it solidified business relationships across the world and attracted customers from India, China, Japan and numerous other nations. Other customers included large corporations such as Alcoa Aluminum and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Intensive research and development efforts produced several new Neoteric models: The LeMere, later named the Explorer; the Racer, later named the Questrek; and the Neova. From 1984 to 1997, Neoteric sold more than 300 Racer and Questrek models.
The publicity the company received in the 1980s continued to be international in scope. Neoteric hovercraft appeared in three major commercial productions: for Labatts Beer, Canada; for Lord Extra Cigarettes, Germany; and for Hollywood Cigarettes, Brazil. In addition, Neoteric created 15 hovercraft dragons for Disney World in Orlando, Florida. In the late 1980s, Neoteric was instrumental in bringing the World Hovercraft Championship to the USA, and Chris Fitzgerald became a founding member of the World Hovercraft Federation.
During this decade, Chris Fitzgerald was appointed the first Entrepreneur in Residence at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, the leading engineering college in the USA for eight consecutive years. Neoteric’s solid relationship with Rose-Hulman has flourished for nearly 30 years.
In 1988, Neoteric’s USA headquarters relocated to a new larger facility, where it continues to operate today.
The company’s global growth continued during the 1990s, during which Neoteric expanded its customer support systems. New instructional literature was produced, as well as a 3 hour assembly video to assist customers who purchased partially-assembled models. A full relational database manufacturing software computer program was established to better manage the company’s increasing growth, and plans for a web site were begun.
While Neoteric produced several unique designs, including a 5000-lb Hoverlifter for use in cranberry farming, and a series of hovering billiard balls for a popular US comedian, the company’s primary focus centered on developing tooling and manufacturing systems for its Hovertrek 4 passenger hovercraft in three separate variants for rescue, commercial and recreational applications.
An earlier model Questrek was used to perform several hovercraft water rescues in Terre Haute, Indiana USA during flooding, paving the way for the recognition of Neoteric hovercraft as the industry standard for rescue hovercraft.
Since the turn of the century, Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc. has experienced rapid worldwide sales growth, and new dealerships have been established across the globe. Customers include the U.S. Department of Justice, Border Patrol; state airports; U.S. National Parks; and emergency, police, and fire agencies in nations throughout the world.
The 4-passenger Neoteric Hovercraft is now manufactured with a range of 70 options, including 65hp and 100hp engines, as well as fuel injected versions. In 1994, Neoteric developed a 6-passenger Hovercraft; the first of this model, a rescue version, was shipped to South Korea in 2005.
In addition to developing manufacturing systems to meet increased delivery schedules, throughout the 1990s and continuing today, Chris Fitzgerald dedicated considerable company revenues to expanding awareness of the hovercraft’s utility and versatility. He was appointed Chairman of the 2002 World Hovercraft Championship, the largest gathering of hovercraft enthusiasts in history, which brought participants and spectators from more than 18 nations to Terre Haute, Indiana USA.
The company’s most recent endeavors include the founding of the not-for-profit World Hovercraft Organization, and the production of its newsletter, HoverWorld Insider, which has an expanding global readership of more than 20,000. In 2003, the World Hovercraft Organization launched the DiscoverHover International School Hovercraft Program, offering free hovercraft plans, extensive curriculum guides and other support services to schools and youth groups worldwide. Today, DiscoverHover’s membership includes 1,000 schools and youth groups from 44 nations.
With nearly five decades of history, Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc. moves into the new century as a world leader in the light hovercraft industry … but the story does not end here. The definition of the word neoteric is “new, innovative, modern” and, as exemplified by its company name, Neoteric will remain so in the decades to come.
As the original light hovercraft manufacturer, Neoteric moves into its sixth decade as one of a very few hovercraft manufacturers in history with 50 years of experience and expertise. In addition to its manufacturing and engineering experience, Neoteric has trained and certified rescue, recreational, commercial and military hovercraft pilots during that time. Neoteric’s exclusive Hovercraft Pilot Training program is the most comprehensive light hovercraft pilot training course available.
As an ambiguous testament to the one-of-a-kind engineering and design of the Hovercraft, Neoteric has in recent years been exploited by individuals/companies intent upon committing industrial espionage and theft of trade secrets in order to counterfeit Neoteric’s patented and trademarked designs. Of great concern is the fact that hovercraft are increasingly utilized in rescue operations; counterfeit rescue hovercraft pose a threat to the lives of first responders and to the lives of those they are tasked to save. With assistance from Federal and international agencies, Neoteric and the World Hovercraft Organization continue to prosecute and attempt to put a halt to such unlawful offenses.
Neoteric Hovercraft are not mass-produced; each craft is custom manufactured by hand. As factory production increases, Neoteric must strive to maintain this hands-on attention and, at the same time, increase manufacturing efficiency. Much of Neoteric’s engineering effort over the past several years has been devoted to this challenge. The technology section of the Neoteric website describes this process in greater detail, with photos.
Also on the technology front, Neoteric engineering team Rob Wilson and David Atkins, both founding members of the company, continue their work in Australia on the new high speed two-person performance hovercraft with the goal of establishing the World Speed Record for light hovercraft. This goal will be accomplished by reintroducing Neoteric technology that was actually conceived during the early 1970s.