In a loud machine shop, metal shavings litter the floor and a cat naps in the adjacent room while Fred Howe is busy making the most impeccable parts he can for RC model boat racing around the world.
In 1981, Howe’s father opened R Manufacturing with two of his sons. Over the years the shop developed the reputation as a short-notice manufacturer of essential parts for big names such as IBM, General Electric, Cornell University and more.
“Where most shops would give a six-week delivery time, we’d turn it around,” Howe said. “That was our niche; we were the quick turnaround, go-to shop.”
As time went on, Howe became the sole owner and operator of R Manufacturing.
“I’ve been pretty much running the shop by myself since 2002. Oh, and with the cats,” he added as a black cat sauntered into the machine shop through the flap in the door.
In the ’90s, as a suggestion from an employee, R Manufacturing began to build outboard drives for RC model boats. These contraptions support the engine mechanics on the stern end of the boats, which can zip across the water at 60 mph running on gasoline, nitromethane, or electric motors.
Old outboard drives were made of cast aluminum, which were prone to breaking. R Manufacturing began to make parts out of billet, or solid aluminum, resulting in a sturdier product. Howe is credited with being the first to invent, produce and sell gas-powered outboard drives.
Along with the outboard drives, Howe has created a stable of accessories. He makes and sells special items such as anti-vibration motor mounts, steering rod assemblies, and he even cuts propellers.
The shop took on these smaller projects while other work was slow, but now creating the Lawless Drives and other RC boating accessories is about half of R Manufacturing’s business.
Howe has sold to boating hobbyists in about two-thirds of the U.S., he said. Impressive on its own, however, he added that his little shop in Owego has also sold to more than 30 countries around the world including Australia, South Africa, and Malaysia.
He has put little effort into advertising and gets most of his international business through word of mouth on online forums where boaters discuss the ins and outs of the sport. A search for Lawless Drives on the Intlwaters.com website leads to claims from hobbyists that Howe’s products are the best for the sport.
“The original appeal was to make something better than the current standard,” he said. “To appeal to people who wanted to race rather than just operate an RC boat.”
He still finds time to trick out his own boats and race with the Southern Tier New York Model Boat Club.
The pond they race on is located on a small farm in Caton, N.Y. On summer weekends, the air fills with the buzzing and whizzing of small speedboats as they zoom down straight-aways and whip around buoys, tearing through the water to complete their six laps.
“The cows don’t mind the noise,” he said.
The races hosted by his club draw boaters from the northeast and Canada. Albeit small groups of around 20 boaters who bring multiple boats with them leading to a weekend full of racing.
“It can be a lot of fun,” Howe said. “It can be exasperating as all get out too.”
He has plenty of stories of boats crashing, breaking, spinning and sinking in the water, and emphasizes the importance of having a retrieve boat for when a model flips and sinks to the bottom of the pond.
While RC model boat racing hasn’t taken the world by storm like model drones or helicopters, Howe is on a mission to be innovative and responsive to the sport while it is still growing.
In his shop, with his cats, he is working to perfect the “toys for big boys.”