During its first half-century, the outboard was something you'd put only on a rowboat. Real powerboating was for the rich. But as outboards got bigger and better, the average American family could hit the water, too. And we did, in ever-growing numbers, thanks to the outboard motor.
In the decade before World War II, Americans bought 750,000 outboards. In 1956 - in one year - we bought close to 600,000 of them. Pleasure boating had become a $1.3 billion business, with one boat for every 28 of us, and that number was growing at twice the rate of automobiles. Why the sudden change? Because the outboard itself had changed.
Underwater exhaust hushed the racket, pushbutton starting replaced grunting on a pull rope, and dependability meant engines kept running as long as you poured in the gas. Power increased so we could have bigger, more comfortable boats. And prices stayed low. In 1946 we paid $28.60 per horsepower; in 1956 it was down to $23.60. Outboards and the new interstate highway system made the trailerable boat possible, so a new backyard navy that could go anywhere was born. The outboard had finally come of age, and we eagerly went along for the ride.
Who Was First?
In 1896 the American Motor Co. of Long Island City, New York, may have built the first internal-combustion outboard. Historians suspect that a few air-cooled four-strokes were produced, but no one is sure.
We're positive, however, that in 1903 Yale law student Cameron Waterman removed the engine from his powered bicycle for an end-of-season service, clamped it to the back of a chair, and fired it off. Waterman, an avid angler, imagined the chair as a boat's transom. The idea stayed with him, and in 1905 he and a friend rigged a Curtiss motorcycle engine to a propeller via a drive chain - which they then discarded in favor of a drive shaft.
In 1906 Waterman passed out brochures at the New York Boat Show, prompting the production of 25 Waterman outboards-and the start of an era. The first model was prone to overheating, so in 1907 a water-cooled version was offered. A campaign promoting the Waterman in national magazines featured the first use of the term "outboard motor" in advertising. Sales reached 6,000 in 1909. Soon to be dubbed the Waterman Porto, it improved over the years before the company was sold in 1917 to the Arrow Motor and Machine Co., which closed in 1924.
The true stories behind the men and their machines.
Ole Evinrude came from Norway to Wisconsin at age five, quit school after the third grade to work on his family's farm, and grew up to become a self-taught machinist. He was a natural, but he had no mind for finance, leaving a trail of failed businesses. Fortunately, his wife, Bess, made up for this. When Ole emerged from his shop with a prototype outboard in 1909, she gave him hell for wasting time and materials on a "silly coffee grinder." But when he returned from a successful outing on a rented rowboat, she saw dollars in the little single-cylinder kicker.
Bess suggested Ole revise the design, and she launched a local ad campaign: "Don't Row! Throw Away Those Oars! Use an Evinrude Motor!" They sold 25 hand-built Evinrudes in 1909. Each weighed 62 pounds, made 1.5 hp, and cost $62. In 1910 Bess launched a national ad campaign and they were overwhelmed with orders. It was the start of an empire and the popularity of outboards.
In 1913 Ole sold out with a five-year noncompete agreement. In 1921 he returned with a lightweight aluminum twin-cylinder outboard called the Elto (Evinrude Light Twin Outboard), which was an instant success. In 1929 Elto merged with Evinrude and Lockwood, which were owned by Briggs and Stratton. Ole Evinrude was now president of the Outboard Motors Corp. (OMC), which stayed in business until 2000 building boats as well as engines.
In 1908 18-year-old Lou Johnson and his younger brothers, Clarence and Harry, attempted to build a small inboard engine to power their rowboat. They made their own patterns and castings, and the engine actually worked. The next year they built an aircraft engine and the airplane to go with it, which in 1911 made the first successful monoplane flight in America. They opened an aviation school, which was destroyed by a tornado, and then began building small engines to power bicycles.
That business didn't last, so the brothers modified their engine and introduced it at the 1922 New York Boat Show as the Johnson Light Twin outboard. Weighing a mere 35 pounds compared to 60-pound competing motors, this aluminum engine made 2 hp. It could be tilted for beaching and swiveled 360 degrees for reverse. It was also relatively reliable and easy to start. By 1923 Johnson sold 7,000. Outboards were going to be their future.
Johnson was the first outboard builder to market speed and performance. In 1926 its 6-hp P-30 Big Twin pushed a boat to 23 mph, an astounding speed at the time. However, during the Depression the company faltered and was bought by Ralph Evinrude (Ole's son) at Outboard Marine in 1935. By 1937 Johnson sales exceeded those of Evinrude and Elto, with the 1 millionth Johnson outboard being produced in 1952.
In 1938 Carl Kiekhaefer bought a factory with the idea of manufacturing dairy equipment and discovered 300 Thor outboard motors in a back room. These were a low-cost design built under contract as a private label for Montgomery Ward. The motors ran so poorly, however, that Ward cancelled. Kiekhaefer planned to sell them for scrap but tinkered with the carburetor until they ran well. Ward took the modified inventory and soon requested more.
The old tooling was still in the plant, and Kiekhaefer fired up the assembly line. He updated the design and printed a brochure offering three Thor models, from a 6.2-hp triple to a 2.4-hp single. Meanwhile, Kiekhaefer began working on an all-new outboard, and the first Mercury debuted at the New York Boat Show in 1940. Two 3-hp singles and a 6-hp twin were offered, and Kiekhaefer left with 16,000 orders.
Unfortunately, before Mercury could get rolling, World War II began. When it ended, production of new outboards started, featuring sleek cast-aluminum cowls finished in deep green. The 10-hp Lightning model was exceptionally fast and began a Kiekhaefer tradition of purposely underrating the power of its motors to earn a better performance reputation. The 1949 Mercury four-cylinder Thunderbolt said "25" on the cowl but made more than 40 hp. From then on Mercury became known as the hot rod of outboards.