Mercury Marine Celebrates 80th Anniversary in 2019

For 46 of those years the company has expressed its passion and devotion to racing and performance powerboating.

Mercury Marine Celebrates 80th Anniversary in 2019
The former Plant 38, located in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, was the home to Mercury Hi-Performance prior to the 1994 move to Plant 36 in Fond du Lac.Courtesy Mercury Marine

Mercury Marine will celebrate its 80th anniversary in 2019, and will celebrate the milestone throughout the year and showcase its heritage during the 2019 boat show season.

On January 22, 1939, E. Carl Kiekhaefer purchased a bankrupt facility in Cedarburg, Wis., with the intention of manufacturing magnetic dairy separators. The previous owner of the building left behind a clutch of small Thor outboard motors, which had been rejected by the Montgomery Wards catalog retailer. Kiekhaefer corrected a carburetor problem with the outboards and contacted Wards, only hoping to sell the batch of motors and get them out of his building. But the motors ran so well Wards placed an order for more outboards, and Kiekhaefer found himself in marine industry.

Eighty years later the business that emerged from those modest beginnings, Mercury Marine, is a company with 7,000 global employees that is the world’s leading manufacturer of marine propulsion systems, marine parts and accessories.

Mercury Marine Celebrates 80th Anniversary in 2019
Earl Bentz drives a “Big Bore T-4” outboard powered tunnel boat at the 1979 Bristol, U.K. race. The prototype 4.0L V6 engine was rumored to pump out 400 h.p. It was built to compete against the more powerful OMC V8.Courtesy Mercury Marine

Almost from day one Kiekhaefer used performance as a selling point for his outboards and became involved in racing following World War II. It was under the ownership of Brunswick Corporation that Mercury Performance Products (later Mercury Hi-Performance) was established as a division of Mercury Marine in 1973. Its sole responsibility was product development and promoting the Mercury performance image through racing.

The 1970s was an era of outboard factory racing that saw Mercury battle Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC, the parent company of the Johnson and Evinrude brands) for bragging rights across the globe. The factory race team was the first to run the all-new V6 Mercury outboard that would become known to the world as Black Max. The engine earned its stripes winning races for two years prior its 1976 public debut. In the 1980s offshore racing engine, sterndrive and propeller development were taking place at a frantic pace. The Mercury III SSM sterndrive was revised with more robust components and released as the III-A. Surfacing shaft drives were starting to appear in both U.S. and European venues. Mercury answered with the IV SSM drive. A shorter vertical driveshaft raised the prop and, with a longer skeg, made a potent surface drive out of sterndrive geometry.

Mercury Marine Celebrates 80th Anniversary in 2019
The V SSM sterndrive, shown here, was based off the IV SSM with more robust internal components.Courtesy Mercury Marine

The engines of the day eventually overpowered the IV SSM drive’s capacity. Internals were improved and, in 1987, the V SSM was introduced. But Kiekhaefer Aeromarine, a competitor established in 1970 by Mercury Marine founder Carl Kiekhaefer, introduced the Kiekhaefer sterndrive in 1988, the end-all solution at the time in terms of product design and durability. In 1990 Brunswick Corporation acquired Kiekhaefer Aeromarine and its line of high-performance marine engines, sterndrives and accessories including trim tabs, trim indicators, control systems, and propellers. The two companies were merged and Kiekhaefer Aeromarine owner and president Fred Kiekhaefer, son of the late Carl Kiekhaefer, was named president of the new Mercury Racing division. Mercury Racing was established as a business unit of Mercury Marine in 1992. The Kiekhaefer Aeromarine manufacturing plant was expanded in 1993 and all Mercury Hi-Performance personnel, production and supporting departments consolidated to the newly expanded Plant 36 facility in 1994.