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The Future of Marine Power

We plan to enjoy the last years of the internal-combustion era.

June 30, 2021
Marine power has evolved over the years
Cars, motorcycles, airplanes, boat engines—in the early 20th century, the world was presented with the gift of practical internal combustion, and anyone with a little imagination tried to find a way to put it to work. Tim Bower

Dan the Outboard Man is a motor master, not just of boat engines, but just about anything powered by internal combustion. I’ve seen him work on motorcycles and snowmobiles, and four-wheelers and tractors. He’s got a hot-rod mini bike with a studded tire on the rear and a ski on the front for bombing around frozen Lake Winnebago in the winter. And just the other day, Dan rolled into the Lake View Inn on his newest two-wheel contraption: a bicycle with an engine.

His boyhood Schwinn Typhoon now sports an auxiliary 80cc two-stroke. The engine was the perfect birthday gift from his wife, and Dan had it installed in the bike in just an afternoon. Dan first pedals the bike a bit, and then lets out the clutch to bump-start the motor, after which he throttles away, wearing a big grin. It is absolutely illegal on the street, which makes it even more fun to ride.

Bolting a motor onto a bicycle is exactly how William Harley and Arthur Davidson got started, and it’s also how Lou, Clarence and Harry Johnson got into business. The three Johnson brothers created a small inboard boat engine, which worked, and then applied their internal-combustion chops to an aircraft engine. In 1911, Lou made the first successful monoplane flight in America. The brothers saw more volume in powering bicycles, and next founded the Johnson Motor Wheel Company, which put-putted along until the affordable Model T Ford took the steam out of that business. In 1922, the Johnson bicycle motor evolved into the powerhead for the Johnson Light Twin outboard. When I worked at OMC in Waukegan, Illinoise, there was a motorized Johnson bicycle on display in the office lobby. I hope somebody saved that bike when OMC went kaput.

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Cars, motorcycles, airplanes, boat engines—in the early 20th century, we were presented with the gift of practical internal combustion, and anyone with a little imagination tried to find a way to put it to work. In this century, those with ingenuity are working hard to power anything that moves with electricity. It’s ironic that bicycles are once again at the forefront of the revolution—in some European countries, e-bikes have captured 50 percent of the market. Harley-Davidson is selling an electric motorcycle, and GM just announced it’s going all-electric in 15 years.

Electric marine power, once a novelty attractive only to the greenest of boat owners, is steadily becoming more practical. Nautique found a niche with its Super Air Nautique GS22 E, and Zin Boats’ Z2R was a finalist for Boating’s Boat of the Year.

Internal combustion replaced the horse and the oars. Electricity will replace internal combustion. Maybe not in my lifetime, or yours, but I don’t think our grandchildren will be pre-mixing fuel for a two-stroke kicker outboard. Dan likes to say, “If we are burning gas, we are having fun.” The kids can have their silent electrons. I intend to keep making noise, and having fun, for a while.

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