Outboard motors coming off the Evinrude assembly line in the 1950s / Photo- Getty Images
Today’s outboard motors are a remarkable piece of engineering.
To tackle the massive history of outboards, I naturally began by searching for the origins of this power system.
To my surprise, I discovered over 117 brands of early outboard motors, whose names are now mostly forgotten. Names like Comet, Anzani, Hurricane, Seagull, Homelite, Thunderbolt, Sea Witch, Water Witch, Sea Horse, Speeditwin, Elto, Motorgo and McCulloch, just to name a few.
Rowing Works, But Only if You Have To
Like most new inventions, outboards were introduced as a result of an opportunity to satisfy a need.
Powerboating during the late 1800s was a sport reserved only for the wealthy. However, manually powered rowboats and canoes were commonly used on small lakes and ponds by nearly everyone. As the need for these craft to travel longer distances increased, ideas for a mechanical means of propulsion began to surface. People wanted a simple small engine that could be attached to the existing boats that they had at the time.
In 1870, Gustave Trouvé was credited with building the first outboard that could be attached to rowboats. It used a small electric motor to drive an eleven pound unit.
The next outboard pioneer of record, Cameron Waterman, in 1883 used a gas engine from his motorcycle to turn a propeller. While he did add a number of improvements to his design, he faced the same concerns as electric car makers face today — getting a foothold with a new product requires a large supply of development cash. New and better financed players quickly erased his achievements.
Evinrude And His Clever Marketing
One name that stands out among early outboard pioneers is Ole Evinrude. While he had tinkered with motors and outboard designs for several years, but when he opened his new company in 1909 it had two big advantages.
Firstly, Henry Ford had shown him the efficiency of mass production when he started Ford Motors the year prior, so Evinrude also adopted the use of assembly lines. Secondly, his wife, ‘Bess’ proved to be a gifted marketer. They produced two brand names, Evinrude and Johnson, and sold these motors exclusively to boat dealers and builders. Around the same time, they also produced a motor under the brand name Gale that they sold to hardware, sporting goods, and department stores. The Gale division actually lasted until 1963. This diverse marketing technique used by Evinrude was picked up by other manufacturers. For example, Goodyear Tires stores sold ‘Sea Bees,’ while Montgomery Ward sold ‘Sea Kings’ and Eatons sold ‘Viking.’ Interestingly, most of these secondary brands were also manufactured by Evinrude.
Different Strokes For Different Folks
While many different versions of outboard motors continued to evolve, Asia took a different route in the 1930’s. A Taiwainese inventor named Sanong Thitibura clamped a car engine onto a swivel on the transom of a boat, then extended the drive shaft and added a propeller. In essence, he had invented the Longtail outboard. These are still the outboard of choice in Thailand, probably because these long-tails are made economically by using second hand auto and truck engines.
The Post-WWI Boom
Following WWI, the popularity of recreational boating in North America increased dramatically. Dozens of outboard motor companies popped up. The numerous manufacturers resulted in many innovations as well as many new versions. For example, some favoured air cooling while most were built with water cooling. Some outboards had fuel pumps, while others employed pressurized gas tanks. Mercury Outboards was started by Carl Kiekhaefer after he was fired from Evinrude over a design issue. Kiekhaufer followed a similar marketing plan to Evinrude. He established two brand names for his product — Mercury and Mariner — thereby permitting twice the number of “exclusive” dealers to be appointed for any given territory. Mercury became the primary competitor to Evinrude throughout much of the 20th century as the industry continued to grow.
But Boaters Wanted More Power
The next big change in outboard history occurred with the introduction of a product that technically competed with the traditional outboard. The inboard/outboard, or “sterndrive” placed the motor inside the boat, but the drive shaft remained outside, as with outboards. The first sterndrive, was designed by the Johnson Motor Company in 1930, but sadly there were few boats at the time that worked well with their system and sales floundered.
1950s Johnson Outboard print advertisement
In 1948, Charlie Strang, a boat racer and MIT student was looking to set an on-water speed record and drew new plans for a sterndrive system. Years later, a former Mercury engineer, James Wynne, while studying Strang’s plans, came up with design changes that made a sterndrive more practical. When Strang and Wynne ended up both working at Mercury, they presented their sterndrive plans to their boss, Carl Kiekhaefer. He rejected the idea.
Shortly after this, Wynne left Mercury, filed a drive patent and sold the design rights to Volvo Penta. Volvo immediately built the new sterndrive, calling it the Volvo Penta “Aquamatic Drive.” It was introduced to the world in 1959. The announcement motivated Kiekhaefer to reverse his decision and begin working on an improved version of the Volvo drive system that he called a “MerCruiser.” The new drive units could produce up to 140 horsepower. Over the years, different versions of this drive were built and MerCruiser drives are still sold today.
What is important about sterndrive development is that this drive was able to provide higher horsepower to pleasure boaters than they could find with an outboard. This meant that in order for outboard manufacturers to stay in the game, they would have to develop higher horsepower outboards. Several new and qualified manufacturers took up the challenge. Tohatsu offered strong outboards in 1956. Suzuki launched its first outboards in 1965, and Yamaha joined the group in 1984.
New Government Rules
A big surprise was in store for outboard builders in the early 1900s. The US government was about to become a game changer. The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, changed emission standards. While four-stroke engines were used in several different applications, two-stroke power was the preferred choice for outboard motors at the time. Two-strokes provided twice the number of power strokes and were less complicated to build than four-strokes.
But the EPA clean air regulations act mandated new technologies for all outboards. The amount of scrambling to meet these regulations differed with each manufacturer. Several had seen the writing on the wall. While Tohatsu had built four-strokes in 1956 and Yamaha had introduced a limited four stroke line in 1984, Honda had also begun building four-stroke outboards in 1964. They introduced a full line to North America in 1967. Even Suzuki was ready to build four-strokes by 1965. Mercury struggled to supply a limited number of four-strokes in 1965 with the help of parts exchanges with other manufacturers.
But it was Evinrude and Johnson, under the group name OMC, that were most negatively affected by the new emission standards. Their solution was to partner with a German company with a plan to retain their two-stroke technology, but use a direct fuel injection system called FICHT. With the extremely high pressures involved, many of their motor parts were unable to endure. I vividly recall being part of a FICHT product launch and test drive that ran north from Hilton Head to Charlston, North Carolina. We departed in seven different boats, but to our surprise, not all the motors were able to finish, with some seizing well before Charlotte. Myself and 20 other press members on this trip agreed to hold back our media comments on the Evinrude FICHT outboards in order to give OMC the opportunity to solve their powerhead durability problem. They never did. The cost of recalling all of the FICHT motors that had already released to dealers was the last straw for the financially stressed OMC. The company went into bankruptcy in 2000. Meanwhile, Mercury continued to expand their line, introducing engine superchargers to reduce displacement and increase horsepower up to 400.
A New Player Appears
Two years after the demise of Evinrude, Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP) in Canada acquired the Evinrude and Johnson outboard brands and re-engineered their entire outboard design. Mr. “Johnson” was put in a closet and the new outboard took the Evinrude name. This new, stronger, “E-TEC” direct injection motor showed great promise and even won an EPA Clean Air Excellence Award for low emission levels. It seemed that Evinrude had retaken the lead in outboard technology, at least for the time being. But the computer control unit on ETEC outboards was very large and so hot that cooling tubes were necessary. After two years, the brain on my 250 ETEC grenaded, as did the replacement. Soon after this, BRP announced that they were ceasing production of Evinrude once again.
BRP’s next next announcement was unexpected. They took their Rotax engine that was used for some time in a number of their recreational vehicles and even used in small planes, and repurposed it as an outboard. Dubbed the ‘Ghost,’ this unusual looking motor is Bombardier’s outboard replacement. Presently, the maximum power they offer is 230 HP, but you can always clamp a few more motors onto the transom. The jury is still out on this one.
The new ‘Ghost’ outboard from BRP
A recent major development in the history of outboards has been the release and popularity of larger horsepower units. Much of the success of sterndrive systems was due to the fact they utilized marinized road vehicle engines that were able to to offer higher horsepower than outboards. But, as manufacturers began to launch large horsepower outboards, the sterndrive advantage waned. Available horsepower in everyday outboards has grown to be greater than that of all but high performance sterndrives, with the result being that outboards are once again the preferred power choice. They are also easy to care for and take up less interior space in your boat than either a sterndrive or an inboard. Mercury recently introduced a 12 cylinder, 7.6 liter outboard that packs a massive 600 horsepower. While this outboard is ideal for cruisers, boaters wanting higher boat speeds are opting to install multiple outboards. Today, it is commonplace to see three or four 450 HP outboards on the transom of a performance pleasurecraft.
The all-new Mercury V12 600 HP Verado
To keep their sterndrive market alive and growing, Mercury Motors also split their sterndrive production into two divisions — MerCruiser, offering marinized production auto engines, and Mercury Racing with larger and higher performance engines up to 1750 HP. To address the two different markets, they have initiated this same market performance split with their outboards.
Bigger And Also Better
In recent years, technology has come to rule outboards. Honda engines are equipped with sensing data that’s used to produce optimum throttle timing. Suzuki pioneered automatic engine oil injection and selective drive rotation, a method for dealers to change propeller rotation. Yamaha have engineered maximum power for engine size. Tohatsu build all of Mercury motors with less than 30 HP, while Mercury outboards currently offer customers the highest horsepower on the market. Digital controls and instrumentation have become the standard across all outboards. Of course, the cost of these remarkable developments are reflected in higher outboard prices.
Electric or Gas?
Vision Marine E-Motion 180
Remember that the first outboard was electric? It’s interesting to note that 153 years later, electric powered outboards are again attempting to gain traction. It is not clear yet where this will lead, but there are currently plenty of hopeful designers building small electric outboards. Once these electric outboards have established a supporting dealer network, they could grow in marker share. Vision Marine Technologies, a Canadian company has already introduced a 180 HP electric model with respectable cruise speeds. Today’s major manufacturers are taking a more cautious approach by beginning with smaller sized electrics.
Throughout the history of outboard motors, they have succeeded through wars, depressions, restrictive regulations, and pandemics. They have opened the door to a whole new realm of water activities. Whether you are a fisherman or performance buff, a watersports enthusiast or a family cruise person, there are outboards available that can provide the marine power that you need. The big question is — where will it go from here?