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Over the Transom: Mercury Outboards – One of the Big 3

By Buzz Lamb

Monday, March 19, 2012

Over the last six years we have taken a look at Evinrude and Johnson outboard motors.  Now it’s Mercury’s turn.  I can hear Bolton resident Craig Hannon exclaiming, “Finally!”  Before we take a look at the different models produced over the years, let’s venture back in history to the beginning of this ubiquitous outboard brand.

The company began in 1939 when engineer Elmer Carl Kiekhaefer purchased a small outboard company (Thor) in Cedarburg, Wis.  His original intention for the Kiekhaefer Corporation was to make magnetic separators for the dairy industry.  The purchase included 300 defective outboard motors.

Kiekhaefer and his staff re-built the motors and he sold them to Montgomery Ward, then a mail-order company.  The motors were so well received that the buyer wanted to purchase more. That prompted Kiekhaefer to concentrate on outboards rather than the separators.

Kiekhaefer designed outboard motors that withstood the elements better than his competition and he called the motor Mercury after the Roman god with the winged helmet.  He took orders for 16,000 motors at the New York Boat Show in 1940.

World War II changed the corporate environment and Kiekhaefer sought a government contract to design two-man, air-cooled chainsaws.  Army engineers were unable to design a lightweight chainsaw yet Kiekhaefer designed one in less than two months.

The Kiekhaefer powered chainsaw was able to cut through a 2-foot thick green log in 17 seconds, while it took the nearest competitor 52 seconds.  Mercury was awarded the contract and became the world’s largest chainsaw manufacturer by the end of the war.

Mercury foresaw that the average American’s interest in boating would swell after the war.  Kiekhaefer introduced a 2-cylinder, alternate firing 19.8 cubic inch 10-horsepower motor at the 1947 New York Boat Show called the “Lightning” (or KE-7).

Among the more distinctive features of the vivid green engine was an oversized letter K that doubled as the throttle lever handle.  The 10 horsepower engine was blasting the dynamometer past the 16 hp mark but Kiekhaefer insisted on calling it a 10-horse so that no other 10-horse in the water could possibly touch it.

By the mid-1950s Kiekhaefer decided to promote his company by owning a NASCAR racing team.  His team dominated NASCAR Grand National (now Sprint Cup) at one point winning 16 straight races even though it competed for only two years.  The team won the 1955 and 1956 NASCAR championships with drivers Tim Flock and Buck Baker.  Kiekhaefer’s obsession with car racing nearly financially decimated his outboard business.

In 1957 Mercury started testing at a Florida lake Kiekhaefer dubbed “Lake X” in order to keep the location a secret.  Later that year the company designed a new 60 hp motor named “Mark 75”.  It was the industry’s first 6-cylinder outboard.  The closest thing any other manufacturer had was a 2-cylinder Scott-Atwater 40-horsepower.  Evinrude and Johnson only had 35s.

Two “Mark 75” motors set an endurance record by running non-stop for a total of 68 hours and 45 minutes (approximately 50,000 miles) on Lake X.  The motors were re-fueled as they ran and averaged 30.3 mph.

According Jeffrey L. Rodengen, author of “The Legend of Mercury Marine”, on the morning of September 30, 1961 Carl Kiekhaefer was crying in his bedroom, with his longtime secretary Rose Smiljanic consoling him.  “I won’t sign,” he wept, “I’m not going through with it.”

Kiekhaefer had worked his way through crisis after crisis without shedding a tear but what reduced him to tears was an impending deal to sell his company to a larger corporation.  That afternoon his company merged with Brunswick Corporation.

Later the same year, Kiekhaefer used his NASCAR and engineering skills to develop a 100-hp stern drive engine which he introduced at the 1961 Chicago Boat Show.  The motor, called MerCruiser, would later take over 80 percent of the market. During this time Mercury also produced snowmobiles, like many other companies in the late ‘60s.

Carl Kiekhaefer officially resigned as president of Kiekhaefer Mercury on January 31, 1970 and the name changed to Mercury Marine in November of 1971.  Since the 1972 models of outboards and sterndrives were already in production, “Mercury Marine” would not appear until the 1973 model line, breaking a 33-year tradition of having the Kiekhaefer name appear on its products.

From the early ‘70s it seemed Mercury could do no wrong.  According to Rodengen, sales in 1970 were a little over $150 million and they almost doubled to $300 million in 1972. Early in the decade Mercury developed bigger, better and more powerful engines for boating.

The crowning achievement in 1970 was the introduction of the two new six-cylinder outboard engines, the Merc 1150 and 1350, rated at 115 and 135 hp respectively, keeping Mercury at the top of the horsepower race..

In 1972 Mercury bought a minority interest in Yamaha manufacturing.  The plan was to diversify distribution in the U.S. by adding another brand of outboard engines.

At the time, Mercury and Outboard Marine Corporation (with Johnson and Evinrude products) each maintained about 30 percent of the market.  The second-brand tactic was to give Mercury another slice out of the same pie even though the new brand would compete with Mercury.  The first Mariner outboards were introduced to the Australian market in 1974 and to the U.S. and Europe in 1976.

Mercury Marine began its journey to the top of the marine industry as an afterthought.  Though Carl Kiekhaefer was hired as a draftsman at Evinrude Motors in 1927, he was fired three months later.  Twelve years would pass before Kiekhaefer began making outboards again.

In the next installment of Over the Transom we’ll take a look at those formative years and gain some insight to the man and his machine.  Until then…keep your ropes dry.

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