Innovators in Boating - Carl Kiekhaefer & Mercury Marine
By: Richard Crowder
The pleasure boat industry is chock full (no pun intended) of the most interesting of people, hard working totally dedicated individuals and families who have often put their life’s savings and full-time energies to fulfilling their dreams of creating the boats we know and love. These then are their stories. Many of them I have met and personally chatted with and to a person, they are focused and driven and totally confident in their realities and in their dreams.
Part 4- Carl Kiekhaefer & Mercury Marine
In this Part 4 of the series, we explore Elmer Carl Kiekhaefer the electrical engineer who literally stumbled into the business of outboard motors. Born in 1906 in rural Wisconsin to farming parents, he graduated in electrical engineering from the University of Wisconsin, worked briefly as a draftsman for Nash Motors in Milwaukee and in 1927, in what would later be considered somewhat ironic, worked a brief three months as a draftsman for Evinrude Motors.
Drafting was not his thing as he was more hands-on. He soon secured a position at Stearn Magnetic where he spent eleven years. In 1939 he discovered a struggling farm implement manufacturer in Cedarburg, Wisconsin a small town north of Milwaukee near the shore of Lake Michigan. With some investors including his father, he bought the company with the idea of perfecting its magnetic cream separators for the dairy industry.
Included with the purchase were some three hundred Thor single cylinder outboard motors that had been returned as defective by large mail order distributor Montgomery Ward. Instead of scrapping them, Carl decided to redesigned and rebuilt them, re-branded them as “Sea King,” and then re-sold the much-improved 1.5-horsepower motor back to Montgomery Ward. Shortly after, he received an order for more. The national retail chain Western Auto Stores asked for a twin-cylinder design. Carl obliged, and branded the newly designed 3-horsepower versions as “Wizard.” Just like that, he suddenly found himself in the outboard motor business.
Having formed the Kiekhaefer Corporation and, to remove the stigma of the Thor name for retail sales, Carl named his motors Mercury, after the Greek god of speed. He introduced five Kiekhaefer Mercury outboard models to rave reviews at the 1940 New York Motor Boat Show; three single-cylinder and two twin-cylinder models simply labelled K1 through K5. Orders poured in.
These re-designed motors featured Kiekhaefer patented innovations such as a reed-valve induction system to improve breathing and reduce backfiring, an adjustable carburetor, the Rotex Positive Water Pump impeller from rubber to improve cooling, the Twin-Flux Magneto for improved spark, a forged, balanced crankshaft, and what he called “the slimmest, most compact” outboard available with streamlined lower units and integral gas tank. These engine improvements would become part of the over two hundred patents he would register in his lifetime.
World War II brought a ban on the use of aluminum in leisure products and so Kiekhaefer turned his attention and manufacturing capabilities to helping the war effort. Although he had never had any experience with chain saws, he won a government competition hands down with his design and resulting production of a prototype two-man chain saw utilizing a Mercury motor. By the end of the war, he was the largest producer of chain saws in the world.
In an effort to maintain the R&D of two-stroke engines, his growing reputation for engineering flexibility enabled him to develop a 35-horsepower, directly opposed twin-cylinder motor. It weighed only 34-pounds and thus was one of the first to be designed with over one horsepower per pound. It was employed in a radio-controlled drone for use by the U.S. Army Air Corps for target practice for anti-aircraft gunners. Thousands of these motors were produced.
As aluminum became available again and normal production resumed following the war, Kiekhaefer was in a dilemma as he had remaining government contracts to fulfill while orders for domestic use outboards skyrocketed, including an additional 33,000 motors for Western Auto Stores.
After an exhausting search, his wish list of expansion criteria was satisfied by a 38-acre plot which was once a dairy farm and included a large multi-story barn in the Fond du Lac, Wisconsin Industrial Park, 40 miles northwest of Cedarburg. Fond du Lac is at the very southern tip of Lake Winnebago which drains straight north into Green Bay. He purchased this land at the beginning of 1946, sold the barn full of hay to local farmers, revamped the barn into a full production and office facility, and by the end of the year had sold 1.5 million dollars of outboard motors.
At the 1947 New York Boat Show, Kiekhaefer introduced the famous 10-horsepower Lightning which then won its division in the 136-mile Albany to New York Marathon race on the Hudson River. In the 1948 Marathon, the top five finishers were powered by Mercury outboards. This ignited a promotional and competitive racing spark in Carl. In 1948, the 25-horsepower Thunderbolt was introduced. This was the first 4-cylinder inline two-stroke outboard and was said to actually produce forty horsepower. The horsepower wars were starting.
As discretionary spending and available leisure time soared in the late forties and fifties, pleasure boating as a family lifestyle also grew and the demand for higher horsepower outboard motors increased exponentially. Higher horsepower was needed to power larger boats, satisfy racers, provide greater thrills, and to accommodate the new and growing sport of waterskiing. In 1954, Mercury unveiled the forty cubic inch displacement Mark 40 which produced 40 horsepower, the first outboard to produce one horsepower per cubic inch.
Also in the mid-fifties, Kiekhaefer put his racing and promotional spark together by entering five well prepared cars, Chrysler 300’s, into the fledgling NASCAR circuit at Daytona Beach, Florida. His cars were billboards for Mercury Outboard Motors, as were his transporters and team uniforms, both the first of their kind to appear on the circuit. He hired professional drivers and crew, had an unheard of sixty percent win record, recorded the first 30-second pit stop, and captured nineteen pole positions. The record for most single season team victories is held by two of his top drivers, Buck Baker and Tim Flock, who have been recognized in the top fifty drivers of all time.
He dominated the NASCAR circuit to the point of winning an unprecedented and still unmatched 16 consecutive races. He also carries the most trophies ever won in a single season, not to mention using the entire exercise as an R&D motor lab to improve engine power, lubrication, and reliability. The Mercury team was so dominant that rules started to be changed and some fans turned against him, and so he pulled out of NASCAR entirely at the end of the 1956 season.
In 1956, the Mark 75 was introduced, the first six-cylinder outboard which produced 60 horsepower. Around the same time, Kiekhaefer purchased a remote inland Florida lake, surrounded the entire lake with fencing to prevent "snooping,” and posted guards around the property with the intention of carrying out research and development on his engines and inventions while out of sight of the media, competitors, and the public.
The lake was referred to by insiders simply as “Lake X.” The name stuck. Lake X was soon put to use testing two of the new Mark 75 outboards where they set an endurance record for running constantly for over thirty-four days nonstop, a distance of over 25,000 miles, while being refueled on the run. The boats averaged over 30 miles per hour for the run’s duration. The Mercury legend for speed, endurance, and reliability was growing.
In 1961, Kiekhaefer Marine was purchased by the huge leisure industry giant, Brunswick Corporation, and became a separate entity. Carl Kiekhaefer remained as president through to 1970 when he retired. At that point, the company name was changed to Mercury Marine. But during that time, the pleasure boat industry and the racing fraternity continually begged for more, and Mercury responded.
In 1961, it introduced 100, 120, and 140 horsepower versions of its brand new MerCruiser-branded inboard-outboard sterndrive and in 1962, the world’s first 100 horsepower outboard. Then came a 125-horsepower outboard. In 1958, after years of using different colours, all white became the standard but with these new taller six-cylinder inline “Tower of Power” outboards, black became the standard.
During the mid-seventies, tunnel hull racing became a worldwide phenomenon where Mercury and Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC), makers of Johnson and Evinrude outboards competed fiercely for wins. Mercury Racing was first established in 1973 as Mercury Performance Products to enhance its engines for racing and ultimately promote the company’s outboards.
Some of the biggest names racing for Team Mercury at the time included Renato Molinari, Bill Seebold, Reggie Fountain, Gary Garbrecht, and Earl Bentz, all of whom would later make names for themselves in performance boating. It was during this period that the SSM Speedmaster series of lower units utilizing newly developed surface drive cleaver propellers were developed to great racing success.
On the consumer front, the mid-seventies brought the first V6 outboard motor which became known as the Black Max, plus the Mercury re-branded Mariner outboard line. Mariner was first introduced to great success in Australia and was brought to North America to create new dealership opportunities as well as counteract OMC’s Johnson and Evinrude dealership situation.
When Carl retired in 1970, he created Kiekhaefer Aeromarine which concentrated on the high-performance boat market, and over its course developed industry-standard Kiekhaefer K-Planes and Zero Effort controls. After Carl died in 1983 his engineer son Fred took over, and in 1988 developed and introduced a beefy surface drive outdrive for racing which could handle high horsepower for the offshore racing fraternity and compete with new shaft-based surface drives.
The drive immediately dominated the offshore racing world. It eventually became the Number Six drive when Mercury Marine bought Kiekhaefer Aeromarine in 1990. Fred Kiekhaefer took the helm of Mercury Racing and under his direction it has become a world leader in marine R&D. Fred retired in December 2012 at age 65. Off the shelf sterndrive engines are now available up to 1650 horsepower, outboard engines up to 450 horsepower, and ancillary products such as Axius Joystick Piloting available with Skyhook digital anchoring and autopiloting, fly by wire Digital Throttle and Shift (DTS), VesselView, and SmartCraft among many, many more.
This is just a small peek at what has become arguably the world’s largest and most diverse consumer marine conglomerate. When Carl Kiekhaefer made that decision to redesign those 1.5 horsepower Thor outboards instead of selling them for scrap, there is no way he could have imagined in his wildest dreams what would be created as a result.