Stumbling into the outboard business… the best mistake ever
Carl Kiekhaefer was a young engineer fresh out of college. With financial help from his father, he bought a dying outboard motor manufacturing company in Cedarburg, Wis. He never intended to get into the outboard business. His plan was to make magnetic separators for the dairy industry. But included in the assets of the company were 300 defective outboards that had been rejected by a large mail order retailer. Carl needed cash to keep his new business running, so with a small crew, he rebuilt the motors and sold them back to the mail order company. The engines performed so well that the buyer placed an order for more. Soon a second firm asked him to design and build an alternate-firing twin cylinder model. The Kiekhaefer Corporation was in business.
Outboards weren't new in 1940. Unfortunately, they weren't reliable either. Working on his own designs for his fledgling outboard motor business, Carl Kiekhaefer developed features for quick, powerful, dependable boating power: a rubber water pump rotor that tolerates sand, silt, and vegetation; a one-piece streamline housing that protects drive shaft, waterline, and exhaust from exposure to the elements; and a reed valve induction system. All were part of a new vision for outboards. He called them Mercury, after the fleet-footed messenger of the Roman gods.
At the 1940 New York Boat Show, Kiekhaefer displayed his engines for the first time. In his homemade tradeshow booth, Carl accepted orders for more than 16,000 motors, and the marine industry changed forever.
In December 1941, the United States entered World War II. American factories shifted production from commercial to military products. At the Kiekhaefer Corporation, expansion plans ground to a halt. Nationwide, factories were converted to manufacture equipment for the war effort.
Doing what it could to survive, the tiny company sought government contracts. The government needed air-cooled, two-man chainsaws for the army, and Carl accepted the challenge. Kiekhaefer had never before manufactured a chainsaw, and for nearly 20 years army engineers had tried to develop a portable power saw to replace the heavy, cumbersome models then in use. But in just two months, Kiekhaefer completed a new machine. In a test, the saw powered by the Mercury engine cut through a 24-inch green log in 17 seconds, as opposed to 52 seconds for its nearest competitor. The chainsaw contract was awarded to Kiekhaefer Corporation.
Throughout World War II, Kiekhaefer Corporation was a mass producer of chainsaw engines, and by the end of the war, they were the largest builder of chainsaws in the world. The company also manufactured products that took to the air with two-cycle engines for drone aircraft, and the company became a recognized authority on radio-controlled aircraft.
Post-war boating boom
At the 1947 New York Boat Show, Mercury introduced "Lightning," a two-cylinder alternate firing design of 19.8 cubic inches. Rated at 10 horsepower, it outperformed competitive engines rated twice as powerful. To back up his performance claims, Carl displayed two Lightnings that ran a total of 75,000 miles - an early taste of the company's passion for testing.
The explosion in consumer demand fueled expansion, and in 1948, Kiekhaefer built the prototype of the engine he had been promising since before Word War II, the Mercury Thunderbolt. It was a larger, more powerful outboard to meet the growing demands of the post-war boating boom. Thunderbolt was the industry's first four-cylinder-in-line, two-cycle, 40-cubic-inch engine. It delivered a whopping 40 horsepower - well in excess of its advertised 25 horsepower.
Racing into history
Kiekhaefer's stock car team dominated the NASCAR circuit, setting a new record in the Daytona Beach "Flying Mile" at nearly 140 mph in the new Chrysler 300B. His teams would win a phenomenal 80 percent of all races entered, without a single driver injury, and would never be charged with an infraction of the rules. But because he was such an overwhelming competitor (at one point winning 16 races in a row) race fans turned against the Kiekhaefer team. Deeply hurt, Carl Kiekhaefer withdrew from stock car racing at the end of the 1956 season.
In 1957, the company began operations at a 1,400-acre undeveloped Florida lake - a new testing area away from prying eyes. To keep the location a secret, Carl Kiekhaefer referred to it as "Lake X" when speaking with outsiders, and the name stuck.
That same year, the Mark 75 was introduced, the industry's first six-cylinder, 60-hp outboard. At Lake X, two Mark 75s set a world endurance record, each propelling a family-sized runabout over 50,000 miles in 68 3/4 days of continuous night-and-day running. Refueling on the run, they maintained an average speed of 30.3 miles per hour.
The 1960s was a decade of tremendous growth and innovation for Kiekhaefer Marine. In 1961, Kiekhaefer merged with Brunswick Corporation, whose 125 years of leisure business leadership brought capital for sustained growth around the world.
The revolutionary MerCruiser engine was introduced at the Chicago Boat Show that same year, offering the first sterndrive unit of over 100 hp. It combined the power and economy of inboard engines with the flexibility and maneuverability of outboard drive units. MerCruiser outsold all other sterndrive brands combined, and eventually captured an incredible 80 percent of the worldwide market. Within the next few years, Kiekhaefer also unveiled the first 100 and 125-horsepower outboards, and also introduced the distinctive "phantom black" cowl that has become Mercury's trademark.
Carl Kiekhaefer resigned as president of the company in 1969, and shortly thereafter the company's name was officially changed from Kiekhaefer Marine to Mercury Marine.
Set the standard, then surpass it… that's the Mercury way
Improvements to Mercury products continued to set standards for the industry: refining fuel efficiency on high-horsepower outboards, introducing comprehensive one-hand controls on an outboard tiller, creating higher performance MerCruisers for sport boat owners seeking additional power, and creating sophisticated production outboards with electronic fuel injection (EFI) that would deliver the correct fuel mixture for all conditions. With its reputation for quality, innovation and durability, Mercury solidified its position as the prestige brand for marine propulsion.
Responding to the demand for bigger, faster, more efficient engines, in 1993 the company introduced a new product line, the Sport Jet 90, on Bayliner and Sea Ray boats; it was an instant hit, starting an industry stampede into jet boats. Two years later, Sport Jet introduced a 120-hp model, the perfect engine for towing skiers, knee boarders and tubers. And, with the introduction of the Sport Jet 175V6, V-6 power became available in a mini-jet engine.
In 1996, Mercury and Mariner astounded the marine industry when it introduced 200-hp, OptiMax direct fuel-injected, two-stroke outboard engines. This new technology injected a high-pressure mixture of fuel and air directly into each cylinder, providing greatly improved fuel economy, smoother running and a reduction in hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions that exceeded government proposals for the year 2006.
The following year, Mercury took a chance with this "experimental" technology by entering production Mercury OptiMax engines in the grueling "24 Hours of Rouen" international boat race in Rouen, France. Nowhere has Mercury's superiority been more evident than at high speeds on rough water! The OptiMax engines finished first in the low emissions class, and fourth and fifth overall, behind Mercury Racing engines in a display of racing dominance. In subsequent years, Mercury OptiMax teams have continued to dominate the race at Rouen. In an unparalleled history-making performance in 2000, Mercury Racing swept the French endurance race, setting course records and demonstrating racing's future with low emissions two-stroke technology. Mercury OptiMax-powered boats took first, second and fourth place overall, beating larger displacement traditional race engines of all competitors.
In a testament to his vision and contribution to motorsports, in 1998 the late Carl Kiekhaefer was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America at the Motorsports Museum in Novi, Mich. Mercury Marine continues his legacy of innovation and superiority in the manufacturing of marine propulsion products and accessories. As the largest division of Brunswick Corporation, Mercury has facilities across the United States and throughout the world, with over 6000 employees and over 7000 dealers worldwide.
The company is integrally involved in conservation issues and also supports fishing, boating, boat racing and watersports activities. Together Mercury employees and dealers are proud of their unmatched record of leadership, innovation, and service. Around the world, Mercury Marine remains The Marine Experts.
Courtesy Mercury Marine