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
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
Before the war, an outboard motor was mainly a device to propel a fisherman's
boat. A 6-horsepower was considered big. But immediately after the war, times
were changing. With more money and more leisure time, tens of thousands of families
were discovering boating. Water skiing, once deemed a pastime for daredevils,
became a popular family sport, and one that required even greater horsepower.
Kiekhaefer anticipated the boom in recreational boating and the increasing demand
for larger and more powerful outboard motors.
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
To promote his outboard business, Carl Kiekhaefer entered the sport of stock
car racing. Driving large but powerful Chrysler 300s, his team's mechanical
innovations and attention to detail culminated in two national championships
- both the NASCAR and AAA circuits - claiming the largest collection of stock
car racing trophies ever won in a single season and stunning the racing community.
Among their innovations were the first dry paper air filters, which are standard
in automobiles today.
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
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
Set the standard, then surpass it… that's the Mercury way
In the early 1970s, a Mercury Twister II racing outboard set a world outboard
speed record of 136.381 mph, breaking the old mark by more than 5 mph. And the
company continued to break records around the world. The new Mariner Outboard
was introduced in Australia and proved itself quickly, setting a new endurance
speed record in 1975 during a 546-mile run from Sydney to Brisbane. An 18-hour
running time slashed more than nine hours off the previous record. In 1976,
Mariner Outboards were introduced in Europe and the United States; in conjunction
with the American debut, three Mariner-powered boats ran up the Mississippi
River from New Orleans to Chicago for a total of 4,500 boat miles.
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
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.