In 1905 a Detroit inventor named Cameron Beach Waterman invented a gasoline engine that could be attached to a boat. Mr. Waterman got his motor into production, but it was a humble and nervous start. The best slogan he could think of was: Don't be afraid of it.
Today nobody is. Out of Mr. Waterman's tiny shop has grown an industry that does a gross annual business of $130 million in the sale of engines and caters to more than 4 million owners of outboard motors. From coast to coast there are 18,000 outboard dealers, of whom at least 10,000 are adequately equipped to provide additional parts and service. In addition some 6,000 general marine supply dealers are doing a thriving business in outboard parts replacement. This year it is estimated that outboarders will spend $68 million for fuel. Boat makers expect to sell 270,000 units—which does not include a lively business still being done in kits roughly assembled for home finishing. Total business for everybody: $285 million and more to come.
This general state of well-being dates from the end of World War II and can be attributed to a variety of factors, the most important having no surface connection with outboard motors. First of all, there has been a tremendous increase in both purchasing power and spare time for the lower-and middle-class American. During the thirties, both were scarce. Outboard sales averaged 100,000 or less annually over the 10-year period, and close to 80% were bought by fishermen who wanted something in the three-horsepower area that cost about $100.
Today, with the two-day weekend and minimum wage, the head of the family has both the time and the money to get out on the water. 55% of outboard buyers are still fishermen. However, the addition of the pure leisure buyer who wants something swankier than a putt-putt to push his rowboat has not only increased volume purchasing to 450,000 but raised the average unit horsepower to 10 and the average price to $240.
Another boost for the industry came from the man-made lakes that have backed up behind power and irrigation dams in the Midwest and West. Lake of the Ozarks, Lake Texoma, Lake Mead, to name just a few, have made boating a popular sport in regions where a bucketful of water used to be a precious commodity. Two years ago a survey showed western states like Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Kansas buying 20% of all outboards sold in the U.S., while New England, the traditional birthplace of American boating, bought only 6.55%.
A third factor, gratefully observed by the industry but hardly caused by it, is the overcrowding of the nation's highways. People are literally being pushed off the roads and onto the water during their vacations.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the United States has ceased to be a nation of watchers and has become a nation of doers. Attendance at some spectator sports has fallen off 25% since 1947.
Beyond these vital points, the remainder of the outboard boom is directly attributable to the vast improvement of the product and to the zeal with which the product has been promoted. The biggest of the builders is Outboard Marine and Manufacturing Co., whose corporate entity embraces Evinrude, Johnson, Gale, the Outboard Motor and Marine Manufacturing Co., Ltd. of Canada and the RPM Manufacturing Company, which makes lawnmowers.
Outboard Marine makes half the motors bought in the United States. Each of its major divisions—Johnson and Evinrude—puts out engines in four different horsepower ratings. Evinrude has a 3, a 7½, a 15, and a 25. Johnson makes them in 3, 5½, 10, and 25. Gale, less publicized and lower priced, has a line that includes 3, 5, 12, and 22 hp motors.
Obviously, Outboard Marine has the field well covered. However, company officials, who are careful not to let the company become an antitrust target, say there is very little contact among the divisions. To a degree this is true, and although Johnson can hardly be described as locked in a death struggle with Evinrude, still there is a measure of lively intramural competition.
There is plenty of competition too from Mercury, Scott-Atwater and Elgin Co., the three biggest volume producers after Outboard Marine. Mercury, already well-established with a line of seven motors, last year introduced a 40-hp model which can drive an 18-foot cabin cruiser carrying six adults at 25 mph. Scott-Atwater is also going for more power, adding a brand new 30-hp unit to its line of five engines. And this is by no means the limit. There are over 30 active competitors in the field, turning out motors that range in price and power all the way from the tiny 1.7-hp Neptune selling for $79.50 to the 5-cylinder, 75-hp Riley that retails at $1,195.
Picking the right motor (see chart) from this bewildering variety is largely a matter of personal taste. Still there are certain sensible limits, and a compromise must be made between economy, horsepower and safety. The average outboard buyer today wants plenty of power, and the demand for horses keeps going up. In 1950 only 39% of the engines sold rated 7 hp or more. Last year the percentage climbed to 54%; and this year one company expects its sales of 25s to lead sales of all other models.
The demand for power, however, does not come from a nation of aquatic hot-rodders. On the contrary, many of the people who want power want it for outboarding's most popular and genteel new phase—cruising. Back in the mid-thirties, a few pioneers tried to combine the light construction of the outboard runabout with the interior comfort of the inboard cruiser. But the rigors of controlling an engine that had only forward speeds and needed to be spun completely around to simulate reverse kept the cruiser at an experimental level for more than 15 years. All this changed in 1948 when Johnson introduced the first reverse gearshift, enabling the outboard skipper to start, stop and back up his boat from remote controls inside a real cruiser cabin.
At that time, gearshifts were available only in engines of 10 hp and below, and there was one lone boat manufacturer offering a cruiser that measured 18 feet. In 1950 gearshifts were added to' the 25s. The boat makers caught on, too. They performed minor miracles with plastics, aluminum and molded plywood to provide hulls big enough for comfort but light enough to be pushed by an outboard. By 1950 five manufacturers were offering seven models in the 18-foot category. Today, there are more than 75 types of finished cruisers on the market, and at least 30 more available in kit form for the owner to assemble and complete himself. Meanwhile the number of cruising customers for motors has zoomed from practically zero to a healthy 100,000 a year.
Along with the gearshift came a slew of other inventions that made high horsepower engines manageable. On the old motors the gas tank sat directly on top of the power plant. Today's larger motors can be bought with a detached tank so that the poundage once taken up by gasoline can now be devoted to horsepower. The electric starter now on the 25s has eliminated one of the classic outboard horrors, i.e. the winding, pulling and rewinding ad infinitum that used to precede a day on the lake. And in 1953 Scott-Atwater introduced an automatic boat bailer.
But the greatest blessing ever to descend upon the world of the outboard is silence. For years the common motor was a noisy little creature that rattled your teeth, wiped out all conversation and shattered the repose of nearby cottage owners. The manufacturers tried everything. They muffled the exhaust outlet under water. They added an exhaust chamber. They baffled the sucking noise from the carburetor air intake. They put cowlings over the engines. In spite of these efforts, by 1953 the question of noise had become so serious that no less than 14 states had passed laws calling for various kinds of muffling regulations. Even more dangerous to business, however, were the carte blanche permissions granted to local communities to impose arbitrary horsepower, speed and curfew laws.
Two years ago design engineers found the answer. The boat, by acting as a sounding board, was amplifying the noise of the engine. So they separated the engine from the boat. Scott-Atwater did it first with a rubber pad to help reduce vibrations. Outboard Marine did it better by floating the power-head on a set of suspension springs, and at last the public had a relatively quiet motor. A passenger sitting amidships in a boat driven by one of these new motors can hear the slap of the bow wave. A glass set down on a seat will not walk away because of vibration. A 25-hp job going wide open can barely be heard 300 feet away.
The retail reception to the silent motors was even greater than Outboard Marine had anticipated. Last season only two of their engines, the Evinrude 7½ and the Johnson 10, were silent. Supply fell far short of demand. This year every motor but the 3s has silencing suspensions—either springs or soft rubber mountings. William Scott, executive vice-president of Outboard Marine, is positively ecstatic about the new engine: "We believe that silent motors are the salvation of the industry." Other manufacturers believe it too, and silent motors are now being produced by many of the leading companies.
Saved or not, the manufacturers are still uneasy about arbitrary anti-outboard legislation, and Scott was quick to put his finger on the remaining enemy—"cowboy driving." In this sensitive area, the industry is making an honest effort at self-policing. Many boat makers this year are attaching brass plates that list the maximum horsepower and maximum weight that should be allowed on each boat. Even more effective may be the efforts of the Outboard Boating Club of America, an obliging organization which, in addition to acting as a public relations outlet for the outboard industry, provides low-rate insurance for boats and motors, helps organize local clubs, lobbies for improvements on waterways and last fall offered a model bill to all state legislatures making "reckless driving" a punishable offense.
The controlled legislation drawn up by the OBC sits particularly well with the outboard makers, for while they like to sell high-speed, high-priced motors, their major markets are fishermen and families. Hunters, a low-horsepower group, make up another 9.7% of the nation's buyers. Water skiers account for another 3.6%. But the people who really want to go fast—the racers—comprise less than 1% of the entire market.
In fact, the fastest racers buy no motors at all. They use madeover versions of engines that went out of production as much as 20 years ago. A few use specially hand-tooled models. For example, the four-cycle, 160-hp engine which Massimo Leto di Priolo (opposite page) of Italy used last month to break the 100-mile-an-hour barrier would hardly be a big seller on the retail market. Neither would the powerful alcohol burners used by the professionals in the Racing and Service classes of the American Power Boat Association and the National Outboard Association.
This is not to say that the racers are an odd or outlawed minority. The APBA and NOA, which together control all the major races in the United States, controlled 5,000 drivers between them last year. Of these, 3,678 competed in the Stock or Modified Stock classes in which all engines must be models currently on dealer's shelves. NOA, centered in the South, last year sponsored 143 regattas, including a world title event at Knoxville. The APBA held 339 regattas from coast to coast, with national championships for the pros at Pasco, Wash. and another for the stock drivers at De Pere, Wis. Unfortunately the two associations have engaged, for the past four years, in a series of jurisdictional squabbles (SI, Nov. 29) and have never quite gotten together on specifications for their complex systems of engine and hull classification.
Not all the Four Million are sportsmen or racers. Some 600,000 of these practical engines are used for police work, commercial fishing, life saving, flood salvage, troop carrying and reconnaissance, game control, geodetic survey, cargo lighting, powering work boats and mail delivery.
Moreover, outboarding has almost ceased to be a seasonal business, due in part to heavy buying in the South where 100,000 motors will be sold this year and where there are 10 to 12 months of boating every year. In colder climates the outboard publicity people are doing their best to get Americans out on the water earlier in the season and keep them there later. As usual, they have succeeded. In the lake country of Wisconsin and Minnesota, the buzz of outboards can be heard almost until ice in, and in Seattle, warmly wrapped fishermen cluster down to the docks for the annual Milk Fund Salmon Derby (see cut). The big mid-winter boat shows in New York, Chicago and San Francisco help to keep the outboard hot even when the weather is too cold for cruising. In brief, business is booming, and barring a national disaster it will continue to boom because the industry has the three ingredients it needs for a bull market: people, water and money. Stir with a good outboard and you get a happy mixture of sales for the manufacturer and pleasure for the Four Million.
SEATTLE'S ANNUAL SALMON DERBY BRINGS FISHERMEN SWARMING DOWN TO THEIR OUTBOARDS FOR SEPTEMBER COMPETITION ON PUGET SOUND
FIRST OUTBOARD produced in U.S. was one-lunger made by C. B. Waterman.
SPEED BARRIER of 100 mph was broken for first time by outboarder when Massimo di Priolo pushed unlimited class hydro to 100.383 in Italian championships.
FAMILY CRUISING in fast runabouts (above) and in cabin cruisers equipped for overnight jaunts has become regular vacation pastime for over a million Americans.
HIDDEN SHAPES OF RACING HULLS
Design of underside of an outboard racer's hull is key to speed, stability
Racers pick their hydroplane hulls according to shape of course they will run. At racing speed three-point hydro touches water only with propeller and pontoons at side of hull, gives fast ride on straightaway but is relatively unstable in choppy water and tends to skid on turns. Single-step hydro rises on after part of step in hull, offers more drag at high speeds but allows tighter maneuvering on turns by biting deeper into water. Racing runabout is souped-up version of conventional pleasure-boat, has unbroken hull lines and same stabilizing fin as single-step hydro. At slow speeds runabout behaves like any displacement boat; but as driver pours on power runabout rises out of water, planes on rear 1/3 of bottom at speeds up to 63.8 mph.