50 Years of Racing merCruisers – Part 1

Mercury's founder (my co-founder), Carl Kiekhaefer, came reluctantly to embrace the sterndrive concept. But once on board, he never looked back.

2011 is the 50th anniversary of the merCruiser sterndrive. More important to those of us with the speed-on-the-water gene, it is also the 50th anniversary of racing with merCruiser sterndrives. So, here is the first part of the chronology, 1961 – 1987,  and a pictorial flashback: the evolution of the Mercury Racing and Kiekhaefer sterndrives.

Now in its third printing, Jeff Rodengen's book on Carl Kiekhaefer exposed the previously unknown conspiracy in creation of the modern sterndrive.

For a thorough exploration of the modern sterndrive creation, I recommend Jeff Rodengen’s book, Iron Fist, Chapter 26, The Great Stern Drive Conspiracy, pp. 360 – 379. It is a fascinating work of investigative journalism containing creation, deception, disloyalty, honor and captivating personalities of the sterndrive’s history. Here, I’ll focus on the history of merCruiser and Kiekhaefer racing drives in this two-part series.

merCruiser Racing: 1960 – 1987

Sales literature for the first merCruiser with 327 c.i. and 225 hp.

In March 1961 came the first merCruiser – coined from mer (for Mercury) plus Cruiser (for its target market). The idea was to use more powerful automotive-based engines (like an inboard engine) with vectored thrust, trim and steering (like an outboard) to give better performance than a conventional inboard.

This first 225 hp merCruiser sterndrive proved to work well pushing a boat and was more powerful than competitor’s. But it had an odd worm gear and ring gear mechanism to crank the whole drive out of the water – 180 degrees about the crankshaft axis – for corrosion resistance and “prop changes from inside the boat.”

Don Aronow and mechanic, Knocky House, switched from inboards to race merCruisers in the Bahamas 500 and ever after.

Rapid follow-on design work brought the 110 and 140 hp merCruiser I, introduced in late 1961. It was followed quickly by the 310 hp merCruiser III in 1962. The original drive, renamed merCruiser II, was produced until replaced by a new design in 1970 – without the crank-up mechanism. The II and III were the platforms for racing variants.

Twin 225 hp merCruiser IIs powered the 1962 winner of the 184 mile Miami-Nassau "Ocean Power Boat Race." No bolsters. No canopies. No engine hatch. Just go!

By 1962, there was a “Super Speed Master” (SSM) version of the merCruiser II. From inception, factory owned Mercury Racing teams were conquering all comers in offshore power boat racing. That’s where “the enemy” was. Offshore victories told the world merCruiser had arrived. Market supremacy followed quickly.

Bill Sirois and a 28 Formula race boat testing in Fond du Lac, circa 1965.

In 1967, there was a faster merCruiser III SSM for offshore power boat racing. (It superseded the II SSM.) Bertram, Formula, and Cigarette were all racing the III SSM packages — first, 320 hp 409 c.i., then 325 hp 427s, and 390 hp 482s. Factory drivers like Odell Lewis, Mel Riggs, Johnny Bakos and Bill Sirois became legends through grit, skill and winning, winning, winning! And merCruisers were better products due to repeated abuse and subsequent improvements.

The author, Bill Sirois and a 32 Bertram Nautec with III SSMs during the Around Long Island Marathon, 1968. We won. Our 3 hour and 59 minute record held for 21 years (mostly, 'cause nobody tried to break it).

My brief stint in offshore racing, co-driving with Bill Sirois, used these 482 c.i. packages in a 32’ Bertram Nautec. After ten-foot seas and a physical beating while crossing the gulf stream with Bill, I devoted the rest of my marine career to “the pencil end of offshore racing.” The MCM III SSM lived on well into the mid-1990s.

"Black Jack" Hannigan took Carl Kiekhaefer for a ride, in more ways than one. This one just before the management succession storm.

Carl Kiekhaefer, and Brunswick management had a huge blow-up in 1969 over Mercury leadership succession – specifically, his. He quit. (A decade later, Mercury president Jack Reichert would try to patch things up, but dad was stubborn.) In 1970, my dad and I began building snowmobile engines and 468 c.i. offshore racing engines – the latter competing with merCruiser’s.

Doc Magoon captured three consecutive offshore world championships with KAM modified III SSMs on Cigarette boats in 1971, '72 and '73.

Mercury refused to sell us drives. So, we bought components and assembled III SSMs at Kiekhaefer Aeromarine Motors (KAM). Then, Mercury refused to sell us props and drive components. Dad decided we would make our own.

Tom Gentry in a 36 Cigarette with 468 Champion Maker engines launches 50 feet. Mr. K called these "Kitty Hawk flights." Big seas were common during races of the 1970s.

Bob Magoon, Carlo Bonomi, Sandy Satulo and others were winning all over the world with Cigarettes, Bertrams and Cougars fitted with KAM 496 c.i. Champion Maker engines and KAM modified III SSMs. Winning boats went 80 mph – slow by today’s standards – but in really big ocean seas. We broke at lot of III’s.

KAM's K-600 drive with "Champion Maker" 468 c.i. 600 hp engine. Note the temporary fad of skegless gearcases to cut drag – temporary, because many boats spun wildly out of control! Skegs were back within a few races.

So in 1972, Larry Lohse, Bill Danner and I designed the K-drive. It steered about the vertical shaft and tilted through big trunnion bushings in the transom assembly. That got around the Wynn patent, which was licensed to Volvo and sub-licensed to Mercury. The prototype was redesigned into three, rugged, production intent models for 1974: K-200, K-400 and K-600. Only the racing version K-600 saw limited production.

"Diamond Don" Smith's 40 foot Cigarette with K-600s.

In 1977 my dad required coronary bypass surgery. I managed KAM during his recovery. Under my guidance in a difficult time, everybody was focused on business survival. With such low production, KAM racing engines and K-600 drives lost money; I withdrew the engines and K-600 drive from the market. We began manufacturing sterndrive and outboard components and assemblies… Wait for it – for Mercury Performance Products, Outboard Marine Corporation – Johnson and Evinrude – and Volvo-Penta! Blasphemy perhaps, but it kept the lights on. My dad passed away in 1983. I borrowed a truck-load of money and bought assets from his estate. We continued operations as Kiekhaefer Aeromarine, Inc.

John D'Elia and Digger Dirgins ate 'em up! Here, Special Edition with V SSM drives on the cover of Mercury Performance Products 1990 catalog.

Meanwhile, merCruiser’s III SSM kept racing successfully, but not uncontested. Surfacing shaft drives, racing in the USA and Europe, were competitive against merCruiser – that is, when the prop blades stayed on. The merCruiser IV SSM was developed to compete and it did! A shorter vertical driveshaft raised the prop and, with a longer skeg, made a potent surface drive out of sterndrive geometry. J.D. D’Elia’s Special Edition had particular success in mid-to-late 1980s, but the engines of the day were again overpowering the IV SSM drive’s capacity. Internals were improved and, in 1987, the V SSM was introduced; better, but still too fragile.

The merCruiser SSM success spawned another idea: How about an Alpha SS for smaller boats? (The Alpha sterndrive had superseded the merCruiser I at our parent company, Mercury, so “Let’s go race it!”) In 1987, an Alpha SS application was forged with a special tunnel boat “Formula merCruiser” series. However, the tunnel boat guys, like the Seebold clan, preferred the light weight and spectacular performance of Mercury’s outboards (and still do!). The offshore folks preferred the speed and sea keeping of larger boats with bigger power. A product without a need dies quickly. By 1988, Alpha SS was dead.

(to be continued: 50 Years of Racing merCruisers – Part 2)

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19 thoughts on “50 Years of Racing merCruisers – Part 1”

  1. What a great 50 year story Part 1. It seems like yesterday this all took place. Those were some great times. I remember so well. Many hours spent in testing the SSM. I remember the eight world championships so very well, when I was building those drives. I’ll never forget your Dad. He gave me the chance to be a part of those years. And it was those years that led me to the success of being a SSM technican. I’ll never forget those great years.

    1. Thanks for checking in, John. You built a lot of SSMs for KAM in those days. What a team we had behind the scenes. Some of the “heroes behind the wheel” had no idea the effort put in by mechanics in the back rooms to make their fun and fame possible. Fortunately, some others were pretty appreciative. Have a prosperous 2011!

  2. Fascinating story Fred. Can’t wait to see part two. I’m looking forward to reading about the journey that produced your 1350 behemoth. Must have been a great blend of marine and human engineering. : O )

    1. Thanks, Bowen! “50 Years…Part 2” will publish next week. In the mean time, check out “You must have had help!” for some insight into the team.

  3. All of this history is fantastically exciting to a long time Mercury owner/fanatic, it’s one thing to own and operate a Mercury but to read the stories behind the product’s genesis adds flesh to the experience. I have been collecting motors and documents for 2 years and I am the one who sent you my museum design, a museum would be a focal point for the accomplishments of the past and expectations for the future.
    I read every historic document I find and thank you for posting this one.

  4. Fred,
    Throwing the part in there about the Alpha SS drive made me smile. My Dad campaigned a grandfathered B class boat with POPBRA with small blocks and staggered SS drives. One of the Racing Dept engineers told him if he could get them close enough together two props spinning the same direction would act as one! Who needs counter rotation! That’s the way he tells the story at least…..Thanks for the great blog!!

    1. I’m pleased to make you smile. As for props, close is good; counter-rotation is best. That’s why offshore vee-bottoms stagger — to bring thrust closer to centerline. Further, they counter rotate to keep the prop torque from rolling the boat off its vee and onto a flat sided, “half-vee.” For further confirmation, just look at MerCruiser’s Bravo 3 or CMD’s Zeus pod drives. Can’t get closer than two shafts on the same axis — and the props turn in opposite rotation.

  5. Hey Fred—I heard you had retired??? Or is it like that Mark Twain–“–the rumors of my—-” ?? Some where I have my card–“Certified Mercruiser Mechanic” I got in Sarasota, Dated 1964!!
    Fred–you are invited to a “Special Event” near Beaver Creek–July 10, 2011—

    Gene

    1. Gene, you ol’ stick man! Me? Retired? Somebody forgot to tell me! I’ve been showing up everyday. Plenty to do, but you know that if you’ve been reading my blog posts.
      What special event near the Beav?

      1. Fred—Karin thinks that ’80’ is significant enough to have a celebration—-would like to see you and Dr. Carol there—might even be a couple other OLD boat racers there—
        Gene

  6. Hi Fred,
    I am writing an article for,”The Outboarder”, an outboard motor enthusiasts publication. I am looking for information on the Mercury Testing Grounds installation at Midnight Pass, Siesta Key, Florida. If you have any idea where I might find such information, please contact me: harsh@yahoo.com Thank You

  7. Hi could you name the drive in a sea ray 19′ with a 327 – distinctive for Keikhaefer merCruiser clear plastic logo, prop cone, similar to old Volvos, and an oversize hex plug maybe for gearlube about 4″ down on the back of the upper. It also has very large diameter trim rams. About 1970. Thank you. Tom in NH.

  8. Thanks for the history on the SSM alpha drives .. I have two of them that were on my velocity 30 offshore. Great drives, guess I should figure out what to do with them soon ..
    Thanks again

  9. Hi, does anyone know what color the Kiekhaefer aeromarine 1 was? All i can find is black & white photo’s ? I am building a close to exact 40″ working replica of this famous 36 ft Cigarette and need deck, side ,bottom and boot stripe colors. I am a certified merc tech since 1987 and have been opperating a mom and pop outboard business for 32 years. I worked at a third generation Mercury dealer for 10 years,and now i’m 59 and have been a offshore race boat enthuusast for ever, an love to build scale model race boats in my free time to preserve the memories . Any help would be appreciated greatly . Thanks Chip

    1. Hi Chip. I would love to see some of your models. Send some photos if you like. The 50 years of merCruisers – Part 1 post features a color photos of the Doc Magoon’s Kiekhaefer Aeromarine I. It was red sides – white deck and white bottom. I will forward the photo to you via e-mail.
      Rick

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