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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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 (It superseded the II SSM.)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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)