Once upon a time in America there were five engineering sadists named Louis, Harry, Julius, Clarence (Johnson)—and Ole (Evinrude)—who loathed their fellow boaters so much they engineered a mechanical contraption to seek century-long revenge. The immediate result: Most cruising wives had black eyes from getting elbowed by their frustrated Johnson/Evinrude-owning husbands. And, prior to the invention of the recoil start, all their kids were also whipped, flagellated, lashed, and/or beaten by the flailing starter cord as well.
Historical figures were not exempt. Popeye’s misshapen body wasn’t from OD’ing on spinach, rather it was a result of his J&E outboard which would almost (but not quite) start!
On the plus side, newfangled outboards could be cranked up in gear. At least early-adapters were able to see the prop spin (however briefly; however fatally). Occasionally, of course, the engines would start unexpectedly—just long enough to toss their cord-pullers into the water and then run them over. This was affectionately known as the ‘red kiss’ back in the day—currently it is known as prop-rash.
None-the-less, the Johnson Brothers and their buddy Ole Evinrude laughed all the way to the bank.
“Our engines are perfect,” Ole would quip, and the Johnson clan would chant back with, “…as long as you keep them away from water!”
Thus, low humidity (and high humility) were the two keys to happy outboard ownership in the 1950s—absolutely no moisture within a couple of hundred yards! And, sadly, WD-40 hadn’t been invented yet.
Even weirder, there was an early-type (pre-Elon Musk) of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that enabled these primitive motors to almost start, say, every 500th pull!
How sick is that?
Teaching my wife-to-be how to operate one wasn’t easy. I’d yell, “Pull!” for 499 times with increasing macho volume … and then… when her outboard would briefly sputter… I’d scream as loud as I could, “Damn it, honey—now you’ve flooded it!”
“Flooding” was something women did to engines that neither sex really understood—which didn’t stop a manly-man such as myself from stupidly yelling about it.
Gasoline engines generally need two things to run: spark and gas. Sounds simple, right? Well, it is anything but!
Why? Because if you were trouble-shooting the electrics, the engine would be failing to start because of a carburetor issue—or vice versa.
Sadly, if there was a single, solitary, miniscule, non-assertive molecule of water in the gas—the engine would not fire. (Hint: molecules are small and so was the IQ of any sailor owning an outboard back in the 1950s!)
How did water manage to sneak into the gas? I dunno. Maybe an Arab in Saudi Arabia spit or something? Most coastal gas stations had some rain water in their tanks so if you filled your five-gallon gas jug within a month of their getting a fuel delivery (which they received weekly from the tanker truck), your outboard wouldn’t start because of the stray atom or two of H2O stirred up from the bottom of their tank.
Plus, the outboard tank manufacturers were all in on the prank as well. They designed their screw vents to leak! Yes, these loose vents tightened down; no, they didn’t seal. Clever! Ha ha!
Of course, most outboards were used on open boats which were located in areas where it rained. And those early, top-heavy gas tanks would immediately float, wobble, and then evilly flip over at the first glimpse of a rain cloud!
Now, the electrical side of an early outboard was just as tricky as its fuel side. Sure, the spark of a spark plug needs to arc—and not just arc—it needs to have a ‘big fat blue spark’ inside the cylinder where you can’t see it. An orange spark simply won’t do!
How did a sailor know if his outboard had spark?
The husband would hold the spark plug wires in one hand and have his wife pull the starter cord. If he screamed and his penis inverted—good news, the engine had spark!
Best of all, there were things called ‘points’ which were flat and not ‘point-like’ at all. These not only had to be moisture-free, they had to be perfectly flat, shiny, and corrosion-free—almost an impossibility! Ditto, condensers and distributor caps! (To set the ‘points’ I always used the thickness of a match book cover as a crude guide because I couldn’t afford a set of pricey feeler gauges.)
Now, occasionally an early outboard would start, sputter anemically…and then quit when you put it in gear. The solution for this was simple: over-rev the engine so that, if the engine didn’t stop—the transmission/clutch gizmo would be stripped from over-revving; ha ha again!
The original outboards had covers engineered so that, if splashed, they would retain the corrosive saltwater within for as long as possible.
These covers had stiff ‘lever action’ cam-clamps to ensure a (theoretical) tight water seal. These clamps were made out of different galvanically-incompatible metals (zinc and cheap aluminum preferred) so that, unless lubed hourly, would freeze up forever during the first week of ownership.
Thus, a standard method of removing said cover involved the use of one sledge hammer and multiple swear words.
Yes, the J&E engineers really thought of everything!
In fact, in order to force the newbie owner into buying a huge grease gun—the Johnson Brothers or Ole included six faux lube points that looked exactly like other grease fittings (well, sans the actual lube hole).
Oh, triple clever!
Which brings us to the sheer insanity of the propeller shear pin. This is an intended-to-break bit of kit that would prevent the engine from working within sight of any floating debris. This is all-too-true—shear pins would shear at the mere thought of a jellyfish! And, once sheared, the smirking pins would then smugly claim to be ‘just doing their job.’
Where could I buy a shear pin? On the opposite coast of whatever coast you were on! How much did they cost? You don’t want to know—but think in terms of ‘national debt’ size numbers.
Oh, the bastards!
But the carburetors were the very best of the be-devilers! These had ‘jets’ because you’d have to have replacement parts flown in by PanAm daily. The jets had tiny holes in them—holes that would clog at the mere imagining of a speck of dirt! Even better, if they were ‘turned in’ a quarter-turn too much—or a quarter-turn too little—the engine wouldn’t run a’tall!
And how did you know what was too much or too little? You didn’t! There were no markings—just a rumor that you were supposed to tighten it down and then back it off 3, 7, or 1,234 turns; take your pick or consult your local astrologer!
Sure, these engines had transom clamps that came from the factory with an early formulation of Lok-tite, because once clamped, the only way to remove the engine was with a Saw-all or a cutting torch—both of which, alas, hadn’t been invented yet.
I mean, these early o/b engines had a wicked, wicked sense of humor! While it was almost impossible to get them to ignite anything explosive in the compressed cylinder-head, if the engine was flooded and spilled from the carb, gas would leak/puddle into the case, start to evaporate—and catch fire!
Or explode, even!
Here’s the sad truth—twice in my life I’ve intentionally thrown a burning outboard into the water to save it from melting all the wires and/or catching my dinghy on fire.
These innovative engines certainly weren’t PC. Early props were manufactured and marketed under such trade names at Coral Choppers, Turtle Killers, and Swimmer Slicers… how cruel is that!
I remember the early days of water skiing, when there were so few boaters around that we had to ferry out our own victims to run over! (Yes, ‘extra points’ for scuba or skin divers!)
And, sure, we also played a fun game named aqua tag—mostly with manatees or other endangered species.
Eventually, two-cycle outboards were perfected and became dependable. So manufacturers switched to four-cycle models so they could return to the fun-days of zero reliability.
Of course, every marine supply store and fuel dock sold cans of starter fluid back then called “ether”—because “ether it started or it didn’t!” (Some greasy, stinky mechanics I knew used ether as a manly, macho deodorant—though never around open fires.)
Why mention all this? Because the single-most improved marine item during my lifetime is the outboard engine. It’s currently a model of dependability (if fed clean fuel). I’ve submerged the same outboard engine in saltwater a dozen times. As long as I attend to it immediately—it cranks right up, if given clean, pure gasoline and a WD-40 doused electrical system. My experience has been that if you take good care of a modern outboard, it will last between five and ten years with daily use in saltwater. Amazing! Especially to a sailor who used to look like Popeye and always dated sailor women with black eyes!
(Editor’s note: Fatty and Carolyn continue to maintain their outboard and relationship in Southeast Asia.)