Testing the Waters with Marine Engines

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by Nikki Rajala
Phil Gatzow’s collection of outboard motors includes a pair manufactured by farm equipment manufacturers Oliver and White.

Oliver Farm Equipment Co. and White Farm Equipment Co. made farm equipment. Everybody knows that. But did you know they also made outboard motors? Or that farm-equipment manufacturer Massey Ferguson got into the outboard motor business as well? Or that Evinrude Motor Co. manufactured gasoline engines?

These are just a few of the anomalies discovered by outboard motor collector Phil Gatzow of St. Paul, Minnesota, during his search for motors dating to the 1920s and ’30s.

Phil became interested in outboard motors as a kid, starting with his grandfather’s 1916 Twin Evinrude. “When I was a kid, we got it running. My grandfather showed me how to run it and everything,” he says. “About 25 years ago, I went to an auction and saw another one, and I bought my second one. Now I have several hundred motors, including a few inboards.”

Similar to the line-drive tractors developed to ease horse farmers into a new era, Evinrude used old familiar horse-rein methods in its Light Twin Outboard. “You tied a rope to a Y-arm in the back of the motor that turns the rudder, run the rope around the inside of the boat, so no matter where you were in the boat, you just pulled the rope to turn. It’s like the reins on a horse.”

Phil didn’t actually take possession of the motor until after his grandfather’s death. “But I’ve been involved with it since I was a kid, so I have a long history with it,” he says. “I have run it at some antique outboard meets, but it’s been quite a while now.”

Part of Phil’s interest in outboard motors stemmed from his interest in motors in general. “I’ve had minibikes, motorcycles, snowmobiles, and go-carts, but these outboard motors are handier to carry around and work on than any of the others,” he says. “But I guess the real interest was sparked by my grandfather’s motor. That’s where it came from.”

Building on the Oliver connection

Phil got his Oliver outboard motor from a collector friend who was unloading oddball pieces. “I went over with a pocketful of money,” he recalls, “and I came home with a truckload of motors, more than half a dozen, including the Oliver and a White.”

Although he enjoys restoring outboard motors, an uncommon coil in the Oliver motor presented a major challenge. “They are basically impossible to buy, and the outboard is hard to get running,” he says. “The rubber-finned impeller of the water pump needed to be replaced, but it was uncommon and difficult to get.”

Phil enjoys the connection between the Oliver outboard and the Oliver farm tractors. Oliver dealers were given a stand to display the outboard, with Oliver on a raised-letter cast. “I used to have one, but don’t have it anymore,” he says. “It’s very rare.”

Oliver steps up to the plate

In 1954, Chris-Craft Industries Inc. faced the prospect of a lawsuit by Mercury Marine for possible patent infringement. As Lawrence Carpenter wrote in the June 1991 issue of Trailer Boats magazine, “Mercury head E. Carl Keikhaefer could be a very tough-minded individual, and after much discussion between firms, he sent a final message to Chris-Craft. Unless the company faded completely from the outboard scene, a sizable lawsuit would be forthcoming. Period. Chris-Craft, an industry giant, did not wish to be dragged into court by a relative newcomer, and thereby tarnish its good name. So, it agreed to sell its outboard operation.”

Few would have guessed the buyer: Oliver Farm Equipment Co. In 1954, Oliver bought the production facility in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Chris-Craft manufactured outboard motors.

Oliver promised to completely modernize the motors before releasing them to sales outlets, according to Peter Hunn’s The Old Outboard Book. The company began by conducting a survey to learn which updated features outboard customers might appreciate. That meant providing its new models with the full gearshift, twist speed-control tiller handle, and a Tenda-Matic remote fuel tank.

From Chris-Craft, Oliver inherited outboard motors of 5-1/2 and 10hp. The new owner renamed the 5-1/2 the Oliver J Challenger and upgraded the 10hp to 15hp, naming it the Oliver K Commander. In 1955, Oliver released a 35hp motor. All were painted in rich blues, yellows, and reds. “The actual outboard, with nicely accented fiberglass cover, was attractive as any motor of the era,” Hunn wrote.

Oliver knew they would need new and additional models to compete, so they upped the 5-1/2hp to a 6hp, and the 15hp to a 16hp. Research pointed toward the need for bigger motors, Hunn wrote, so the company set a goal of releasing 25hp and 30hp motors by late 1955, but instead produced the 35hp electric-start Olympus in 1957.

In 1959, the 6hp was named the Mohawk, the 16hp became the Lancer and the 35hp became the Olympus. To compete with big motors from other manufacturers, Oliver introduced the Oliver Twin 35s, with 70hp of thrust.

Perkins line struggles to gain traction

By the 1960s, in an apparent cost-saving move, the production of Oliver outboards was moved to Great Britain under the banner, “American design – British built.”

The British-built units were soon renamed Perkins outboards, and were also later sold in the U.S., Hunn said.

“But it was no use,” he noted. “Evinrude, Johnson, and Mercury had much of the customer base.” Plus, the “big” Oliver/Perkins 35hp motor was no longer considered big, and it was the largest Perkins had. “The Oliver name was subsequently discontinued in favor of Perkins,” he wrote, “but that moniker died a few years later.”

In 1959, Massey Ferguson – another U.S.-based farm equipment manufacturer – purchased the Perkins line, which sold better in the U.K. than in the U.S. “After the firm was purchased by Massey-Ferguson,” Hunn wrote, “executives (at MF) decided to close their outboard division in 1963.” That wasn’t the immediate end of the line, as it passed to several other British purchasers for the next few years, but soon Perkins was defunct.

Motors rebadged by White Farm Equipment

After White Farm Equipment Co. bought out Oliver, White used the same outboard motor as Oliver, painted it white, changed the hood, and put the White name on it.

“I got a White at the same time I got the Oliver,” Phil says. “The White is even more rare than the Oliver. I was told that White assembled the parts they’d bought, made no more, and discontinued the line, making the White even more rare than the Oliver, because they made a lot fewer of them.”

White wasn’t the only outlier in the category. “I was surprised to find that Evinrude Motor Co. also made stationary engines for farmers,” Phil says. “One is a 3hp engine the size of a washer/dryer set. The antique shop where it rests in Wisconsin has it listed at $22,000.”

Evinrude’s limited production of stationary gasoline engines began in 1917. The company produced extremely heavy engines of 1-1/2, 3, 5, and 7hp. Only a few were built, and perhaps only a couple of those survive.

Oldest outboards easiest to start

For the collector of vintage outboard motors, ignition is the biggest challenge. “The electrical stuff is kind of touchy,” Phil says. “If you get it wet or humid, it won’t start easily.”

Oddly enough, the oldest outboard motors started easily. “The very early motors 100 years ago used a battery-fired ignition with a Model T coil and 6-volt battery to run them,” he says. “They’re kind of flawless. As long as the internals are good, they don’t have ignition problems and they run. They just had a timer when the buzz coil fired the spark plug, which made it much more reliable to run.”

Phil has several old battery-fired motors in his collection, including the 1916 his granddad gave him, and a 1912, the oldest motor in his collection, as well as several 1913s and half a dozen motors built in 1914 and 1915. “There are more and more motors available as you go up,” he says.

When it comes to antique motors, distance is no obstacle

And you can find them in many places – including Craigslist. That’s how Phil found an early Johnson outboard. “A guy nearby was having a yard sale,” Phil says, “and I was told he had six other motors over there.”

Which was true – except all were 1980s-era motors, and all were missing parts. “It was just junk, really,” Phil says. “So I told him I was really looking for older rare motors. We were standing in a pole barn, and he pointed up at the rafters, and asked, ‘You mean like that one up there?’ He had a Gopher motor, made by a University of Minnesota engineering class, in 1929.”

The owner was unwilling to part with the motor at that time, but two years later Phil got a call. “They were moving to Florida, so he said I should come to pick up that motor. He didn’t ask if I wanted it; he just said ‘come and get it.’ So I did. It’s an incredibly rare motor. Kind of my oddest one.”

Phil’s computer search engine is set to find motors all over the U.S. “I once drove to Boston to pick up an Indian motor,” he says. “Indian Motorcycle Mfg. Co. made outboards for one year, and this guy had it on Craigslist. I called him and said I’d be there in two days. Last weekend I went to an auction in Baraboo, in southwestern Wisconsin, and got a fairly rare 1916 Twin Inboard Evinrude.”

Meets create opportunities to share relics

Collectors of outboard motors hold meets on or near the water known as “wet meets.” “Dry meets” are held in parking lots. “The biggest meet is in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, on the Tomahawk River, at the end of July each year. “We spend a week trying out all these antique motors,” Phil says. “It’s a very entertaining week for those of us who enjoy these relics.”

He also enjoys showing outboard motors at car shows and threshing shows. “At car shows, people will gather around and say, ‘I’ve seen some of the rarest Corvettes and Chevys and Fords, and a lot of them, but I’ve never seen any of these motors.'”

“I guess it’s like any of the old stuff,” he says. “It’s out there, and people are glad to hear that somebody is interested in it. A lot of times I’ll show a motor just because there’s interest out there. Like I’ve heard from the hit-and-miss engine guys and tractor guys, people are still interested in their grandpa’s engines and motors.”

Putting a shine on it

Phil says he’ll buy any outboard that’s priced at a level that makes restoration worthwhile. But he doesn’t restore them all. “I don’t do anything to most of the painted motors,” he says. He enjoys making motors complete and getting them running, and then he tries to make them look good.

On the latter point, he has specialized experience. For three years after completing high school, Phil made jewelry. From there he became a knife builder. “I like to polish things and make them shiny,” he says. “So I polish up the old brass motors and make them look attractive.”

Many early motors from the teens (and many of the Evinrudes up into the 1930s) had brass parts. “They had iron cylinders and many had steel tanks,” Phil says, “but on a lot of units, everything that went into the water was brass – propellers and the whole works.” FC

For more information: Phil Gatzow, 1865 Arcade St., St. Paul, MN 55109; (651) 774-1160; outboardtankman@gmail.com.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email:bvossler@juno.com.

Farm Collector Magazine
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