In 1927 an ambitious young man who had experienced “The Great War” on newsreels as a youngster and his own coming of age in the roaring 20’s was perched with the rest of the country on the eve of the stock market crash of 1928 and the beginning of the great depression. At this tenuous point in history, this young High School Graduate with one year of Engineering under his belt at the University of Wisconsin, Carl Kiekhaefer made his way to Milwaukee and got himself hired as a draftsman at the Nash Motors Body Division, only to have his inquisitive nature and tenacious curiosity get him fired within the first year. He recovered quickly with a new drafting position at Evinrude, only to be fired 3 short months later for insubordination.
He finally found a good fit when he joined the drafting department at Stearns Magnetic. He stayed for ten years and by 1938, became Chief Engineer at the successful company. Their magnetic products were mostly used in the manufacture of clutches and brakes, but Kiekhaefer’s rural youth gave him an added insight to other common uses for magnetic separators. Pulling stray metal pieces out of grain and livestock feed saved many head of cattle from injury ingesting metal debris as well as the very high risk of metal-on-metal creating sparks in the dangerously explosive dust-filled environment of granaries and silos.
When the very last manufacturing plant in his home town of Cedarburg was about to go under in the middle of the great depression, the town appealed to and invested in Carl’s father to take over the struggling company and bring Carl from Milwaukee to supply the knowledge and experience from his tenure at Stearns Magnetic to manufacture magnetic products for rural and commercial use. Carl agreed to return to Cedarburg and lead the town’s largest employer back to life by finishing up the last piece of old business left behind by the Thorwald Company, and then building a new business based on the engineering and manufacture of magnetic clutches, brakes and separators.
Based on a previous shipment of 500 motors that had already been delivered to the retailer for sale, Montgomery Ward had left behind an order for 500 outboard motors to be built and shipped. Before Kiekhaefer could begin to fulfill that order, 384 of the previous shipment were returned…they simply did not work. Montgomery Ward also cancelled the remaining order for 500 additional motors. This was devastating news for Kiekhaefer, as his entire business plan depended on his ability to fulfill the order from Mongomery Ward and add the $6,000 from that transaction to the $25,000 invested by the town to fund his new magnetic parts company.
The Thorwald Company had based its THOR Outboard motor on the limited experience of Thorwald’s son Royal, who had raced Evinrude outboards in the 20’s. Royal helped his father design a cheaper version of the motor…unfortunately, this cheaper version used substandard metal alloys, which rusted and corroded in both salt water and fresh water. The grease could seep from the nickel alloy gears, which meant the motors were not watertight. These motors were in fact, not even submersible. Kiekhaefer combined his ingenuity, resourcefulness and his 3 months of experience at Evinrude in 1927 to rebuild and reinvent the THOR outboard motor. He worked with 2 trusted employees from the old manufacturing line who understood the process and the product, and the 32 year old farm boy who had never used an outboard motor came to the rescue of his home town and laid the foundation for the future.
The old motor had used bronze connecting rods and bearings; nickel alloy gears and a low-grade steel drive shaft with an aluminum propeller. By simply redesigning the carburetor to provide a better mixture to the cylinder, the unit could be fitted with a more streamlined cowling. As Kiekhaefer improved the components of the motor, he used his innate marketing savvy to subtly understate the benefits of his product. This directly contradicted the heavy-handed over-stated advertising of the past. He understated the improvements by simply re-writing the brochure to focus on the new benefits. “A motor heavy enough to drive your boat regardless of wind, weeds, waves and weight.” He emphasized inland fishing and avoided mention of salt-water.
By understating the improvements, he also undercut the outrageous speed claims made by the competitor. He pointed out that many things affect the speed of a boat, and that the new THOR motor will “probably provide the same or maybe more speed than a similarly rated motor.” With these basic improvements in place, Kiekhaefer humbly went to the Montgomery Ward Director of Sporting Goods Purchasing, introducing himself as the new owner of Thor Outboard Motor Company in hopes he could convince the buyer to reinstate the order for the 500 THOR motors. Answering a cold stare and icy reception from the untrusting buyer, Kiekhaefer simply asked “Will you try them?”
Miraculously, the buyer agreed to try 6 motors, so Kiekhaefer lost no time and began planning the redesign on his drive back to Cedarburg. Kiekhaefer determined 3 areas in which his product was performing poorly as he discovered bad design choices resulting from cost-cutting measures in the THOR outboards. First, poor starting due to a weak spark; Second, poor idling due to a weak gas/air mixture and Third, poor propulsion due to a badly balanced crank shaft. He was able to solve the first issue by using his experience with engineering magnetic equipment to rewire some Bosch Magnetos that had left behind by Thorwald. The cylinders had two coils designed to simultaneously fire two cylinders, which he rewired to fire together in one cylinder, effectively doubling the heat of the spark.
Then, just 2 weeks into his new venture at Cedarburg, and still planning to use the 500 outboard motors to fund his magnetic manufacturing plan, Carl Kiekhaefer drew his first sketch for an enlarged intake manifold sporting an adjustable thumbscrew allowing a finely tuned mixture of gas and air to work with the hotter spark he had engineered from the old Bosch Magnetos. Finally, he copied the successful crankshaft design from the Elgin Waterwitch, sold by Montgomery Ward’s biggest competitor, Sears, Roebuck & Co.
In 1939 Carl Keikhaefer still had visions of creating a business focused on magnetic products. He did not yet recognize the potential of his successful resuscitation of the THOR brand from pauper’s option to sportsman’s choice until Montgomery Ward tested the 6 sample motors, accepted the 384 rebuilt motors, reinstated it’s order for 500 and placed an additional order for another 500.
At this point, Keikhaefer could see that the timeline for developing and marketing new magnetic products could not compare to the immediate revenue potential of continuing to produce outboard motors, so he embraced the idea of rebuilding THOR’s deteriorated distribution network of dealers and admitted to himself that he was in the outboard motor business. This portrait of a man played a large role in the early years before the mercury brand was born, and it continues in an even larger part to dominate the story in the years to come.
Politics and personalities drive the next 50 years of Mercury, producing a pedigreed line of high-performance products saturating the outdoor sports market including racing and corporate alliances; all built on the indomitable spirit, tenacious character and efficient engineering of the dynamic, manic, single-minded entrepreneur, Carl Kiekhaefer.
From the birth of the Mercury brand in 1940 to the merger with Brunswick in 1961, our nation endured wars and enjoyed prosperity, embraced engineering and mechanical precision while developing an insatiable appetite for quality and performance. The industry soared through the 60’s and the 70’s until the oil embargo of 1979. In 1983, the FTC made a controversial decision prohibiting the joint venture between Yamaha and Brunswick, giving the foreign manufacturer a strong foothold, thereby introducing a new competitor to the US market. Expansion and recession in the 80’s lead to focus on performance, bringing new innovation and award-winning products to market in the 90’s and into the new millennium.