Obsolete Outboards
by Max Wawrzyniak

Why I Hate old Mercurys

Actually, I don't really hate old Mercurys; I just do not consider them to be likely candidates for "cheap power," which, if you will re-read the very first column, is what I like to discuss here.

Although Mercury began production under that name in 1939, few pre-war Mercurys are seen, so what we are talking about here is Mercurys from the '40s, 50's, and 60's.

Old Mercurys are very much loved by collectors of old outboard motors, which is the first problem with them; the collectors drive-up the prices of old Mercurys to a greater extent than they do the prices of the more common OMC (Johnson, Evinrude, and Gale) models, so a Mercury is likely to cost you more in the first place. Another concern is the availability of replacement parts and the cost of them. There are just fewer new parts available for old Mercurys, and these parts are generally more expensive than similar parts for the OMC engines. This is due simply to the market forces of supply and demand; there were more OMC engines than Mercurys sold in the 50's and '60s, and there are more of the OMC's still out there running.

It is not uncommon to see anglers using '50s OMC engines, but one rarely sees a '50s Mercury on the water anymore, except at antique outboard meets.

Another reason that I would advise "cheap-power" seekers to avoid older Mercurys is that more special tools are required to work on them. For example, an ordinary set of SAE wrenches and some screwdrivers are all one needs in order to replace the waterpump impellers in nearly all mid- to late '50s OMC's; Mercurys from the same era, however, require a lot of special tools, which are usually specific to only a few models or a few model years. The 1955 20 cubic inch Mercury outboard uses different special tools for the above mentioned job than the 1959 20 cubic inch Mercury, for example.

In many respects, the old Mercs are just less "user-friendly" than old OMC's. On Mercurys, one often finds left-hand threads, fine threads, and other strange bits of engineering that seem to exist only becuse Mercury wanted to do things differently than other outboard manufactueres did. The ultimate example of this is the strange transmisison arrangments of the late '50s Mercurys. Rather than utilize the proven "dog clutch" arangement like all other outboard manufacturers were using, Mercury tried using an overly-complicated planetary transmisison arrangment in their smaller engines, while the largest engines utilized "direct reversing;" the engine was literally stopped for "neutral" and re-started backwards for reverse. Neither of these systems could be considered succesfull, and after a few years, Mercury went back to the dog clutch.

Just as OMC produced outboards sold under "store names" (see Gale Warnings column), so did Mercury. From just after World War II until the late '50s, Western Auto stores sold "Wizard" outboards that were actually manufacturerd by Mercury. The Wizards were almost never direct copies of current production Mercurys, but instead were sometimes amalgamations of "left over" and specially-manufactured parts.

Both Mercurys and the Western Auto Wizards enjoyed a reputation for being "fast" outboards, but when it came to convenience items such as remote fuel tanks and full gearshifts, the Mercurys often had trouble conpeting against the OMC's. Atlhough Mercurys won most of the racing events (and racing Mercurys are much sought after by collectors) it was the easy-to-operate OMC's that won the race to "move" outboards out the front doors of dealerships.

To summurized what is going to be a very brief column, Mercurys from the '50s and 60's are great engines for those with an interest in engines, but if your interest is in cheap power for your boat, I would suggest avoiding them.

A 1948 advertisement for the entire Mercury line.
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A 7.5 hp Mercury from about 1950; no neutral, no reverse, and if the recoil starter breaks, no way to start the motor (OMC's all had an emergency rope sheave where one could wrap a rope around the flywheel to start)

The Mercury "Cruiser" was Mercury's first gearshift model, from about 1952, and is an extremely rare and sought-after engine.
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From the end of World War II until the late '50s, Mercury made outboards which were sold by Western Auto stores under the "Wizard " name. These were usually specially -built versions and not just re-labled standard Mercury models. This advertisement from 1950.
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A 6 hp Western Auto wizard from about 1950.

A 1954 Mercury Mark 20; about 16 hp, a full gearshift, and used a presureized fuel tank that is virtually impossible to find today.

A 1955 40 hp Mercury 4-cylinder in-line outboard.

1955 5.9 hp Mercury outboard with "push-button" neutral and 180-degree steering for reverse. This photo is titled, "Portrait of a Happy Boy."

An "automatic" transmission Mercury from the late '50s; I strongly suggest that you avoid any small late '50s / early '60s Mercury that combines the shift and the throttle into the tiller twist-grip, as these models are rather difficult to do common repairs on. These are different than much newer Mercs that also feature the shift and throttle in the twist-gripe.

Mercurys did not become "Black" until 1962 through 1964; Late '50s Mercurys, as this ad from 1957 shows, were a rather colorful bunch. Unfortunately, mis-guided souls attempting to make their old Mercs appear "newer" often spray-paint these models black, a capital offense in my book.
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On the left, the "special tools" needed to change a water pump impeller in virtually all OMC outboards made from 1955 until about 1968 (and later in some models). On the right, the special tool needed to change the water pump impeller in just one specific '50s Mercury model (other models need other tools.)

Mercury liked to promote their outboards as "faster" than other brands (and often they were). A 1968 publicity photo.

The 20 hp Mercury of the late '60s and early '70s sold
well, but in the author's opinion it suffered from a weak
lower unit; the thin, streamlined housing was not too
"robust," and the propeller shaft was partially hollow and
had a large slot milled in it, due to Mercury's shifting