by Jim Hebert, March 24, 2001.
Many boaters and even Boston Whaler fans are unaware that Boston Whaler's parent company, Fisher Pierce, also manufactured and sold outboard engines back in the late 1960's. As you might expect, these were not just any old outboard; they were very innovative four-cycle engines that were unlike any other outboard available in the market at that time. Although Dick Fisher did not invent or initially develop the engine, he recognized its superiority over other outboards. The acquisition of this engine made Fisher Pierce capable of delivering the boat (Boston Whaler) and the engine (Bearcat) in a single package. Both of these trends (vertical integration and four-cycle engine production) have resumed in the recreational marine industry some thirty years later. Ironically, the Fisher Pierce Bearcat 55 engine was one of the last applications of this innovative, lightweight four-cylinder motor. Its history goes back a long way, beginning prior to World War II.
The engine that would become the Bearcat was initially developed by Lloyd M. Taylor of Taylor Engines Inc., California, in the early 1940's. This breakthrough engine design was known at the "Tin Block" or COBRA engine because of the unique manufacturing method for producing the block, involving steel stampings (the "Tin") which were assembled by copper hydrogen brazing, hence COBRA.
The block was formed from about 125 steel stampings which were arranged into an engine block and temporarily held together by press-fit or spot welds. The blocks were then copper brazed in a special 60-foot long furnace at over 2,000 degrees-Fahrenheit. Hardness and temper were imparted to the steel by controlling the cooling time. The finished engine block weighed only 14-pounds. Its light weight was just one of many refinements that allowed the small displacement (44 cubic inch) engine to produce impressive performance.
Crosley Motors was a division of Crosley Radio, the huge and profitable company of Cincinnati native Powel Crosley. Its initial success came in the 1920's when a home radio cost more than a Model-T car. Much like Steve Jobs and Apple Computer would do in the 1970's for the personal computer, Crosley Radio designed and produced an inexpensive radio that everyone could afford and everyone bought. It was a fabulous success. In the process of bringing radio reception to the masses, Powel Crosley essentially created the radio broadcasting business as well. He also built and operated the first broadcast "Super Station", famous WLW in Cincinnati, which transmitted at the unimaginable power of a half-million watts and could be heard in all 48 states. He became wealthy from all these successful businesses, but he still yearned to fulfill his boyhood ambition and build cars. His company continued in the car business, concentrating on producing inexpensive mini-cars.
The lightweight Taylor engine caught the attention of Paul Klotsch, chief engineer of Crosley Motors Inc., who was impressed with its capabilities. The patented engine's horsepower, fuel consumption and other parameters were so outstanding that Crosley Motors negotiated an exclusive license to it from Taylor. Before Crosley could use the engine in a car, World War II intervened, stopping all auto production.
In the midst of World War II the Navy needed a lightweight engine for use in driving generators and pumps. Crosley utilized the COBRA engine for this application, and six prototypes were built, developing 35-HP at 5000 RPM when running on aviation grade gasoline and with a high compression ratio. After exhaustive tests, including 1,200 hours of continuous operation at that level, the COBRA engine was chosen for the contract award. It easily exceeded all specifications. Thousands of the small four-cylinder engine were built for use in lightweight generators that could be air dropped. The engine also was widely used in marine applications as a pump engine, as a gen-set on PT boats and amphibious assault craft, and in many other applications.
After the war, Crosley used the engine with lower compression ratios and less horsepower rating (26 HP @ 5300 RPM) as an automobile engine. Running at variable loads and speeds, it was not as successful as in its military career. The copper and steel block suffered from electrolysis corrosion problems in its water jacket when the plastic or zinc inner liner broke down, and it seemed sensitive to overheating if coolant was low. (Anti-freeze solutions in the 1940's contained salts, which aggravated corrosion.) As the extreme light weight was not mandated in automotive use, in 1949 Crosley changed to a cast iron block having the same horsepower and displacement but weighing 12 pounds more. Crosley called this engine the CIBA (Cast Iron Block Assembly).
In the early 1950's Crosley produced, among other automotive products, a small, lightweight "micro" sports car that was powered by the engine. To demonstrate the low weight the company distributed promotional photographs showing an elder Powel Crosley dressed in a suit and holding the engine in his hands. (In this respect Mr. Crosley sounds not unlike Mr. Fisher in his flare for promotion and publicity.) The Crosley "HotShot" sold for $872 (for the whole car, not just the engine!) and found a niche market in the post-war automotive business. It featured unheard of innovations like hydraulic brakes, 4-wheel disc brakes (both firsts), and a gear driven overhead cam engine. A stock Hostshot entered and won the Sebring Sports Car Endurance Race in the early 50's, although it was a handicapped rated race, the last time so run. (See Jan Eyerman's excellent history of Crosley for more information.) Total Crosley automobile sales peaked at 29,000 units in 1948.
With its history linked to marine use, the Crosley engine was probably well known to many Navy veterans and boaters. The tiny engine was popular with many home-builders of small inboard runabouts. There were plenty of war surplus engines or Crosley auto engines available, and they could be easily adapted to inboard marine use. Plans from the 1950's for 14-foot mini-runabouts often suggested using an engine like the Crosley for propulsion. The APBA 48-cubic-inch racing class used the Crosley engine as well, as did a "Crackerbox-44" class.
The Crosley automobile ceased production in the early 1950's, although the company continued successfully as a maker of home appliances like washing machines. They sold the rights and tooling for their four-cylinder engine to the Aero-Jet General Corporation, who was primarily interested in it to produce parts and engines for government use.
At some point, three different versions of the engine for marine use were developed, a V-drive, a VIP (possibly for "vertical inline power"), and an outboard configuration. The V-drive was intended for inboard mounting in small boats, with the drive shaft facing forward. The drive shaft met the propeller shaft in a "vee" and was coupled by a pulley system. The VIP drive mounted the engine vertically, but as an inboard, not an outboard. The drive shaft was coupled to a water tight ball and socket type coupling through hull that was installed on the bottom of the hull. The lower unit looked like an outboard lower unit and was rotated to steer the boat. And there was also a conventional outboard motor version. (Thanks to Jack Rose for information on these three models.)
(There seems to be some confusion about which name was used on these engines, either Aero-Jet or Fagoel.)
The engine also caught the attention of famed hydroplane racer Lou Fageol. Fageol's family owned the Twin Coach bus and automobile company of Kent, Ohio. They picked up the Crosley CIBA motor from Aero-Jet in the mid-1950's and developed a Fageol-44 marine motor based on it. This early 4-stroke motor did not achieve enduring success or wide distribution. Fageol was also a race-car driver and he experimented with creating an automotive 8-cylinder version of the engine. A number of mirror image blocks were cast to be used in an opposing, pancake design. (The mirror image was necessary to place the intake and exhaust ports on top of the engine on both sides.) The new 8-cylinder design did not come to fruition. In c.1959 Fageol sold the rights, tooling, and parts for the Crosley engine and the outboard design to Bud Crofton, a Californian starting his own small auto manufacturing business. (If you're in Ohio, there is more information in the archives of Kent State University.)
Mr. Crofton was a longstanding and successful San Diego GMC Truck dealer, who became a manufacturer of small utility trucks. He returned the Crosley engine to powering automobiles with a series of Crofton vehicles, including the Crofton Bug, a diminutive jeep. They also produced an outboard motor, although not much is known about the Crofton outboard; it appears mainly as a footnote in lists of American Antique outboards. Ironically, shortly after buying the Crosley engine from Fageol, the U.S. government ordered over $1,000,000 in spare parts from Crofton. This was substantially more than Crofton had paid Fageol for the engine and inventory, creating some strained relationships.
Some of the mirror-image castings were machined into blocks by the frugal Crofton, leading to some odd engines with intake and exhaust manifolds on the opposite side from usual. Ultimately the Homelite Company, makers of small engine powered devices like chain saws, became interested in the outboard motors, and they bought the Crosley outboard engine from Crofton in c.1961.
In the early 1960's Homelite developed a derivative of the Crosley engine into a successful 4-stroke outboard engine. They increased the displacement of the cast iron block to almost 60-cubic-inches, enabling the engine to be rated at 55-HP at 5500 RPM. All the outstanding features of the Crosley engine were retained, like the integral cylinder heads, which eliminate any potential problems due to head gasket failure, the precise bevel-gear-driven overhead cam, which eliminates timing variations from belt sloppiness, the extra strong five main bearing balanced steel crankshaft, and the lightweight aluminum crankcase casting, aluminum valve covers, and aluminum oil pan.
The Homelite 4-stroke outboard was years ahead of its time, but its marketing was limited by the lack of a recreational marine dealer network. By 1966 it had caught the attention of Dick Fisher, probably by being used on the transom of his own Boston Whaler, and Homelite agreed to sell their outboard manufacturing to Fisher Pierce.
There were probably many things about the Homelite 55 that attracted Dick Fisher. Like his Boston Whalers, the outboard was unconventional and in many ways superior to the conventional 2-cycle outboards, just as his Boston Whalers were superior to most conventional boats.
Under Fisher Pierce the Homelite engine was re-badged as the Bearcat-55. The juxtaposition of "bear" and "cat" is a bit unusual, like "Boston" and "whaler." Fisher was fond of such "un-straight" (as he called them) names for his products. Although the name does not dovetail with other Whaler related products, "bearcat" does suggest the potential of great power in small size.
Fisher Pierce produced the four-cycle outboard for six years, from 1966 until 1972. By this time the engine had received considerable development, and many details of its design and manufacture had been refined. The Bearcat-55 had amazing features for its time, including a voltage regulated alternator charging system, thermostat controlled cooling system, single lever throttle/gear shift remote controls, warning lights and horns, pumped oil lubrication, high-performance cams and valves, and many other innovations. The engine produced 55-HP with no smoke, ran smoothly and reliably, and--this will be hard to believe--weighed only 227 lbs.! The only features it lacks when comparing it to current outboard engines are power tilt and trim.
Fisher Pierce literature from the period extolled the virtues of the 4-stroke engine. Little mention is made of environmental impact, but much emphasis is given to economy of operation, no doubt an attempt to offset the engine's higher initial cost.
A Fisher Pierce brochure presented these arguments:
The 55-Bearcat engine was marketed in many ways like the Whaler. Its initial cost was higher (and so was the Whaler's) but in the long run the engine would save money for the wise buyer. Of course, to realize the savings from fuel economy, the engine would need to have endurance. It would have to last long enough to pay back its higher cost in saved gasoline.
Fisher showed the comparison at wide-open speeds, where the fuel economy difference was greatest in terms of dollars, but the least in terms of difference in rate of fuel consumption. He hints that savings are greater at idle speeds, and they are in terms of the rate of consumption, but they are the least in terms of dollars per hour. It is at idle where outboards spend most of their lives operating, so let us look at the the savings at that speed.
Let us say the price differential between 2-cycle and four-cycle motors were $400. At trolling/idle speeds the four-cycle engine had a lower fuel consumption of about 0.8 gals/hour. If gas and oil cost $0.45/gallon, you would be saving about $0.36/hour. To recover the $400 initial cost you would have to troll for about 1,100 hours. That is a lot of fishing! As the price of gasoline rises, however, the time to recoup the $400 shrinks. At $2.00/gallon for gas and oil you save the $400 in only 250 hours of trolling. At that price you could be saving money in the second season of use if you were an average boater or fisherman.
Another aspect of four-cycle engines that probably appealed to Fisher was the lack of oil to be mixed with the fuel. Unlike most outboard boats where a 6-gallon or maybe 12-gallon external tank was the norm, Whalers were about to change to larger integral fuel tanks that could hold 60 gallons or more of gasoline. Mixing oil in tanks with such large capacity would be a problem; it would be much neater if the engine could use straight gas. Later 2-cycle engines ameliorated this problem by the development of oil injection, keeping the oil separated from the gas in tankage and only mixing them just prior to induction into the engine.
After six years in the outboard business, Fisher Pierce ceased production of their innovative four-cycle engines in 1972. Ironically, their most important marketing feature, good fuel economy, would have made them much more attractive to buyers the following year. In 1973 an OPEC Cartel simultaneously reduced oil production and raised oil prices, creating a gas shortage coupled with a sudden rise in price that stunned America. Particularly on the East Coast, Americans waited in long lines to buy gasoline at prices double or triple what they paid the year before. It was often difficult to obtain sufficient gasoline to even drive to work. Recreational power boating was noticeably affected. Sailboat sales boomed, while powerboat sales declined. In that market, the fuel-efficient Bearcat engine may have been a much stronger competitor.
The four-cycle outboard was pretty much forgotten for more than a decade until another small car automaker, Honda, adapted their four-cycle car engine to marine use in the 1980's. Like the Bearcat, the Honda four-cycle outboards were initially limited to mid-range horsepower, and, like Bearcat, they had the four-cycle market to themselves for as long as they wanted it. That all changed in the 1990's when pro-environment legislators, having removed the last molecule of unburnt hydro-carbons from the exhaust of the American automobile, turned their regulatory zeal on the recreational marine industry. Outboard engines were not only polluting the air, it seems, they were also fouling America's water (and especially California's water!). California and the Federal Government passed legislation to ban the future sale of engines which did not conform to new, low pollution requirements and in some cases to outlaw the use of non-compliant engines on certain bodies of water. To meet the new and stringent regulations governing emissions, outboard engine makers returned to four-cycle engines.
With low emissions the primary objective, the four-cycle engine was a natural choice. The technology for carefully controlling its combustion to be pollution free was already very well developed by thirty years of work in the automotive industry, and Bearcat, et al., had already demonstrated the workability of the four-cycle engine as an outboard. All major makers of outboards soon had four-cycle engines in their product line (or licensed them from others). (It is interesting to note that the only maker of outboards without its own four-cycle engine, OMC, went into bankruptcy in 2000.)
Now 35 years since it first appeared on the market, the Homelite/Bearcat-55 outboard is making a bit of a comeback. In northern California the engine was always popular for use on houseboats operating on the many large lakes in the area. Ed Ewing, 80-year-old longtime owner of Economy 4 Cycle Marine of Redding, California, has quite an inventory of restored Bearcats. For years Ed ran an outboard dealership and repair shop, but now he limits his business to 4-stroke outboards, and he specializes in renovating old Bearcat-55 engines. For about $1,800 he will sell you a completely rebuilt and refurbished Bearcat with an improved electronic ignition system and back it with a one-year powerhead warranty. He has had as many as 300 in stock at various times. "I like to keep them going," he told me, "they're good engines."
If you are looking for classic power for your Classic Whaler, you might want to get in touch with Ed Ewing of Economy 4 Cycle Marine (530)241-7990. A rebuilt Bearcat sounds like a great match with a 16/17 foot hull, and the price is excellent compared to a new four-cycle outboard of similar power.
Parts for Bearcat engines are also available from www.bearcat55.com.
Most of the material for this article was gathered through on-line investigations as noted by the hyperlinks in the text. In private correspondence Leigh Knudsen contributed many recollections upon which some of the history is based. Scott Stewart was kind enough to lend photo-images from his excellent Homelite collection.
The 55-HP engine was adequate power for the 16-foot Whaler, but a larger Boston Whaler boat was being designed in the late 1960's, the 21-foot Outrage. This hull would need twin 55's to reach its potential. Fisher Pierce begin to look for a larger 4-stroke power head to adapt to marine outboard use. In 1970 they introduced an 85-HP 4-stroke outboard based on an a Coventry Climax English automotive block. Unfortunately, this engine was only in production for 2 years.
I was curious about the 44-cubic inch displacement of the Crosley engine, as it happens to be the same displacement as my similarly "classic" four-cylinder 2-cycle Mercury 500 50-HP outboard which was made in 1976 but dates from much earlier designs. Here is a table comparing the the 2-cycle Merc 500, the four-cycle Crosley COBRA, and the Homelite/Bearcat 55-HP engines:
|ENGINE COMPARISON||Merc 500||Crosley COBRA||Bearcat 55|
|DISPLACEMENT (cu. in.)||43.8||44.2||59.4|
|HP / CUBIC INCH||1.14||0.60||0.93|
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Author: James W. Hebert
This article first appeared March 24, 2001.