2011 is the 50th anniversary of the merCruiser sterndrive. More important to those of us with the speed-on-the-water gene, it is also the 50th anniversary of racing with merCruiser sterndrives. So, here is the first part of the chronology, 1961 – 1987, and a pictorial flashback: the evolution of the Mercury Racing and Kiekhaefer sterndrives.
For a thorough exploration of the modern sterndrive creation, I recommend Jeff Rodengen’s book, Iron Fist, Chapter 26, The Great Stern Drive Conspiracy, pp. 360 – 379. It is a fascinating work of investigative journalism containing creation, deception, disloyalty, honor and captivating personalities of the sterndrive’s history. Here, I’ll focus on the history of merCruiser and Kiekhaefer racing drives in this two-part series.
merCruiser Racing: 1960 – 1987
In March 1961 came the first merCruiser – coined from mer (for Mercury) plus Cruiser (for its target market). The idea was to use more powerful automotive-based engines (like an inboard engine) with vectored thrust, trim and steering (like an outboard) to give better performance than a conventional inboard.
This first 225 hp merCruiser sterndrive proved to work well pushing a boat and was more powerful than competitor’s. But it had an odd worm gear and ring gear mechanism to crank the whole drive out of the water – 180 degrees about the crankshaft axis – for corrosion resistance and “prop changes from inside the boat.”
Rapid follow-on design work brought the 110 and 140 hp merCruiser I, introduced in late 1961. It was followed quickly by the 310 hp merCruiser III in 1962. The original drive, renamed merCruiser II, was produced until replaced by a new design in 1970 – without the crank-up mechanism. The II and III were the platforms for racing variants.
By 1962, there was a “Super Speed Master” (SSM) version of the merCruiser II. From inception, factory owned Mercury Racing teams were conquering all comers in offshore power boat racing. That’s where “the enemy” was. Offshore victories told the world merCruiser had arrived. Market supremacy followed quickly.