Reprint from TRAILER BOATS MAGAZINE, June 1991
The following article reprinted by permission of Trailer Boats Magazine
BY LAWRENCE CARPENTER
The rise and demise of a promising outboard
Chris-Craft 10-hp model K Commander
Of the dozens of firms that have built outboard motors during the last 90 years, there is one that holds a very special distinction. Though several outboard manufacturers sought to enter the business of building or marketing boats, only one was successful.
The company was an industry leader that had been long respected for its upper-bracket inboards and cruisers. And its motors were not re-labeled private brands, but were brand new from top to bottom. The firm was Chris-Craft.
Before World War II, Jay Smith, son of the company's famous founder, Christopher Smith, was giving much thought to outboards, because hard times were proving that small boats could be a large segment of the market. The war delayed any serious effort, but by the late 1940s, Chris-Craft's first outboard motor took shape at a new plant in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
In 1949, the 5½-hp model J Challenger debuted. Though it didn't have a full gear-shift (a feature first presented the same year by Johnson and Scott Atwater), this alternate-firing twin was a modern, well-designed motor of exceptional quality. Its slow, steady trolling ability quickly endeared it to fishermen, and a healthy punch for its size provided thrills for any captain with a light hull. The following year, a big brother, in the form of the 10-hp model K Commander (factory photo shown) promised to further Chris-Craft's quest to become a formidable contender in the outboard industry. The Commander was super-quick, considering its 10-hp rating. Someone in control may have thought that Mercury's practice of understating its engines' power potential and speed was a great way to build a reputation. This engine had a well conceived powerhead, a full complement of ball and roller bearings, and a displacement of slightly less than 20 cubic inches. It was a definite threat to Mercury's potent Hurricane.
It wasn't long before Chris-Craft was looking forward to a promising Class "B" racing campaign. Actually, two different high-speed lower units and exhaust-housing assemblies were built in prototype quantities (possibly 10 each) and a great deal of experimentation was done. Remember that, at this time, Mercury literally dominated the racing scene.
Over the years, I have heard many different versions of the story concerning the demise of the Chris-Craft outboard line. All these tales center around friction between Chris-Craft and Mercury. One version claims that Chris-Craft hired several engineers away from Mercury, and they - innocently or otherwise - incorporated "borrowed designs" into their new employer's product. Mercury successfully sued over patent infringement, and won a settlement of somewhere between $2 and $5 million in the days when this was real money. Another story maintains that the whole thing was an elaborate setup to "get" a promising competitor. Still another story states that design similarities were basically imagined, and only involved the most elementary of functions. There was only one common-sense way to accomplish the obvious, and Mercury was simply crying foul out of fear.
For whatever reason, some Mercury designs did find there way into the Commander model - notably, but not restricted to, the lower unit. 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. It seemed a shame, because Chris-Craft surely didn't need to pirate anyone else's ideas to build a good outboard. The last model year was 1953.
About 70 miles south of Grand Rapids, the Oliver Corporation of Battle Creek, Michigan, had for generations been a major manufacturer of farm and industrial machinery with a sales network around the world. In the fall of 1954, it was announced that Oliver was in the outboard business. In 1955, it marketed redesigned and updated versions of the models "J" and "K". Although the powerplants remained basically the same, as did the dark blue color and model names, the new outboards bore little resemblance to their predecessors. Along with a heavier, more rugged look, new features included full-shift lower units, twist-grip throttles and remote fuel tanks. Horsepower for the "Super" Commander was raised to 15. The Challenger remained at 5½ hp.
I am fortunate to have what may be a pre-production model of the Commander in excellent, original condition. A few details separate it from the 1955 motors. A serial number of OXK-123 is stamped directly into the boss cast into the lower starboard side of the engine block, where the old Chris-Craft identification plate would have been attached. It doesn't fit the 1955 identification. The original owner stated that the engine was acquired legally in the fall of 1954, but not through a regular retail outlet.
If Oliver's first offerings were said to be somewhat of a rush job, the 1956 editions, now colored in deep-sea green and gull white, smoothed out many of the rough edges. Gone were the model names. New cosmetics were essential at a time when new yearly models of almost everything were expected to look different from the old. A softer suspension further dampened vibration. Electric starting was available on the 15.
In late 1951 or early 1952, George Martin, creator of Martin Outboard Motors, left this association under stormy circumstances and assumed the top engineering post with Scott Atwater. Martin Motors, a division of National Pressure Cooker Company, stopped royalty payments to Martin, who held the patents on the poppet-valve induction system used on these outboards. In 1953, Martin canceled the licensing agreement. This, on top of problems the firm was already having with its controversial and temperamental 200 Silver Streak model, resulted in the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, plant closing its doors. As Martin scanned the horizon for a new outboard in which to incorporate his design, the projected "big motor" from Oliver came into view.
In 1957, the 35-hp Oliver Olympus sported the latest example of poppet-valve technology. (Other two-cycle outboards had long utilized reed valves to meter fuel mix into the crankcase.) To complement its new flagship engine, the 5½- and 15 hp Olivers were upgraded to 6 and 16hp, respectively.
In 1958, these models continued with additional refinements. New styling included a choice of colors. By the following year, a national recession was firmly in place, and Oliver was feeling the pinch. However, the industry leaders of OMC (Johnson and Evinrude), Mercury and even Scott McCulloch forged ahead with even larger outboards. Oliver reacted with a matched pair of Olympus engines featuring counter-rotating props for a total of 70 hp. Though it was a nice performing rig, the tactic proved to be a futile effort - hardly competitive and certainly not profitable. Later in 1959, the corporate winds of change blew again.
Oliver struck a deal with Perkins Ltd. of Peterborough, England, a noted maker of diesel engines, to manufacture restyled Oliver outboards in a new plant at its facility and export them back to the U.S., as well as to compete for British and European sales. It seemed an awkward venture, but it might have worked had quality control not begun to slip.
By 1961, the Oliver name and interest had disappeared, and "Perkins" outboards faced an uncertain future. Some managed to find their way back to the U.S. in very limited numbers. Again in different dress, the largest model was rated at 40 hp. The 16-hp engine was now 18. I'm not sure how the smaller outboard fared. I happen to have a couple of the 40-hp editions. One is in nearly unused, pristine condition. The other, while still a low-hours motor, is contained in several boxes. Apparently, quality control was still a problem, as the sensitive poppet-valve induction assembly on this engine crashed and burned not long after delivery. Both engines were originally purchased at a plumbing-supply house in New Hampshire. Perkins, as an outboard marque, was very short lived.
Enter the associate British automobile firms of Hillman, Humber and Sunbeam-Talbot under the leadership of the Rootes conglomerate. The "Rootes" outboard was neither appreciated nor understood by the car dealerships graced with its presence. Failure again.
Finally, in the mid-1960's, there was a ray of hope as the old English firm of British Anzani Engineering Co. Ltd. purchased the whole operation. Dating from shortly after the turn of the century, the company was an established builder of a wide array of engines powering everything from bicycles to airplanes. And, from about 1935, it had also produced outboard motors. A few readers may recall a tiny, weird-looking, single-cylinder model called the "Minor" that was exported into the U.S. during the 1950s.
Maybe now, these well-traveled American outboards would receive the attention they deserved. The first thing that was done was replacement of the poppet valves with conventional reeds. Apparently, this and other modifications, or possibly the manner in which they were done, fell short of the mark. In a year or tow, the outboards were gone again, this time for good. In fact, a few years later, British Anzani faded from existence.
Well, it's been a ride, hasn't it? Certainly, many television mini-series have been based on far less.