Power Trip

From outboards to sterndrives to inboards, marine propulsion has undergone a sea change in 40 years
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Responding to the continued popularity of big outboards, Mercury introduced the 400-hp Verado this year.

Responding to the continued popularity of big outboards, Mercury introduced the 400-hp Verado this year.

At the 2015 Miami International Boat Show, Mercury Marine’s racing division pulled the sheet off the Verado 400R, changing the course of marine propulsion.

Builders began to adapt their offerings simply because the 400R was available. Formula hadn’t built an outboard-powered boat since 1987, but in 2016, the company introduced the 430 ASC, powered by quad 400Rs. Nor-Tech Hi-Performance Boats designed a 44-foot center console for those engines.

Bob Latham

Bob Latham

At the 2019 Miami show, Cigarette Racing Team displayed a 59-foot boat with six Verado 400Rs on the back, and Scout Boats had six of Mercury’s new 400-hp Verados clamped to the transom of its new 53-footer. The 400R is a Mercury Racing product, while the 400-hp Verado consumer version, introduced at this year’s Miami show, has more bells and whistles.

The introduction of Mercury’s 400R is just one example of how advances in marine propulsion have led to exciting new boat developments of all kinds.

Here’s a look at some of the propulsion milestones that have changed the course of the boating industry in the past 40 years.

1980 to 1989

The groundwork for propulsion advancements in the 1980s was laid in the ’70s, including in 1977, when Yanmar introduced a direct-injection diesel with a freshwater cooling system. That was the 200-hp 6HA marine propulsion engine.

In 1980, Bob Latham developed something just as important: the first hydraulic steering system for performance boats. He created it by adapting the hydraulic rams used on farm tractors after he had a problem aboard an offshore raceboat that spun out. Latham proved the worth of his system by winning the world championship in his class and, later, by turning Fort Lauderdale-based Latham Marine into a premier manufacturer of marine hardware, including hydraulic steering.

In 1983, AB Volvo Penta introduced the Duoprop, the first twin-prop sterndrive. The idea for counter-rotating propellers on a sterndrive came from an unusual source: torpedoes, which had to counter propeller torque and run straight to hit their targets.

Evinrude ‘s E-TEC G2 outboards set a course for 2-strokes much like Bob Latham (right) did for hydraulic steering for boats.

Evinrude ‘s E-TEC G2 outboards set a course for 2-strokes much like Bob Latham (right) did for hydraulic steering for boats.

At the 1983 Chicago Boat Show, Yamaha made history, introducing its first consumer outboards, a lineup of a dozen 2-strokes ranging from 40 to 220 hp. The company had been making engines for the commercial market for years, but refined them and added features before taking on the consumer side.

A year later, Evinrude unveiled the industry’s first V-8 outboard that produced 300 hp. Considering that 40 years later, the biggest production engine is making only 125 hp more, Evinrude’s leap in technology was advanced for the time.

Although other engine makers may have built one or two models of 4-stroke outboards before 1985, most experts credit Honda Marine with being the first to bring 4-stroke outboards to consumers that year with the industry’s first full line of engines.

On the sterndrive side, 1988 was a big year. MerCruiser introduced the Bravo One, a replacement for its TRS. The Bravo One didn’t need a separate transmission and could counter-rotate, while being able to handle up to 500 hp. It also shifted more smoothly and was more reliable than the TRS.

In that same year, Kiekhaefer Aeromarine introduced the Stern Drive by Kiekhaefer, a drive designed for offshore performance boats. It would go on to become the Mercury Number Six drive after Mercury acquired the company. Mercury Racing has a version still in use today.

1990 to 1999

In 1991, Outboard Marine Corp. made its first powerheads using the lost-foam casting process. The technology advanced manufacturing for all outboards.

The same year, Volvo Penta developed the KAD concept for its diesel engines. It combined a mechanical supercharger and turbocharger to produce more power and torque in a lighter package. It also let the engines run at higher rpm. The first engines were called the KAD42 (with the “D” for Duoprop) and the KAMD42. Six years later, the concept was worked into Volvo Penta’s full range of diesels from 170 to 260 hp. On the gasoline side, in 1994, Volvo Penta introduced electronic fuel injection to its range of gasoline engines.

For offshore go-fast enthusiasts, 1996 was a milestone year. Mercury Racing introduced the HP 500, a carbureted big block that made 500 hp at the crankshaft and 470 hp at the prop. It would later become the HP 500 EFI, which made the full 500 hp at the prop. These engines were important to the offshore performance community because they became the power for the Factory classes. Factory 1 was for single-engine boats, and Factory 2 was for twin-engine designs. For the first time in the history of the sport, almost every performance boat manufacturer had factory-backed teams. And because the engines were designed for both racing and recreational use, the manufacturers could truly promote race-on-Saturday, play-on-Sunday lifestyles.

Yamaha’s F225 was an early low-profile, 4-stroke, which made it compatible for flats and other lightweight boats.

Yamaha’s F225 was an early low-profile, 4-stroke, which made it compatible for flats and other lightweight boats.

In 1996, Mercury brought the first direct fuel-injected, low-emissions 2-stroke outboards to market — and the following year proved them in the world’s most challenging endurance race, the 24 Hours of Rouen. Two boats powered by 200-hp low-emissions DFI outboards finished fourth and fifth overall, ahead of every boat powered by a competing engine company, according to Mercury. The DFI engines also burned half as much fuel as the Mercury S3000 outboards that claimed the top three positions in the race. Two years later, the OptiMax 200XS outboard powered a boat to third overall.

In 1996, Glendinning, the company best known for power cord retracting systems, led the way for smoother boat operation, introducing electronic shifting for marine engines. Fly-by-wire shifting eliminated the grind and clunk of all those captains who thought they were “easing” their transmissions into gear.

And while the introduction of Yamaha’s 4-stroke F100A in 1998 was a big deal because of the number of boats it could be packaged on, it was the F225A that showed Yamaha could make a powerful 4-stroke that was not huge. The F225A’s combustion chamber design helped create higher power output from a smaller displacement. An engine layout called the “in-bank exhaust system” put the exhaust system inside the V-bank of the cylinders to save space.

2000 to 2010

The first decade of the new millennium brought the entry of a new company. Ilmor Engineering built its first marine engines with motors that were run in the American Power Boat Association’s Super Cat class. The U.K. company opened a facility in Plymouth, Mic

Honda introduced the world’s first 225-hp 4-stroke in 2001. Later that year, the Coast Guard put hundreds of the engines into service.

In 2003, laying the foundation for what would eventually be the only 2-stroke outboards on the market, Evinrude introduced its first generation of E-TEC low emissions 2-strokes.

The BF20 was part of Honda’s original 4-stroke outboard line; the Mercury 350 Verado was the first in a supercharged series.

The BF20 was part of Honda’s original 4-stroke outboard line; the Mercury 350 Verado was the first in a supercharged series.

At the 2004 Miami boat show, Mercury made the most noise by making the least noise, with the introduction of its 6-cylinder supercharged 4-stroke outboard, the Verado. A local TV correspondent started his segment by explaining in normal tones that he was speaking while the engines were running. In the early years, customers chewed up starters because they kept trying to start the engines when they were already running; Mercury developed an auto-stop system for the ignition.

In 2005, Volvo Penta first showed the IPS pod drive system, and it was a year later when the Swedish company added a joystick maneuvering system to the pods, revolutionizing yacht maneuvering forever. Operators who were afraid to dock a boat with traditional inboards and controls now had the confidence of a kid playing a video game. Today, there are joystick operating systems for every type of power.

In fall 2010, Yamaha introduced its V-6/4.2-liter series. The manufacturer saved weight with features such as sleeveless cylinders made with plasma-fusion technology, which allowed Yamaha to build 4-stroke outboards with comparable weights to 2-strokes. At the time, Yamaha outboards became the favored power of offshore saltwater anglers. It was common to see marinas in the Southeast full of boats powered by triple Yamahas.

Last but not least, and signifying bigger things to come, Seven Marine was founded in 2010.

2011 to the Present

The display that got the most attention at the 2011 Miami boat show belonged to Seven Marine and its 557-hp V-8 outboard. Rick Davis, a former engineer at Mercury Marine, started Seven Marine, which made the biggest outboard in the marine industry with a powerhead based on a General Motors LS V-8.

In 2013, Mercury Racing expanded its QC4v’s capabilities with a 1,650-hp sterndrive. A pair of the engines and Mercury Racing’s M8 drives would power a 43-foot Outerlimits to a world speed record of 180.464 mph.

That same year, at its new facility in Charlotte, N.C., Ilmor Marine built the MV8-570, the most powerful small-block V-8. The company has since partnered with MasterCraft, and the engines are used to power wake-sport boats.

Volvo Penta’s IPS pod drives ushered in a new era of maneuverability.

Volvo Penta’s IPS pod drives ushered in a new era of maneuverability.

Also in 2013, the industry got its first look at Volvo Penta’s Glass Cockpit System. The integrated control and monitoring system provides driver information on a single Garmin display, with fingertip access to warnings, alarms, engine data, navigation, dynamic positioning and more.

Staking its claim as the only manufacturer of 2-stroke outboards in 2016, Evinrude introduced the E-TEC G2 series of motors with 150- and 200-hp versions. Today, the line extends to 300 hp.

In 2017, Suzuki unveiled its largest outboard to date with the DF350A, a 4-stroke with “contra-rotating” propellers. And the high-horsepower trend is continuing: Seven Marine now has a 627-hp engine, Yamaha unveiled the 425-hp XTO in 2018, and Mercury has a 400-hp model.

Imagine what the next 40 years will bring. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.

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