FOND DU LAC, Wis. — Chainsaws, motorized bicycles, lawnmowers, snowmobiles and Corvette engines. What do these machines have in common? Carl Kiekhaefer’s Mercury Marine manufactured them.
I learned this at the Fond du Lac company’s new Mercury Marine Museum, which opened about two months ago. It was the final stop of a three-day visit to Mercury last week for a new-product introduction. Mercury debuted three 4-stroke outboards — a 75, 90 and 115 — and a 250-hp 4.5-liter gasoline sterndrive engine.
Mercury’s forays into non-marine products also included motorized bikes (Carl Kiekhaefer used one to get around during the workday.) Mercury began in January 1939 when Kiekhaefer bought the bankrupt Cedarburg Manufacturing Co., manufacturer of Thor Outboards.
The museum fills a single 5,000-square-foot room in a building Mercury shares with a children’s museum, Mercury museum coordinator Scott Patterson told me.
“The museum has been talked about for a while and opening it on [Mercury’s] 75th anniversary made sense,” Patterson said.
The layout of the museum makes sense, too. The perimeter of the room holds the history of Mercury engines, beginning in the 1930s and 1940s. Displays for each decade — ’30s/’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and 2000s — ring the periphery.
The first engines you see as you begin the timeline tour are a few of the K series outboards (the fleet included K1, K2, K3, K4 and K5 engines) that were introduced at the 1940 New York Boat Show, and the last is Mercury’s brand-new 115-hp 4-stroke outboard — with the signatures of the employees covering the cowling. In all, I counted roughly 30 outboards on display.
I learned that in the 1960s Mercury adopted its signature Phantom Black exterior.
“By the 1950s the engines were getting pretty big — and Mercury realized this,” Patterson said. “So to make them slimmer in appearance they began painting them black.”
The museum reveals that Mercury engines are intertwined with historical events. The 1943 5-hp Mercury KB7A was the motor that powered Mercury-Disston chain saws, which the Army Corps of Engineers used. One of the chain saw displays says: “By the end of World War II, Kiekhaefer was the largest manufacturer of chainsaws in the world.”
These machines helped keep Mercury busy during the lean years of World War II. Mercury also made an 80-hp 4-cycle engine that was used for drone target aircraft.
The museum holds some interesting and unusual engines, artifacts and machines, such as an outboard painted in the green and yellow of the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers; the 405-hp engine of the 1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1; a bright red Twistercraft raceboat powered with a single Mercury outboard; and the 1975 Mercury Sno-Twister 440 snowmobile.
Mercury also dedicates displays to its “Secret Testing Facility” Lake X in Florida and the MerCruiser sterndrive, which the company introduced at the Chicago Boat Show in 1962.