And Now You Know: Remember when 22 HP outboard motors were big motors?

Published 1:18 pm Saturday, September 29, 2018

By Mike Louviere

The 11th annual tunnel boat races on the Sabine River in Orange brought in high horsepower motors and fast boats. There was a time when lots of horses and speed on the water was rare.

An advertisement in the Orange Leader in January 1930 was a proud announcement by the Oil City Garage that they were now able to offer the newest Johnson outboard motor, an astounding 22 horsepower. This motor brought the range of Johnson motors offered by Oil City Garage from ½ horsepower to 22 horsepower.

Ole Evinrude started the manufacture of the outboard motor with a hand-cranked motor that was notorious for breaking thumbs.

Later, Johnson Brothers Motor Company improved the cranking by developing the rope pulled model. The first motors used a rope with a knot in one end. The knot was placed in a notch in the flywheel and given a few wraps. The rope was then pulled hard to start the motor.

Johnson’s rope eliminated the broken thumbs from the Evinrude crank, but brought a new danger, “the flying knot”. Passengers in the boat needed to be aware of the knot and make every effort to “stay low” when the rope was pulled. Being hit by the knot was like being stung by a 200-pound bee. It brought a chill to the system that lasted several seconds before the pain caused by the knot set in.

Many of us were thankful when the recoil rope mechanism was invented.

Reading that old ad started me thinking about the outboard motors on the market from the 30s through the 50s. The number of long gone brands was astonishing. There were Wizards sold by Western Auto, Sea King sold by Montgomery Ward, Sea Bee sold at Goodyear Tire Stores, Brooklure could be ordered through the Spiegel catalog, Water Witch was sold by Sears Roebuck, Fedway stores offered the Saber line. Even cookware companies, like West Bend and Martin Pressure Cookers, got in on the act with their Eska brand.

There were also brands offered by the sporting goods stores. In Orange, there were Ramsey’s, Hodges, and Livingston’ sporting goods stores that sold the Buccaneer, Emmons, Neptune, Viking, Hiawatha, and Saber.

Boat races now.
Photo by Orange Leader

The brands that stood the test of time were Johnson, Evinrude, and Mercury. Many of the brands like Buccaneer and Sea King were made by the major companies and sold as the “less pricey” models.

For years, 25 horsepower was the top line, then came a 35 horse model and then an astonishing 50 horsepower in the late 1950s.

Since those years, the amount of horsepower that can be clamped on the transom of a boat has escalated to over 200 horsepower. Some motors are even made of metals that will stand up to the corrosion caused by salt water.

The “Go To” source for information on old outboard motors, Primer on Old Outboards, states “The outboard motor business was like the computer business of the 80s. Everybody and their brother was selling outboards.”

The boat races in Orange have changed along with the motors and boats. In the 1950s, boat races in Orange were usually held on the river in the area of present-day Riverfront Park. The boats looked like a slice of a flying saucer. The hulls were made from plywood, thin and as light as possible.

For a time, the hottest racing motor was the Mercury Hornet model in a 10 horsepower, often modified to give more speed.

The boats racing sounded like a swarm of hornets. The best place to watch the races was the long-gone railroad trestle that ran along the west bank of the river behind the rice mill.

“And now you know”