Yankee Chapter: Making Waves With Old Outboards

Those Fabulous Private Label and Catalog Outboards!

What is a private brand outboard motor? These were outboards sold by mail-order catalogs and retail stores not related to actual outboard manufacturers. Many of these motors were made by major outboard companies and some by small concerns. Here is an overview of their rich history!

The Yankee Chapter Goes Crazy for Private Brand Outboards!

Made from the teens to the 1980s, members of the Yankee Chapter of the Antique Outboard Motor Club love to run their antique and classic private brand and catalog motors!

These outboards were celebrated at the Yankee Chapter's 2010 Formal meet in Shelton CT. However, all year AOMCI members dusted off their Motorgos, Sea Kings, Waterwichs, Firestones, Elgins, Sea Flyers, and many other private brand outboards, and displayed and ran them at our events.

Private Brands Were Everywhere!

Today only a handful of names come to mind when most people are asked about outboard brands made in the USA: Johnson, Evinrude and Mercury. For the past 30 years this small group of marques has commanded the lion's share of attention and sales, both with modern consumers and with enthusiasts in the Antique Outboard Motor Club.

However this was not always the case – for the first 50 years of the outboard motor, many boaters purchased their outboards from mail-order catalog houses, small retail chains, sporting goods stores and even gas stations. Known as private label or catalog motors, many were simply modified versions of the top-selling name brands. In the 1920s names like Sears' Motorgo, Montgomery Ward's Hiawatha were as well known to boaters as Evinrude, Elto and Johnson.

By the end of the Great Depression, catalog and private brand motors accounted for a significant percentage of the outboards sold – some sources estimate as much as 50%! And by the 1950s it seemed that every retailer in the USA had their own private brand outboard line.

It should be no surprise that private brands were successful for so long. A 1952 Time Magazine article provided some illuminating information. That year Sears operated 691 stores and was 6th in dollar sales for all US companies boasting more than $2.7 billion in annual sales.*1 To put this in perspective, the 1952 Evinrude dealer directory lists 650 dealers and OMC's annual report for the same year indicates total gross sales for all divisions; Evinrude, Johnson, Gale & others at $42 million - just about 2% of Sears' total!

In 1952 Sears also had 11 regional fulfillment centers to support the 7,200,000 catalogs they sent out each season.*2 These catalogs or “Wishbooks” as rural folks called them, brought Sears' wares right into people's homes all over North America. In terms of catalogs printed and handed out, this certainly must have bested the combined total produced by OMC, Mercury, Scott and every other outboard manufacturer for that year!

The result was that many people, (including this writer - and doubtless a few of you reading this article), got their first taste of boating with an Elgin (Sears), Sea King (Montgomery Ward), Wizard (Western Auto), Firestone or some other private brand outboard. With literally thousands of retailers and tens of thousands sold, these are among America's greatest Antique and Classic outboards!

The Early Years

Some of the early private label outboards were made by major players in the business. The Caille Company and Lockwood-Ash were two early manufacturers that enjoyed a lot of success selling motors to both Sears and Montgomery Ward. Jim Webb's 1977 article on Mail Order House Motors in the OUTBOARDER (Magazine for the members of the Antique Outboard Motor Club) also indicated that Evinrude supplied overstocks to Sears in the mid 1920s.

Circa 1914 Michigan by Caille
1920s Motorgo by Lockwood
Late 20's Motorgo by Caille
Images above courtesy of Jack Craib's excellent Caille website

Starting in the mid 1920s through the early 1930s Caille built Sears Motorgos were popular, though they tended to be Caille's models from the previous year that were re-badged. Today surviving Motorgos are the pride & joy of many outboard collectors! Muncie Gear Works also supplied Sears and Wards with motors in the 20s and 30s. In 1930 Evinrude formed a partnership with Montgomery Ward that would continue for many years, though Wards would periodically add a model or two from other manufacturers. And it is important to note that several well-known outboard brands would get their start making catalog motors in the 1930s.....

Small Steps Can Lead To Great Things

Young engineer and entrepreneur Carl Kiekhaefer took over the defunct Ceaderburg Manufacturing Company to make magnetic separators. Leftover from the previous company occupying the building were several dozen Thor/Sea King outboard motors, returns from an order placed by catalog giant Montgomery Ward. To raise much needed capital, Mr. Kiekhaefer decided that rather than scrap the outboards he would try to make them operational and fulfill the Ward's order. This plan worked and Mr. Kiekhaefer soon found Ward's placing reorders for the motors – he was in the outboard business! Today's Mercury outboard motors are the result of this modest start. Kiekhaefer also picked up the Western Auto business for private brand Wizard motors. This arrangement kept cash coming in for many years - it was not until the late 1940s that outboards wearing his own Mercury nameplate eclipsed the Wizards in quantity produced.

1947 Wizard WD-4 (Un restored)
1950 Wizard Ad
1956 Wizard Super 5 at the Shelton Meet in 2008

Great Scott!

The Scott-Atwater metal stamping concern in Minneapolis was best known for turning out novelty and premium items like Cracker Jack prizes. In the mid 1930's they were talked into pulling together a line of small outboards that could be sold through the Firestone Tire & Auto stores. Known as Champion Outboards, they were simple, reliable and sold well.

1946 Firestone 3.5hp by Scott Atwater
1949 Firestone 4, 5 and 7.5hp all made by Scott
Dean P's 1954 Corsair 10hp - another Scott private label brand
After WWII Scott-Atwater and Champion separated, but Scott continued to produce private brand Firestone motors. By the late 1940's S-A was making a tremendous number of private brand outboards, so many in fact that at one point their marketing folks claimed S-A to be “the largest producer of outboards in the world!” (Not sure how OMC received that information…) They did make a tremendous variety of private label brands; Firestone, Corsair (S-A's own off-brand) and Hiawatha (Gamble Skogmo). After McCulloch purchased Scott Atwater in 1956, they continued to expand the private brand business making motors for Sears under the Elgin , Ted Williams and Gamefisher names. They also made a few private label brands for Wizard (Western Auto) and others.

The New Champion

After splitting with Scott Atwater, the Champion people built up a fine line of outboard motors. With the knowledge they learned working with Scott Atwater and Firestone in the 1930s and early 40s, they swiftly moved into the private brand business. Majestic and Voyager were two private label brands that Champion offered to hardware stores and sporting equipment retailers. And Champion provided BF Goodrich tire stores with their Sea Flyer motors from 1952-54.

Today, Champions outboards are well regarded by collectors and the private label versions are fairly uncommon.

1954 B.F. Goodrich Sea Flyer G-3-LL-GS 5 1/2hp

Making Lemonade from Lemons

Sears had a long history of selling outboards through their catalog and stores. As noted above, they purchased Lockwood Ash motors and Caille outboards to be badged as their Motorgo. In the 1930s their outboard brand became the Waterwich, these were supplied by Neptune, a few leftover Johnsons but the majority from the old Kissel Automobile Company in Hartford Wisconsin.

Kissel was forced into making outboards after their luxury automobile business dried up in the Depression. These outboards were, for the most part, simple no-frills affairs offered for about 30% less than similar offerings from a major brand. Reasonably well-built, the Waterwich motors proved to Sears that selling outboard motors could be a profitable business. Sporting unusual styling said to be from the pen of renowned designer Raymond Lowey, the Waterwich motors were very successful - we know this because a lot of Kissel-made Waterwich outboards still show up today. A Waterwich single (with reliability issues) was featured prominently in Robert McCloskey's 1952 Caldecott Honor book for children; ONE MORNING IN MAINE!

Tom C's beautifully restored 1941 Sears Waterwich 1HP model 571.35
Early fifties Elgin catalog shot - showing off for the gal's!
Jim M's restored 1.25 hp model 301, 1947 2.5 hp model 401, and 1947 5.5 hp model 601

After WWII Kissel was purchased by the West Bend Aluminum Company and took on the name of their new parent. Sears and West Bend worked together to develop their outboard product line, one that fit the Sears consumer's budget, lifestyle and Sears' guidelines for quality. Certainly no mass-retailer ever had a closer relationship with an outboard supplier than Sears & West Bend. This relationship was highly successful and profitable for 12 years. Their agreement remained exclusive through 1959, so much so that West Bend did not market motors in the USA under their own name until 1955. But it was the apple green Elgin motors from 1946 to 1955 that are best known today.

1956 Elgin 5 1/2 at the Yankee Chapter Fall Frolic in Lowell MA
1958 Elgin Brochure - the last full line of West Bend-made Elgins

In 1959 Sears started a relationship with Scott-Atwater, by then known as Scott McCulloch – this would last through the late 1960s. In 1964 the Elgin name was dropped in the USA and replaced with that of spokesperson Ted Williams or with the Sears or Gamefisher names.

West Bend soldiered on getting the Firestone private brand business and also making outboards under the Wizard (Western Auto) name. In the mid 1960s West Bend supplied motors to Sears' competition Montgomery Wards. In 1965 West Bend ended up selling out to Chrysler who became a major player in the world of outboards. In the 1980s, after Chrysler sold their outboard business to US Marine/Force, Sears once again offered private brand Gamefisher motors - many of which had been Elgins 20 years before, things had come full circle! However, to this day, most outboard people always think of the Kissel-made Waterwich and West Bend-made Elgin motors when the topic of Sears and outboards comes up.

Gale Force

Evinrude and Montgomery Wards started an association in the early 1930s that would continue for many years. At first, leftover Evinrudes would be re-badged as Sea King outboards – and with the country in the throws of the Great Depression there were a lot of leftovers! Soon small changes in the gas tank and trim started to really set them apart from the Evinrude line. Evinrude also worked with Eaton's Department Stores in Canada using the same formula for their Viking motors.

Jim M's (now Doug P's) early twin Sea King by Evinrude
Jim also owns this nice 1935 Sea King/Evinrude single
Norm D's outstanding restored Atlas Royal 12hp
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s the department store business became very important to OMC. After WWII Evinrude/OMC split off their private brand business into the separate Gale Products division. For the most part Gale motors had unique powerheads from their Johnson & Evinrude brothers. Some engineering features such as the gear case and legs were shared – usually a year or two after the flagship lines. Gale had their own Buccaneer brand sold by Gale dealers and Spiegel's. They also made the following private brands: Sea King, Atlas Royal (Atlas Supply – sold at Esso and others), AMC Saber, Hiawatha (Gambles Skogomo) and Sea Bee (Goodyear Tire Stores).

Doug P's Beautiful Buccaneer 5hp at the Whittingham VT Meet in 2009

Even The Little Guys Had A Piece of The Pie!

The Oliver Outboard Company, in business for just 5 years in the late 1950s, produced a few private brand 5 1/2hp and 15hp Wizard outboards for Western Auto Stores. These motors are fairly uncommon today since they were only sold in 1957 and 1958.

1958 Wizard 5 1/2 by Oliver
1960 Firestone J-8 5hp by Clinton
Muncie Neptune built motors for Sears, National and many others

The Clinton Machine Company of Michigan & Iowa made a fine line of small engines for general use in lawn mowers and machinery of all kinds. Starting in 1954 they offered a 2.5hp and 4hp 2-stroke air-cooled outboard under their own name and a private brand called Chief. These little motors were sold at yard equipment dealers and elsewhere, they were small, light and remarkably reliable. In the 1960s the large outboard companies started to get out of the private brand field, Clinton stepped in and began making outboards for Sears, Montgomery Wards, JC Penny, Western Auto, Herter's and just about anyone else who was interested! While they didn't offer the advanced engineering found on the big-name motors, they saved a lot of folks from rowing!

The Muncie Gear Works, makers of the Neptune outboard, was in the private brand business as long as anyone; supplying motors to Sears, Wards and a number of other outfits. Eventually in 1951, they decided to discontinue selling through a dealer network entirely and became only a mail-order business. Their Mighty Mite was a staple offering in the back ads of many magazines for decades.

All Good Things Come To an End

Mercury was the first to pull the plug on the private brand business, 1957 would be the final year of their association with Western Auto. The need for added capital from the sale of Wizards had to be balanced with grumbling from Mercury's own dealer network that they were being undersold - eventually Carl listened to the dealers. OMC also faced the same battle and finally relented in 1963 when they folded their Gale brand and associated badge motors. (Though by 1963 pretty much only Sea King and Viking remained.)

McCulloch, West Bend/Chrysler, Clinton and Eska absorbed a lot of the private label business. Unfortunately, the McCulloch organization just seemed to loose interest in their outboard line. Real estate deals, moving London Bridge to Arizona and oil speculation took priority for Bob McCulloch. After almost a decade if languishing, McCulloch finally closed their outboard plant in 1969.

Chrysler (later Force), Clinton, Eska and some offshore companies produced the final private brand outboards in the 1980s and 90s. But in the years just before the 21st century, a changing economy for retailers and regulatory restrictions for manufacturers spelled the end of private brand outboard motors.

Today, as far as we are aware, there are no new private brand outboard motors for sale in the USA. But as the marine industry struggles with the current economy, who knows if in the future we may see Wal Mart, Costco or Target brand outboards made by Mercury or Evinrude/BRP!

For more information on private brand and catalog outboards be sure to check out the following links:

Elgin Outboards.org

Jack Craib's Caille Site (Badge Motors Section)

Wizard Outboards

Viking (Canadian)

Hope to see you out on the water making waves with an old private brand outboard!

Thanks to the following Yankee Chapter members for supplying the photos and material above: Jack C, Michelle, M, Tom C, Jim M, Ron M, Norm D, Matt M, Norm W,

* 1 “The General's General Store” Time Magazine , February 25 th , 1952 , p.21
* 2 “The General's General Store” Time Magazine , February 25 th , 1952 , p.23


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Yankee Chapter: Making Waves With Old Outboards



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