Antique Boat Motors: Own An American Tradition

In 2014, more than 87 million U.S. adults participated in recreational boating, using watercraft for activities including waterskiing and travel. However, before the dawn of the 20th Century, the thought of spending time in a boat was unheard of—unless you were a fisherman or made a living in other water-related occupations.

Like many other leisure pursuits, boating for the American middle class arrived after World War II. In the postwar industrial boom, outboard motor production surged. Starting in around 1949, the number of boating enthusiasts in the U.S. roughly doubled in each decade, until the number of boats in use reached 13 million in 1985.

Although it was a French inventor, Gustave Trouvé, who designed the first known outboard motor in 1870, the passion for personal motorized watercraft has been an American tradition for more than a century.

In 1896, the American Motor Company of Long Island, New York built 25 portable boat motors—the world’s first gasoline powered outboards. They were made with a horizontal cylinder, vertical crankshaft and driveshaft, a tiller arm for steering, and a 90-degree gearbox below the water ahead of the propellers. None of these four-cycle, two valve, cam-operated push rod engines are known to exist today, nor do any photographs.

In 1903, Cameron Beach Waterman, an American patent lawyer, invented the first successful, commercially produced, gasoline-powered outboard motor, an air-cooled motorcycle engine that was connected by sprockets to a propeller. Production began in 1906, with 25 outboards being sold that year. In 1907, the motor was reengineered to be water-cooled, and 3,000 Waterman “Porto” outboards were sold. The same number was sold in 1908; that number doubled to 6,000 sold in 1909.

Outboard motors experienced their first high-water mark during the 1920s, with the introduction of Johnson, Evinrude, and other manufacturers. For the first 50 years of its history, many outboard motors were purchased from mail-order catalogs, retail chains, and even gas stations. A majority of outboard motors were two-stroke power heads fitted with a carburetor—a result of the design’s overall simplicity, reliability, low cost, and lighter weight.

As the 1940s drew to a close, the U.S. became the hub for boat manufacturing, and boating usage and profits surged. In 1948, the U.S. Coast Guard reported the number of registered motorboats in the U.S. at 440,000.

Recreational boating remains a popular leisure activity. In 2014, the U.S. recreational boating market had an estimated value of over 35 billion dollars. In 2015, the total value of recreational boats sold in the U.S. reached over 3.7 billion dollars, and nearly 12 million recreational boating vessels were registered.

Recreational boating comprises America’s largest fleet, dwarfing the total number of vessels in merchant shipping, commercial fishing, passenger traffic, the U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Coast Guard combined.

Recreational boating provides an important cultural link to our nation’s maritime heritage. House of Whitley’s antique boat motors are a historic bridge to a bygone era. Skilled artisans designed these motors, taking pride and focusing their efforts on building quality machines. Restored to perfection, these vintage boat motors are conversation pieces and working pieces of the past that boating enthusiasts and collectors will be proud to own.