An outboard odyssey

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An outboard is an outboard. A group of techies invent it, the marketing people package it, and the dealers sell it. Simple, right?

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Not always.

The engine under the cowling in this 1966 advertisement steered a long and winding course from its creation a quarter-century before to the stern of the wooden boat in the picture. The compact, 4-cylinder power plant started out on a designer’s bench in the early 1940s in California, was “inducted” into the military in World War II, and came out of the conflict in an automobile. It inspired an inboard powerboat racing champion and finally found its way onto the transom of the 16-foot Boston Whaler in the late 1960s.

It’s the Homelite Bearcat 55, an innovative and pioneering 4-stroke outboard sold from 1966 to 1972 by Fisher-Pierce, the builder of the Boston Whaler. It was invented as a lightweight, compact automobile engine in the early 1940s by West Coast designer Lloyd Taylor, and the Navy used a beefed-up 35-hp model for a variety of applications during World War II. After the war, automaker Crosley Motors put a 26-hp version in its unusual mini-car, the Hotshot.

Meanwhile, the American Power Boat Association was using the engine in its 48-cubic-inch racing class. That attracted the attention of racer Lou Fageol who, while recovering from a crash in the late ’50s, envisioned a true racing outboard based on the 44-cubic-inch Crosley engine. The result was the 35-hp Fageol 44.

Homelite, a manufacturer of small-engine power equipment, expanded into the outboard market, using the engine as the basis for a new 60-cubic-inch 4-stroke. In 1966, it sold the Homelite 55 outboard design to Fisher-Pierce. Now called the Bearcat 55, the $1,300 engine (the only major 4-stroke on the market) was successfully paired with the wildly popular and innovative tri-hull Boston Whaler 16. The relationship lasted six years. Ironically, Bearcat 55 production ceased in 1972, one year before the energy crisis of 1973.

Bearcat engines are sought-after by collectors today, and several Web sites offer information and parts.

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue.