Ode to an outboard

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The nostalgia evoked by old outboards can be almost palpable.

The passions aroused by the British Seagull, however, aren't always rose-colored. To some, the engines are considered "one of the most endearing of all British nautical institutions." Its manufacturer called it, modestly, "The Best Outboard Motor for the World."

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Others offer a different opinion, manifested by bitter cursing and the actual hurling of the offending outboard when it wouldn't start into harbors from Great Britain to Block Island. And if the engine did start, it was "smoky, loud and rough."

Never mind the naysayers, the company said. As the owners handbook assured, the British Seagull, given "clean fuel and a good spark ... would start in a few pulls."

One thing is certain. Today, more than 20 years after its demise, the British Seagull is still going strong. Check the Internet. You'll find slide shows and You Tube videos with such titles as "First start since 1979" and "Here's my restored 40 Plus." An engine "left under a bush at the bottom of a garden for 23 years" started "without even changing the plug." And there are Web sites that advertise

Seagull races and stock and sell parts.

Quite a legacy for humble beginnings. The first true British Seagull (following the 1931 Marston Seagull, manufactured by Sunbeam Motors) was a 3.5-hp model known as the "102." Introduced in 1938, it set a standard for simplicity and reliability. More than 10,000 beefed-up 102s with 13-inch propellers were built for the British Navy in World War II.

Postwar Seagulls retained the large, slow props "geared to the water like a tugboat," the company proclaimed. The "40 Plus" was typical, with its 3-to-1 gearbox and 9-inch, 4-bladed prop. "At full bore," wrote one contemporary, "it became a veritable workhorse." It cost $140 in 1960 and sells for more than $350 today.

British Seagull production peaked in the '60s, with 200 workers assembling the engines in Poole, England, and making virtually all parts on-site. The influx of competitors' small, light outboards and a slumping market cut into sales, and the company was in receivership by the 1990s. Production ceased in 1996.

This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue.