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Father-son team treasures outboards

Pair from Fairfield, Conn., work together rebuilding forgotten engines into working machines

Art Sesselberg heard his son’s voice over the hustle and bustle of the outboard engine swap meet. It was an excited voice, with a message that demanded immediate attention: “Hey, Dad, over here.”

Harry Sesselberg won his first engine award at age six.

The 10-year-old was standing in front of a box of oily, smelly old engine parts set up on a table. Lying on top of the pile were a few scattered remnants from a 1951 Lauson twin-cylinder 6-hp outboard — parts the elder Sesselberg had been trying to get his hands on for a decade.

“I ran over, and there they were,” says the 46-year-old from Fairfield, Conn. “Just what we’d been searching for.”

Sesselberg and his son, Harry, 10, a student at Osborn Hill School in Fairfield, make quite a team. When it comes to hunting down old outboards and their often hard-to-find parts — and then getting the vintage machines together again — there are few better.

The elder Sesselberg, president of the Yankee Chapter of the Antique Outboard Motor Club is a collector and fixer-upper who started at age 9. Harry got into it even earlier.

The engine that launched Art Sesselberg's passion was a 1958 Elgin 2-hp, handed down from Grandpa.

“I was into everything mechanical as a kid: cars, lawn mowers, tractors … everything,” says Sesselberg, who also takes an interest in small autos and motorbikes. “Machines were like puzzles to me.”

His first outboard was a 1958 Elgin 2-hp, handed down from Grandpa. “My grandmother gave it to me [as payment] for putting up her storm windows,” he recalls. With the help of a local garage mechanic, Sesselberg got the machine running, and word of his mechanical talents soon got out. To this day, people see something at the dump or by the side of the road and it will just turn up at Sesselberg’s house. “It’s a cheap way to keep me entertained: find something broken and give it to me,” says Sesselberg.

Harry got his first outboard when he was 3, a 10-hp 1959 Mercury Mark A, a birthday gift from a local outboard dealer. At age 6, he’d won his first award with the same engine.

Other motors followed, including a 1963 Johnson JW (3 hp) and a low-profile Scott-Atwater 7.5 hp complete with “Bail-A-Matic” (a birthday present at age 6). “The Scott-Atwater is an interesting engine, I’ll give it that,” he says. “They say it’s hard to work on — that’s only the tip of the iceberg.”

Rare machines include a 1946 Firestone 3.5 hp, which he took apart and reassembled, and a 1968 “Ted Williams” 7.5 hp outboard, made by McCulloch. “Some people think I’m kind of crazy, collecting outboards,” says Harry. “But I like boating a lot. I like working on the engines, and they’re fun to tinker with — those are my reasons why.”

The two enthusiasts often work together in their home shop, sometimes on the same engine, often on independent projects. And it’s more than just a mechanical exercise; you can learn from the old engines.

Shows such as August's Antique Marine Engine Expo in Mystic, Conn., are like treasure troves for the Sesselbergs.

“There was no planned obsolescence back then, that would have been the furthest thing from their minds,” the elder Sesselberg says. “My favorites, the Johnsons, they built them like tanks and, if they’re taken care of, they really can last forever.”

It’s also a simple, relatively inexpensive hobby. And now, thanks to the Internet, it’s easier than ever to get background on old engines, find parts and connect with other enthusiasts. “Years ago, if you found a weird old motor, it took forever to gather any information on it,” Sesselberg says. “Now, it’s simple. An hour a night and, in a week or two, you can pretty much take it from a pile of junk to something that works. It’s a great rush to take something that’s been chucked, or bought at a yard sale for a few dollars, and get it running again.”

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This article originally appeared in the Connecticut & New York Home Waters section of the July 2009 issue.