Observations from outboard shop owners

Dave Krantz emptied his notebook after interviewing Bill Huggins and son Richard of Huggins Outboard, founded in 1941 and among the oldest dealers still operating in the U.S. under the same family ownership.

An old motor ... twice resurrected

"For many years, we didn't stock boats. We didn't have to because nobody else in our area did either. If a customer wanted a boat, they would come in and my father would get out a catalog and we would order it for the customer.

"Throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s, most fishermen did not own a boat, however most fishing lakes had a landing or boat dock that rented boats.

"Fishermen would carry their outboard motors in the trunk of their car (few people drove pick-ups except farmers during those years) and would rent a boat at the landing.

"Usually the boat rental was a dollar or two per day and you had to carry your own paddle. It was a good idea to carry a bailing can too because the wooden boats and the aluminum boats that replaced then in the 60s all shared a common trait — they all leaked.

"Right after World War II, many of the large retailers (Sears, Montgomery Ward, Western Auto, Firestone Tires) started selling outboard engines.

"While it expanded the market for people buying engines, it hurt the small outboard dealer's sales of engines. It did however create repair business for us because these retailers seldom had repair facilities or capable outboard mechanics.

"Water skiing became a big market in the early 50s when the OMC (Outboard Marine Co.) came out with the 25 horsepower Johnson and Evinrude engines. This enabled the customer to put one of these engines on a small runabout they could trailer to the lake for a day of boating and water skiing.

"Up until then, you had to use a small "Chris Craft" inboard boats to ski behind. The Chris Craft type boats were heavy and expensive, plus they really weren't trailerable, thus ownership was limited to people who had homes and docks on the lake.

"In the late 40s and 50s, there were probably 20 or more small engine manufacturers all aimed at the fishing market. Some made very good engines, some were not so good.

"One engine that was popular in many areas was Martin, which had a distinctive look because of its black cowling. Unfortunately, while they ran good, they had a tendency sooner or later to either throw a rod or catch on fire.

"By the mid- to late-60s, most of these engine manufacturers had faded away leaving the market primarily to Mercury and Johnson/Evinrude (OMC).

"Mercury was a popular engine with water skiers and owners of runabouts because they were faster than comparable horsepower Evinrude or Johnson engines. The fishing motor market was dominated by Evinrude and Johnson because Mercury had a reputation as a powerful engine but hard to start and temperamental. It took until the mid 70s aided by the proliferation of bass boats with Mercury engines on them to dispel this belief.

"When the water skiing boom slowed in the late 60s, tournament bass fishing began to grow in popularity, and the sale of bass boats replaced the boom in ski boats.

"I saw my first display of bass boats at the New Orleans boat show back in early 70s. They were made by Terry Bass boat company with stick steering, swivel seats and front trolling motor and I knew instinctively this was what fishermen had been looking for and would buy.

"I ordered several boats with the intention of selling my father on the idea when I got back to Albany. I took a couple of days to get home and they must have loaded the boats on a truck at the boat show and taken them straight to Albany because those boats got to our shop before I got home.

"I had some real explaining to do to my Dad, fortunately, we sold every one of them within a few weeks and re-ordered more several times.

"In the 80s, pontoon boats came along and by the late 80s jet skis and pontoon boats were a larger market than ski boats.

"Boats come completely rigged from the factory now and this has reduced the profitability from the dealers standpoint. Prior to that, a boat dealer was able to make a small profit on each of the components (motor, trolling motor, trailer, depth finders, bilge pumps, temp gauges. Etc.) that made up a fishing rig and were able to show a bigger overall profit.

"When you squeeze a dealers profit margin, you have weaker dealers go under and fewer people willing to invest in a boat dealership. Consequently you find areas of the country that you may have to travel several hundred miles to the nearest boat dealer.

"Fishing and water sports to a lesser extent is more of a "year round" sport today than it was 30-40 years ago. For many years, fishing season started in spring and ended in early September. It was not uncommon for outboard mechanics who worked at outboard shops up north to have a second job at an outboard shop in Florida during the winter months.

"Fortunately, our locale is far enough south that our fishing has always been a year-round sport. While we slow down in winter months, we still are able to keep our repair shop busy.

"One of the reasons we have been able to survive is that we have owned our land and buildings for many years and resisted the urge to move to a newer, more modern buildings in more expensive areas.

"We also do not borrow money from banks to floor plan boats and as result do not face the pressure of unsold boats creating debt for us.

"We are also extremely fortunate to have dedicated and capable employees, most of whom have been with us many years. Our three lead mechanics have been with us 41, 29 and 20 years, respectively.

"Many of our customers have asked, "Why don't you crank this restored engine up?

"The answer is two-fold. First on an engine of this type, you need only four things for it to run; Gas, spark, compression and an operable water pump and it has those and it will run.

"However if we put gas in it, it will weep out of the carburetor and stain the front of engine. This was common trait on engines made in that era.

"Secondly, we would have to pack the lower unit with grease because it cranks in gear and the propeller turns when it's running.

"Engines back then were designed so that grease is forced slowly out past the propeller and both the lower unit and propeller would become stained also."

An old motor ... twice resurrected