by Chuck McLaren
Engines and the spirit of competition were the very core of Carl Kiekhaefer's life. That's why anything that moved on land, water or in the air-sooner or later-had a Kiekhaefer powerplant in it. And if it raced, it usually won.
Kiekhaefer was born in Wisconsin in 1906, and raised on a farm where he gained strong mechanical skills and a tenacious work ethic.
At the age of 19, Carl left his family's farm to embark on a career as inventor, engineer and industrialist. Success came early. While still in his early twenties, he was a chief engineer and owned the first of the 200-plus patents and 100 industry "firsts" he would generate in his long career. They included the replaceable paper air filter and "wide based" wheels for racing.
In 1939, at 33, Carl raised $25,000 to purchase a failed outboard motor manufacturing plant. Although the primary function of his business was building farm equipment, his decision to repair and sell outboards from the previous operation proved popular.
In 1940, he launched Mercury Marine-today the world's largest manufacturer of outboards and stern drives. By 1941, the superior design of the motors he built had generated dealer orders for more than 45,000 Mercury outboards.
The U.S. entry into World War II put the young company's success on hold, but by making substantial engineering and product contributions to the war effort, the Kiekhaefer Corporation earned the Army-Navy "E" Award with four stars. After "VJ" Day, Kiekhaefer was back in the outboard business.
High performance and racing were key elements in Kiekhaefer's product development. He was one of the first to recognize the concept of "sports marketing," and its ability to generate exciting exposure for his products through his racing teams. Over a half century, literally hundreds of thousands of race victories were garnered under the banners of Mercury, MerCruiser and Kiekhaefer Aeromarine. In some extreme cases, the dominance of Kiekhaefer racing teams prompted other manufacturers to drop out of the competition!
In the 1950s, Kiekhaefer's Chrysler stock cars dominated NASCAR events. His Chrysler 300s, sponsored by "Mercury Outboards," won two consecutive NASCAR Winston Cup (then Grand National) championships and one USAC national title.
Evidence of Kiekhaefer's marketing savvy is found in the fact that he was the first team owner to employ uniformed pit crews, and to use covered vans for racevehicle transportation.
From his stock car engineering experience, Carl would later develop the stern-drive engine now known as MerCruiser. And as any offshore racing fan knows, the KAM/MerCruiser powerplant is the most successful stern drive every produced.
In fact, racing success followed the Kiekhaefer name through all seasons and on all terrains. For example, Kiekhaefer powered snowmobiles achieved two straight open class U.S. championships in 1971 and 1972.
Carl achieved fame from his many engineering and competitive successes, but he kept a low profile in other areas, and many of his personal and philanthropic contributions to society were conducted with little fanfare. However, those who knew him would say that Carl made just as important a contribution, and was just as successful in those aspects of his life as he was in competition.
Perhaps the most fitting and significant tribute Carl Kiekhaefer ever received came from his most formidable competition the Outboard Marine Corporation. In 1976, he received the 20th Annual Ole Evinrude Award for an " ... immeasurable contribution to boating."
Kiekhaefer died on October 5, 1983, at 77 years of age.