Back before there were Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki, there were three individual outboard motor companies that ruled the roost. From before World War II and after, these companies had the majority of the market share of all outboard sales, often sharing almost equal portions of it. Those companies were Mercury, Johnson and Evinrude.
Mercury outboards was technically started in the mid-‘30s under the name of Thor and built by Thorwald Company. Then in 1939 a man by the name of Carl Kiekhaefer took over the company, for reasons other than outboard motor manufacture. Although Thorwald Company’s main business was outboard motor production, the Kiekhaefers bought the company to change it into a magnetic separators manufacturer.
Problem was Thorwald left 500 Thor motors behind in the sale, motors that had been returned from Montgomery Ward due to faulty design and workmanship. Kiekhaefer, the consummate tinkerer and self-educated engineer, took the motors, improved their design, and regained the purchase order from Montgomery Ward. Later in 1939, Kiekhaefer Corporation debuted a new line of Thor motors at the Milwaukie sport show.
Soon after Kiekhaefer obtained a new motor requirement from Ward. He designed the motor, called the Sea King, sent them the prototype and they ordered 20,000 units. By the start of 1940 Kiekhaefer Corporation was in the outboard motor business.
That year would bring the change that would last to this day. In January, 1940 Kiekhaefer showed up at the New York National Motorboat Show with two new motors in tow – named after the Greek god of speed, the new single- and two-cylinder motors sported the name Mercury.
The ad from 1946 at the top of this article still shows the company as Kiefaefer Corporation with their two Mercury outboards, the 6-hp Rocket and the 3.2-hp Comet. It’s a far cry from where we are today, with 200-plus horses hanging off the back end of our boats. More importantly, though, none of this would have happened had the Kiekhaefer family not bought the floundering Thorwald Company.