Mercury's 25th Anniversary saw major expansion

Historical anniversaries are generally commemorated with festivities. But in the case of Mercury Marine’s 25th Anniversary, the event began with a fight on many fronts.

In 1964, as Mercury celebrated 25 years in marine propulsion, it was mired in a fierce competitive battle with Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC). Mercury had recently lost two of its top executives — including one to OMC — and company president Carl Kiekhaefer felt it was time to send a message of strength.

Through often contentious negotiations he convinced his bosses at Brunswick Corporation, which was experiencing a downturn in its bowling and other businesses, to authorize a major expansion, including construction of a 180,000-square-foot distribution center and an assembly building twice that size on the company’s Fond du Lac campus.

But it didn’t end there. The initial $4.5 million investment, part of a $10 million expansion program, still required zoning and annexation variances, which were delayed by opposition within the local government.

What followed was a major lobbying effort by local businesses and residents alike to move the proposed project forward. As a major employer and purchaser in the area, the company affected many lives, and an annexation agreement was eventually reached. The headline of the April 24, 1964, Commonwealth Reporter read: “Kiekhaefer will build plant.”

The groundbreaking was held in typical Kiekhaefer style. He personally took the controls of a $65,000 earthmover purchased for the occasion, and then led a parade of trailered boats featuring MerCruiser sterndrives and Mercury outboards.

The “mile-long” assembly facility has since gained a status of its own and serves as a landmark for travelers passing by on U.S. Highway 41.

More than 1.5 million square feet of space were constructed over the next four years, adding production, engineering, sales and warehouse space in Fond du Lac, Cedarburg, and Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Fifty years later, as Mercury Marine commemorates its diamond anniversary, the company is again in the midst of a multi-million dollar expansion program.

Mercury Hits the Pavement

In November of 2013, Mercury Racing debuted its QC4v concept automotive crate engine at the 50th annual Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show in Las Vegas, claiming the Global Media Award over thousands of other entries.

The 1,650hp turbocharged street motor was designed and developed in-house using the same quad-cam, four- valve engine platform that revolutionized the recreational performance boating industry in 2010. The SEMA Global Media award program recognizes companies that manufacture specialty equipment products and accessories that have mass appeal to enthusiasts throughout the world. The products are voted on by a prestigious group of international automotive journalists who serve as judges.

This isn’t the first time Mercury Marine has hit the road. The company revolutionized and dominated NASCAR in the mid-1950s with an 80 percent winning record, and in the ‘90s produced the GM LT5 engine for the ZR-1 Corvette.

Jim Wynne (Mercury years: 1953 - 1958)

To many in the marine industry, Jim Wynne is known as the M.I.T.-educated engineer who made millions from the patent of the original sterndrive engine. Ironically, he developed the sterndrive, first produced by Volvo Penta, while he and the original creator, Charlie Strang, were leading research and development at Kiekhaefer Mercury.

With demand for outboards increasing in the 1950s, Carl Kiekhaefer was not impressed by Wynne’s and Strang’s enthusiasm for the sterndrive. Wynne pursued an opportunity with Volvo Penta after he made a secret agreement with Strang. After the sterndrive’s successful introduction into the market, Kiekhaefer pursued the technology and eventually introduced the MerCruiser sterndrive in 1961 under Strang’s direction.

Strang and Wynne kept their agreement a secret until Kiekhaefer’s death.