A collection of vintage outboards and the group of men who breathe life into the past.

Past Time

A collection of outboards and the men who love them breathe life back into our analog roots.

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Lincoln Davis knows many of the secrets in the long history of outboard engines. “Everyone credits Evinrude with the first outboard motor, but they weren’t the first,” says Lincoln, who fixes outboards for a living but whose real passion is collecting antique engines. “This was really the first successful outboard motor,” he says, gesturing toward a small 2-hp Waterman engine from 1907 in the corner of his compact museum.

I’d just stepped into Lincoln’s shop following a six-hour drive through winding mountain roads coated in snow. Located off the beaten path and surrounded by woodland in Waldoboro, Maine, Stetson & Pinkham is a service center that doubles as a repository for Lincoln’s impressive collection of antique outboards. Lincoln has a comprehensive understanding of all things outboard and he pulled me into a long, complex history as soon as I walked through his door.

Lincoln Davis understands that every engine tells a story, and he knows them all by heart. 

Lincoln Davis understands that every engine tells a story, and he knows them all by heart. 

Old outboards are arranged in the rear of the shop: a small museum that is open for anyone who wants to see it, admission-free. His collection is organized chronologically, but Lincoln’s knowledge expands far beyond manufacturing dates. He can speak endlessly about the relationships between competing companies and the individuals who founded them, and also people like Cameron Waterman.

Waterman was a smart guy with an engineering degree from Yale who had access to a lot of ideas, Lincoln tells me. His outboard was actually a converted motorcycle engine. With a vision for a marine engine, Waterman started meeting with a group of engineers who helped guide the project to fruition. After a few faulty prototypes, Waterman produced a water-cooled engine in 1907 and the product took off, with somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 released to the market.

“It’s a pretty good bet that old man Evinrude might have worked for Cameron Waterman in the factory,” Lincoln tells me as we move on to look at the second successful outboard. “It’s a little more than a myth, but it’s one of those stories.” Evinrude’s outboard was quite innovative for being the second on the market, Lincoln says. Waterman’s outboard always took some effort to get running. Having worked on both engines, Lincoln says the first Evinrude motor represented a significant improvement over the Waterman. Shortly after Evinrude entered the market in 1907 there was a large influx of new manufacturers. “By World War I, there was something like 52 outboard manufacturers,” he says. “Everyone and his brother was making them.”

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Lincoln has been interested in outboards since he was a kid running an 8-foot pram on a lake in Maine powered by his first outboard, a Buccaneer. When he was 16, he bought a Mercury Mark 20 for 60 bucks. “I think it’s the best-looking outboard ever made,” he says. “It doesn’t run as well as it looks, though.” After mounting the engine on an 8-foot MiniMax hydroplane, which he subsequently flipped and sank, Lincoln took the engine apart. During the process he became well-acquainted with Irving Pinkham, a nearby Mercury dealer. Lincoln had a knack for the mechanical. He started working for Pinkham when he was 16, and a couple years later the dealer sent him to school. Then he was drafted to Vietnam. After a stint in the army and then finishing college, Lincoln was unable to find a job at one of the large outboard companies; at the same time, Pinkham was thinking of retiring. He sold his Stetson & Pinkham business to Lincoln in 1975, and he’s been running it ever since.

His antique outboard collection is one of the largest on the East Coast. It started when he found a 1927 Johnson K35 buried under a pile of engines in a shop in Maine. “It had actually been pressed into the earth and the lower unit was the only thing sticking up,” Lincoln recalls. “It took me six months to get it running, but it did run.”

After restoring that engine, his collection grew quickly. Some engines were dropped off by friends and others he acquired himself. He always looks for rule-breaking, mechanically mystifying engines for his collection, such as the Flambeau on display. The engine is split vertically, whereas most outboards are split horizontally, so that it could be assembled all at once. The Flambeau doesn’t run well, but that doesn’t really matter to Lincoln. As something of a mechanical anomaly, it has earned a spot in Lincoln’s museum.

Good boy, Fosty.

Good boy, Fosty.

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The outboards in Lincoln’s collection may have poured in from a wide range of sources, but carefully arranged in the museum, they tell a little-known history about industrialization and mechanical progress. A walk around the museum is a walk through decades of change and improvement.

In the 1920s America was in the midst of a technological revolution, and Lincoln displays his outboard motors from the era so that the inner workings are visible. The outboards in the museum begin to look different in the 1930s, when Evinrude started putting cowlings on them. This was an innovation competitors couldn’t ignore, and outboards have been shrouded ever since.

The museum contrasts the reliability of Johnson and Evinrude engines, which were produced from the same location beginning in 1952, with the impressive speed of Mercury outboards, which were always one step ahead in the horsepower race of the mid-50s to the mid-60s, Lincoln says. In 1962, Mercury released the first 100-hp engine, a remarkable jump from the 80-hp engines that preceded it—and it certainly represented an unimaginable step from the days when Waterman sought to transform a motorcycle engine into something that could power a boat.

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This isn’t a history written in textbooks, but it is one that represents America’s industrial roots. And while the outboards in this museum that tell this story look like pristine artifacts, any one of them can be pulled off the wall, fastened to a transom, and sent off for an honest day’s work. That’s a testament to Lincoln’s mechanical care.

It is not Lincoln’s collection alone that has brought me to Stetson & Pinkham. Every Tuesday night over the winter, Lincoln hosts a group of antique outboard aficionados, helping them with their restoration projects. I’m not sure what to expect from this meetup, but it’s not every day you come across such a niche group that is actively keeping history alive.

When members start to trickle in, the first order of business is dinner. Everyone congregates on plastic stools around pizza boxes while they catch up on the past week and banter about those who have yet to arrive. Fosty the dog trots around our ankles, excitedly devouring discarded pieces of crust.

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“I’ve got the cold beverages,” one guy says, placing a cooler on the floor. I expect to see beer inside but the cooler is full of seltzer. One member has opted for milk from a Gatorade bottle instead. This isn’t a typical men’s club; everyone here is serious about antique outboards, and everyone has come to work.

As the pizza disappears, the group starts to open up about their ongoing projects and it’s clear that Lincoln is not the only collector. “For each motor, you have to have at least one boat—that’s the goal,” jokes Joe “The Plumber,”as he is affectionately called by the others. Joe has currently fulfilled half of his goal: He owns 10 boats and 20 outboards.

Others are in similar situations. “I’ve got a couple projects,” says David Kelley, president of the Pine Tree Boating Club. “I try to inspire the people. Stretching the boundaries of what we are willing to work on.” He laughs. Despite the jokes, they fail to hide their excitement for working on the intricacies of their aging outboards.

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The Pine Tree Boat Club is the Maine chapter of the Antique Outboard Motor Club. “If you want to run outboards and have fun, you come up here,” David says. The Maine chapter is unique because it focuses both on restoring motors and running them. During the summer months, the club has a number of wet meets, during which they congregate on different lakes in Maine to run the outboards they restored over the winter. Other chapters of the Antique Outboard Motor Club choose to direct their attention toward restoring and polishing their outboards for display. “They think we’re crazy for running them,” David says. “But that’s where the fun is.”

Once dinner is finished, the men disperse throughout the shop to get started on their engines. There are rows and rows of outboard projects stored in Lincoln’s shop, and other members have brought more of them in their trucks.

I catch up with Palmer Sargent, vice president of the Pine Tree Boating Club, while others get to work. He’s arrived at this cold winter meet without an outboard—his wife won’t let him put one in their new car—but is excited to update the group on his latest project.

He shows me the binder he has put together for the 1961 West Bend 10-hp Commodore he is currently restoring. In the binder is the owner’s manual, purchased online, which is marked up with notes and highlighter to help keep track of the parts he still needs and where they might be found. It is often necessary to contact a number of sources to hunt down all the components. I’ve never seen anything quite like his binder; the antique owner’s manual is a remnant of our analog past.

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For Palmer, however, the binder is just one of many. He puts one together for each of his projects, and there have been quite a few since he got hooked on antique outboards in 1975. He has been a member of Lincoln’s group since its humble beginnings in the early ’80s, when there were only two or three people. At that time, Palmer had about 100 outboards of his own. He has since downsized to a more manageable 15.

He finds the meets invaluable. “I spent the past 10 years on a 1962 West Bend Commodore,” Palmer says. “I took it completely apart and only broke two studs. You usually break 15 or 20 studs,” he notes, attributing this success to working with Lincoln.

Bud Bowley has been part of the group for as long as Palmer, but his interest in outboards dates back to when he started collecting them as a kid. He still has the 1939 Sea King outboard he bought when he was 12 years old—and he still runs it. “I just revised it in the group last year,” he tells me. Unlike those who have chosen to downsize their collections over time, Bud continues to own an impressive fleet of engines. He has over 150 outboards, which he displays in his home. He estimates that somewhere between 75 and 100 are in running condition. In addition to outboards, Bud also owns 23 antique boats, an impressive number, despite falling far short of Joe The Plumber’s ideal ratio.

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Bud has not just shown up to chat tonight. His goal for the meet is to get his 1950s Sea King running in the test tank. Lincoln’s 1950s test tank is a unique element of his shop. Bud wheels his latest project over to the tank, and a few minutes later the entire shop is consumed by a sputtering growl. Murky water churns as the outboard fires successfully. Bud keeps revving it until he’s convinced it’s running solidly, his goal fulfilled. Bud’s achievement on this night is a tangible success, but restorations more typically involve many small, incremental steps with a finish line that could be years away.

Matthew Watkins might as well be looking under a microscope as he works on creating the correct tension to time the opening and closing of points to ignite spark plugs. It is a component that is digitally controlled on modern outboards, and looks incredibly complicated to my eye.

Mark Abb is working on the exterior of his Mark 75. He has printed out a picture of the original, flashy red-and-silver engine. He will need to buff the aluminum with sandpaper to achieve the same finish, and then match the exact paint color of the original. “The exterior of the motor is important—just like the interior,” he says. With so much attention paid to getting the outboards running, it is easy to forget that their visual appeal does not come without considerable effort either. Creating a finished product requires patience and attention to detail as much as it requires mechanical skill.

The members of this group are unique in their passion for restoring antiques, and interest in these old outboards will likely become even more rare as the years slip past, says Lincoln.

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“I look at this industry and realize that there are more and more people my age staying in it because we’re excited by machinery, and the young outboard guys aren’t interested,” Lincoln says. “They’re having a terrible time trying to find people to work in this industry, and it’s going to get a lot worse.” Lincoln blames this on the end of the analog age and the ascendancy of digital technology.

The outboard industry today is in the midst of a technology revolution, with engines growing larger and more sophisticated with each year. Electronic diagnostics are standard and parts are replaced more than they are repaired, with the cost of labor exceeding that of parts.

Lincoln and his group are doing their part to keep history alive, even as interest in antique outboards wanes in the revved-up digital present. But Lincoln tells me it’s not all for naught. Understanding the workings of antique engines and learning to use hand tools—the traditional way—has helped Lincoln better understand new models. There is value in keeping an eye on the past. That much was clear to me on a winter’s evening in Maine.

This article originally appeared in Outboard magazine.

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