Fisher Pierce manufactured and sold outboard engines in the late 1960s, very innovative engines unlike any other outboard available in the market at that time. The Fisher Pierce Bearcat 55 engine was one of the last applications of the lightweight four-cylinder motor. Its history goes back a long way, beginning prior to World War II.
The engine that would become the Bearcat was initially developed by Lloyd M. Taylor of Taylor Engines Inc., California in the early 1940s, a breakthrough engine design known at the "Tin Block" or CoBra engine because of the unique manufacturing method for producing the block, involving steel stampings (the "Tin") which were assembled by copper-hydrogen brazing, hence 'CoBra'.
The block was formed from about 125 steel stampings arranged into an engine block and temporarily held together by press-fit or spot welds. The blocks were then copper-brazed in a special 60-foot long furnace at over 2,000 degrees-Fahrenheit. Hardness and temper were imparted to the steel by controlling the cooling time. The finished engine block weighed only 14 pounds. Its light weight was just one of many refinements that allowed the small-displacement (44 cubic inch) engine to produce impressive performance.
Crosley Motors, Incorporated was a spinoff of Crosley Manufacturing Company, the huge and profitable company of Cincinnati native Powel Crosley, Jr. Its initial success came in the 1920s when a home radio cost more than a Model T Ford. Much like Steve Jobs and Apple Computer would do in the 1970s for the personal computer, Crosley designed and produced an inexpensive radio that everyone could afford and many bought. It was a fabulous success. In the process of bringing radio reception to the masses, Powel Crosley essentially created the radio broadcasting business as well. He also built and operated the first broadcast "Super Station" ... famous WLW in Cincinnati, which transmitted at the unimaginable power of a half-million watts through the overnight hours and could be heard in all 48 states. He became wealthy from all these successful businesses, but he still yearned to fulfill his boyhood ambition and build cars. His company continued in the car business, concentrating on producing inexpensive mini-cars.
The lightweight Taylor engine caught the attention of Paul Klotsch, chief engineer of Crosley Motors, Inc., who was impressed with its capabilities. The patented engine's horsepower, fuel consumption and other parameters were so outstanding that Crosley Motors negotiated an exclusive license to it from Taylor. Before Crosley could use the engine in a car, World War II intervened, stopping all auto production.
In the midst of World War II the Navy needed a lightweight engine for use in driving generators and pumps. Crosley utilized the CoBra engine for this application, and six prototypes were built, developing 35 HP at 5000 RPM when running on aviation-grade gasoline and with a high compression ratio. After exhaustive tests, including 1,200 hours of continuous operation at that level, the CoBra engine was chosen for the contract award. It easily exceeded all specifications. Thousands of the small four-cylinder engine were built for use in lightweight generators that could be air-dropped. The engine also was widely used in marine applications as a pump engine, as a generator-set on PT boats and amphibious assault craft, and in many other applications.
After the war, Crosley used the engine with lower compression ratios and lower horsepower rating (26 HP @ 5300 RPM) as its automobile engine. Running at variable loads and speeds, it was not as successful as in its military career. The copper and steel block suffered from electrolysis corrosion problems in its water jacket when the plastic or zinc inner liner broke down, and it seemed sensitive to overheating if coolant was low. (Anti-freeze solutions in the 1940's contained salts, which aggravated corrosion.) As the extreme light weight was not mandated in automotive use, in 1949 Crosley changed to a cast iron block having the same horsepower and displacement but weighing 12 pounds more. Crosley called this engine the CIBA (Cast Iron Block Assembly).
In the early 1950s Crosley began producing, among its other automotive products, the Hot Shot, a small, lightweight sports car powered by the CIBA engine. To demonstrate its low weight, the company distributed promotional photographs showing Powel Crosley himself dressed in a suit and holding the engine in his hands. (In this respect Crosley was not unlike Dick Fisher in his flare for promotion and publicity.) The Crosley Hotshot sold for $872 and found a niche market in the postwar automotive business. It featured unheard-of innovations like gear-driven overhead-cam engine. A stock Hotshot entered and won the first Sebring Sports Car Endurance Race, although it was a handicap-rated race, the last time so run. Total Crosley automobile sales peaked at 29,000 units in 1948.
With its history linked to marine use, the Crosley engine was well-known to many Navy veterans and boaters and was popular with many home-builders of small inboard runabouts. There were plenty of war-surplus engines or Crosley auto engines available, and they could be easily adapted to inboard marine use. Plans from the 1950s for 14-foot mini-runabouts often suggested using an engine like the Crosley for propulsion. The APBA 48-cubic-inch racing class used the Crosley engine as well, as did a "Crackerbox-44" class.
Crosley ceased production in July of 1952 and sold the rights and tooling for its four-cylinder engine to the Aero-Jet General Corporation, who was primarily interested in it to produce parts and engines for government use.
At some point, three different versions of the engine for marine use were developed ... a V-drive, a VIP (possibly for "vertical inline power"), and an outboard configuration. The V-drive was intended for inboard mounting in small boats with the driveshaft facing forward. The driveshaft met the propeller shaft in a "vee" and was coupled by a pulley system. The VIP drive mounted the engine vertically but as an inboard rather than as an outboard. The driveshaft was coupled to a watertight ball-and-socket-type coupling through the hull that was installed at the bottom of the hull. The lower unit looked like an outboard lower unit and was rotated to steer the boat, and there was also a conventional outboard-motor version. (Thanks to Jack Rose for information on these three models.)
The engine also caught the attention of famed hydroplane racer Lou Fageol. Fageol's family owned the Twin Coach bus company of Kent, Ohio. They picked up the Crosley CIBA motor from Aero-Jet in the mid-1950s and developed a Fageol-44 marine motor based on it. This early 4-stroke engine did not achieve enduring success or wide distribution. Lou Fageol was also a race-car driver and he experimented with creating an automotive 8-cylinder version of the Crosley engine. A number of mirror-image blocks were cast to be used in an opposing, pancake design. (The mirror image was necessary to place the intake and exhaust ports on top of the engine on both sides.) The new 8-cylinder design did not come to fruition. In about 1959 Fageol sold the rights, tooling, and parts for the Crosley engine and the outboard design to Bud Crofton, a Californian then starting his own auto-manufacturing business. (There is more information in the archives of Kent State University.)
Bud Crofton was a longstanding and successful San Diego GMC Truck dealer who became a manufacturer of small utility trucks. He returned the Crosley engine to automobile use with a series of Crofton vehicles including the Crofton Bug, largely inspired by the Crosley Farm-O-Road. He also produced an outboard motor, although not much is known about the Crofton outboard; it appears mainly as a footnote in lists of American antique outboards. Shortly after buying the Crosley engine from Fageol, the U.S. government ordered over $1,000,000 in spare parts from Crofton. This was substantially more than Crofton had paid Fageol for the engine and inventory, and this deal reportedly created some strained relationships.
Some of the mirror-image castings were machined into blocks by the frugal Crofton, leading to some odd engines with intake and exhaust manifolds on the opposite side from the ordinary. Ultimately, the Homelite Company, makers of small engine-powered devices such as chainsaws, became interested in the outboard motors, and bought the Crosley outboard engine from Crofton in about 1961.
In the early 1960s, Homelite developed a derivative of the Crosley engine into a successful 4-stroke outboard engine. They increased the displacement of the cast-iron block to almost 60 cubic inches, enabling the engine to be rated at 55 HP at 5500 RPM. All the outstanding features of the Crosley engine were retained ... the integral cylinder heads which eliminated any potential problems due to head gasket failure, the precise bevel-gear-driven overhead cam which eliminated timing variations from belt sloppiness, the extra-strong five-main-bearing balanced steel crankshaft, and the lightweight aluminum crankcase casting, aluminum valve covers, and aluminum oil pan.
The Homelite 4-stroke outboard was years ahead of its time, but its marketing was limited by the lack of a recreational marine dealer network. By 1966 it had caught the attention of Dick Fisher, perhaps by its use on the transom of his own Boston Whaler, and Homelite agreed to sell their outboard manufacturing to Fisher Pierce.
There were probably many things about the Homelite 55 that attracted Dick Fisher. The outboard was unconventional and in many ways superior to the conventional 2-cycle outboards. Under Fisher Pierce the Homelite engine was re-badged as the Bearcat-55, suggesting the potential of great power in small size.
Fisher Pierce produced the four-cycle outboard for six years, from 1966 until 1972. By this time the engine had received considerable development, and many details of its design and manufacture had been refined. The Bearcat-55 had amazing features for its time, including a voltage-regulated alternator charging system, thermostatically-controlled cooling system, single-lever throttle/gearshift remote controls, warning lights and horns, pressure lubrication, high-performance cams and valves, and many other innovations. The engine produced 55-HP without smoke, ran smoothly and reliably, and weighed only 227 pounds. The only features it lacked in comparison to current outboard engines are power-tilt and trim.
Fisher Pierce literature from the period extolled the virtues of the 4-stroke engine. Little mention is made of environmental impact, but much emphasis is given to economy of operation, no doubt an attempt to offset the engine's higher initial cost.
A Fisher Pierce brochure presented these arguments:
"55 HP. SCORE CARD
Burns Regular Gas
No messy mixing of gas and oil
Fuel Consumption Wide Open: 4.5 - 5 gals per hour
Water Ski: 2 - 3 gals per hour average
Cruise: 1.5 - 4 gals per hour
Idle: 0.8 quart per hour
8 Hours Fishing on 2 gallons Regular Gas
The only large outboard that will troll all day on ONE QUART of gas per hour (or less)
How 4-CYCLE compares with 2-CYCLE
Efficient only at full cruising speed
Requires accurate mixing oil with fuel
Requires small engine for fishing, large engine for skiing and cruising
2-cycle 50-55 HP average
Wide open: 6-8 gals/hr fuel
Cost, complete: $1000-1100
Add small trolling engine:
Total 2-cycle cost to troll, cruise, and water ski:
4-CYCLE 55 HP BEARCAT
One engine for everything, trolling, cruising, water skiing
Wide open: 4 - 5 gals/hr Regular gas, no oil
Price $1310.90 - $1364.75
4-CYCLE COST SAVINGS
Cost to own: $100 less
One four-cycle vs. two 2-cycles
Cost to operate: per hour, wide open:
2-cycle: 7 gals oil/gas mix @ 0.44 = $3.08 / hr
Four-cycle: 5 gals reg gas @ 0.34 = $1.70/ hr
Minimum savings, wide open = $1.40 / hr
And four-cycle savings proportionately more at reduced throttle."
The 55-Bearcat engine initial cost was higher, but in the long run the engine would save money for the wise buyer. Of course, to realize savings from fuel economy, the engine would need to have endurance. It would have to last long enough to pay back its higher cost in saved gasoline.
Fisher showed the comparison at wide-open speeds, where the fuel economy difference was greatest in terms of dollars, but the least in terms of difference in rate of fuel consumption. He hinted that savings are greater at idle speeds, and they are in terms of the rate of consumption but they are the least in terms of dollars-per-hour. It is at idle where outboards spend most of their lives operating..
If the price differential between 2-cycle and four-cycle engines was $400, at trolling/idle speeds the four-cycle engine had a lower fuel consumption of about 0.8 gals/hour. With fue; and oil at $0.45/gallon, you'd be saving about $0.36/hour. To recover the $400 initial cost you would have to troll for about 1,100 hours. As the price of gasoline rose, however, the time to recoup the $400 shrinks. At $2.00/gallon for gas and oil, the $400 would be saved in only 250 hours of trolling, saving money in only the second season of use for average boaters or fishermen.
Another aspect of four-cycle engines that perhaps appealed to Fisher was that oil did not need to be mixed with the fuel. With most outboard boats, a 6 or 12-gallon external tank was the norm, Mixing oil in tanks with large-capacities would be a problem; it would be much neater if the engine could use straight gas. Later 2-cycle engines ameliorated this problem by the development of oil injection, keeping the oil separated from the gas in tankage and only mixing them just prior to induction into the engine.
After six years in the outboard business, Fisher Pierce ceased production of their innovative four-cycle engines in 1972. Ironically, their most important marketing feature, good fuel economy, would have made them much more attractive to buyers the following year when in 1973 an OPEC Cartel simultaneously reduced oil production and raised oil prices, creating a gas shortage coupled with a sudden rise in prices that stunned America. Particularly on the East Coast, Americans waited in long lines to buy gasoline at prices double or triple what they paid the year before. It was often difficult to obtain sufficient gasoline to even drive to work. Recreational power boating was noticeably affected. Sailboat sales boomed, while powerboat sales declined. In that market, the fuel-efficient Bearcat engine may have been a much stronger competitor.
The four-cycle outboard was pretty much forgotten for more than a decade until Honda adapted its four-cycle car engine to marine use in the 1980s. Like the Bearcat, the Honda four-cycle outboards were initially limited to mid-range horsepower and, like Bearcat, they had the four-cycle market to themselves for as long as they wanted it. That all changed in the 1990s when pro-environment legislators, having regulated unburnt hydro-carbons from the exhaust of the American automobile, turned their zeal on the recreational marine industry. Outboard engines were not only polluting the air, it seems, they were also fouling America's water (and especially California's water!). California and the Federal Government passed legislation to ban the future sale of engines which did not conform to new, low pollution requirements, and in some cases to outlaw the use of non-compliant engines on certain bodies of water. To meet the new and stringent regulations governing emissions, outboard engine makers returned to four-cycle engines.
With low emissions the primary objective, the four-cycle engine was a natural choice. The technology for carefully controlling its combustion to be pollution free was already very well developed by thirty years of work in the automotive industry, and Bearcat et al had already demonstrated the workability of the four-cycle engine as an outboard. All major makers of outboards soon had four-cycle engines in their product line or had licensed them from others. (The only maker of outboards without a four-cycle engine, OMC, went into bankruptcy in 2000.)
Now, decades since it first appeared on the market, the Crosley/Homelite/Bearcat-55 outboard is making a bit of a comeback. In northern California the engine was always popular for use on houseboats operating on the many large lakes in the area. Ed Ewing, longtime owner of Economy 4 Cycle Marine of Redding, California, had quite an inventory of restored Bearcats and limited his business to 4-stroke outboards, and in particular the renovation of Bearcat-55 engines. For about $1,800 he'd sell a completely rebuilt and refurbished Bearcat with an improved electronic ignition system, and back it with a one-year powerhead warranty. He had as many as 300 in stock at various times. "I like to keep them going," he'd say. "They're good engines."
Here is a table comparing the 2-cycle Merc 500, the four-cycle Crosley, and the Homelite/Bearcat 55-HP engines:
Merc 500 - Crosley COBRA - Bearcat 55
BORE (in.) 2.5625 - 2.5000 - 2.7500
STROKE (in.) 2.125 - 2.250 - 2.500
CYLINDERS 4 - 4 - 4
DISPLACEMENT (cu. in.) 43.8 - 44.2 - 59.4
HORSEPOWER 50 - 26.5 - 55
HP / CUBIC INCH 1.14 - 0.60 - 0.93
If you are looking for Crosley power for your boat, check with Economy 4 Cycle Marine (530)241-7990. Parts for Bearcat engines are also available from www.bearcat55.com.
Most of the material above was gathered through on-line investigations, with contributions from Leigh Knudsen and Scott Stewart.