Real Performance

Lead Line — January 2001
By Richard Thiel

Real Performance
Even sophisticated engines stop running.
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I’ll always remember the day my high school physics teacher explained to me that the engine in my 1964 Pontiac GTO was just a mechanism for processing solar energy that had been stored underground for a few millennia, then extracted in a gooey guise and refined into what went into my car’s 389-cubic-inch, triple-carburetor V-8, where it was converted to smog and tire smoke. My idea of performance has never been the same since.

Despite this early demystification, performance remained an important concern of mine, and its importance grew when I became interested in powerboats. In my previous life as a sailor, the subject had been defined externally: Despite the nuances of hull design, it was wind that made one boat faster than another. When there was none, all were equal. With powerboats performance is defined by what’s in the engine compartment.

Just as performance defines powerboats, engines define performance, which explains why powerboaters are so passionate about their engines. Walk down any dock, and you’ll hear at least two owners bragging, complaining, or commiserating about engines. Indeed, powerboaters are about as loyal—if not more so—to an engine brand as they are to a boat brand. (A boatbuilder once complained to me that when the boat performed well, the credit went to the engines; when it didn’t, it was always blamed on the boat.) Maybe that’s why you have told us time and again that you love reading about the latest engine technologies, which is why we devote a large part of each January issue to the topic.

As you'll see in this issue, there are lots of exciting engine developments this year. It’s enough to make a diehard gearhead want to repower his boat or at least dream about the next one powered by the latest iron. That’;s part of the fun of powerboating, but there have to be some practical aspects. When it comes to engines, one major aspect is service. It’s sad but true that even the most sophisticated engines eventually stop running when they shouldn’t, and when that happens, what separates the good from the bad and the ugly is how quickly the sick are healed. That’s why choosing engines without considering service is like fishing for mako in waders.

Two things are worth considering. First, when the wheels stop turning, it’s not the engine manufacturer but the local service guy who ultimately determines how long your boat will be tied to the dock. We learned this last summer when we had a problem with the engines in our Fairline company boat and had to turn to New England Detroit Diesel. When you find yourself in the hands of a really good service facility like this, you realize that what makes them so good is not just what they do, but how they do it. New England responded promptly to our request for help, stayed in contact with us all through the repair process, and even followed up after the work was complete to make sure we were satisfied.

The other consideration is the principal constraint under which any service center operates: parts availability. Here’s where the engine manufacturer is important. Parts availability is the joint responsibility of the service outlet and the manufacturer. If the part’s not there, it doesn’t make any difference how good or fast the mechanics are. In our situation, the wait for the part accounted for most of our down time. Once it arrived, it was mere hours before we were on our way.

When it comes to engines, we all tend to focus on performance, and understandably so. But when your engine doesn’t run, the only kind of performance that really matters is how quickly the local service guy and the engine manufacturer can get it going again.


This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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