A New Breed of Horse

As outboards evolve with each passing year, so too has the know-how of mechanics that service these increasingly powerful behemoths.

Years ago, I knew a couple of brothers who ran an outboard repair shop in the little Adirondack town I grew up in. Locally known as “the Pine brothers,” each one of them sported a portly physique, wire-rim glasses, suspenders, a cheery face and a bald head. And both were bachelors, not least of all, perhaps, because both were head-over-heels in love with gasoline-fired, two-stroke internal combustion engines. If you had a seemingly unsolvable problem with an outboard—or a lawnmower, go-kart, chainsaw or whatever—these guys could fix it. They were talented and perpetually busy. Two-stroke gas engines back then were all pretty much the same, despite size and application. Almost everything had a carburetor, as well as a host of other components that were, in many cases, virtually interchangeable. If a good mechanic could fix one, he could fix ‘em all.

Paul Cusson, president of Atlantic Outboard in Westbrook, Connecticut, is a little younger than me, but he can easily recall the days when the carburetor was king. In fact, when he got into the outboard repair biz back in 1984—he was just 16 years old—most two-stroke outboards not only had carbs, but they also had spark plugs, plug wires, points, condensers and coils. His first job entailed rigging engines at a local dealership. Then, as his reputation for being a superior outboard mechanic grew, he turned his talents into a business in much the same way the Pine brothers, I suppose, did when they were young. Cusson’s Atlantic Outboards opened its doors as a service shop specializing in Johnson-Evinrude products in 1988.

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Sadly, the Pine brothers folded about the same time. This happened in large part, I’d say, because the pair did not appreciate or accept that the outboard motor—and the gas engine that energized it—was undergoing a radical spurt of evolution, mostly due to government-
generated emissions regulations. I have no doubt that if the brothers were still turning wrenches today, they’d be absolutely flabbergasted at our modern, high-horsepower, four-stroke, electronically controlled fuel-injected behemoths. And I’m also fairly certain (although not totally sure) that they’d be heartbroken, too.

Cusson, however, was a different sort of guy—he stayed the course, working through all the technological transitions the outboard business required during the ‘90s and early 2000s, and today he owns and operates one of the largest boat dealerships in New England, specializing in outboard motors and their repair. And because Cusson remains an outboard mechanic at heart—and a very successful one at that—he seems like just about the perfect guy to explain how the outboard mechanic’s job has evolved over the past three decades and how the engines themselves continue to evolve:

Q: When did being an outboard mechanic really start to change?

A: When I first got started, back in the early ‘80s, we were essentially dealing with simple two-stroke gasoline engines. That’s what outboards were. In a sense, you just had to make sure you had fuel going to them and they were gonna run. They remained very simple even as they got bigger, and more cylinders were added. They all had virtually the same carburetors, ignition components, everything. Then, in 1998, the change came—the government said outboard emissions had to be cleaned up. Evinrude-Johnson, for example, put the Ficht motor into limited production in 1997, then it went on the open market the next year—the first outboard that had laptop-computer capability. Mercury marketed the Optimax at about the same time and Yamaha did the same with the HPDI. And then, that same year, Honda came out with a large-displacement, four-stroke motor. All these engines were comparatively clean and electronically fuel-injected but they all had their struggles. It was sort of like the auto industry. The first couple of years weren’t the best. With Ficht, it was not so much the technology as it was the execution. OMC’s equipment—the machines they used to make the engines—wasn’t in great shape. You remember they went bankrupt in 2000 and BRP bought ‘em—it turned out their machines were just worn beyond spec. Maybe they’d build a good motor one day and a bad one the next. It just depended on which machines they were using.

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Q: How did you feel about these new developments?

A: The new technology brought the industry onto the course it’s on today. The fuel economy was so much better on these new motors. The reliability wasn’t great, at least at first, but you gotta remember: we were comparing these things to two-stroke carbureted engines, which at the time had a reputation for being pretty unreliable. So yeah, the new stuff ran better, burned less fuel and made little or no smoke. However, as far as actually working on one of these new motors, it was a little daunting at first. All these sensors, hoses, fuel injectors and computers. There was certainly a learning curve.

Q: Did the manufacturers provide schooling?

A: Yeah, they did. But I’ve always thought you learn more from a solid, hands-on background at a dealership. The schools give you a basic overview, but troubleshooting and repairing stuff in the field is how you really learn. The computer part took the most training, I guess. A computer can’t fix an engine for you—it can lead you in the right direction or the wrong direction. You need to learn how to interpret the information the computer gives you. A good example is a motor that won’t start. The old motors had a wiring harness that was about the thickness of a ballpoint pen. A newer motor these days will have a harness that is maybe two, two-and-a-half inches thick, with hundreds of different colored wires inside. You plug your laptop in and maybe it will give you the answer right away, but probably not. I remember when I first looked at one of these new harnesses, I thought we’d never be able to figure all this stuff out. But we did. I guess as the motors have advanced, our way of thinking has advanced too. Eventually, we picked up on important things, like check the sensor inputs first. Stuff like that.

Q: How many sensors were there on a Ficht motor?

A: Let’s see, you had sensors for air temperature, barometric pressure, cylinder head temperature, timing of electronics, crankshaft position (to tell the computer where the flywheel was), throttle position. And then there are different types of sensors—they’re not just switches anymore. We probably use an ohm meter every day with these new motors—to check the sensors and harnesses. But back in the carburetor days, we rarely used an ohm meter at all. Heck, back then, if you had a spark you were more or less good to go. But today, yeah, you may have a spark but there are so many different things controlling it that a whole new set of questions come up.

Muscle power and old-school tools like T-wrenches are still typically required to deal with mechanical-type outboard parts after the computer-fired diagnostics are complete.

Muscle power and old-school tools like T-wrenches are still typically required to deal with mechanical-type outboard parts after the computer-fired diagnostics are complete.

Q: Any advantages to the modern outboard you haven’t mentioned?

A: Emissions are reduced, fuel economy is improved, reliability and customer satisfaction are increased—everything just goes smoother. But don’t forget the replacement cycle. Years ago, lots of guys would replace their motors as soon as they dropped out of warranty. Ten years was very old for an outboard motor. But today? I was just talkin’ with somebody the other day about this—at the present time, we’ve got tons of the old Fichts, Optis and HPDIs out there still running fine, some pushin’ 20 years old by now. Back in the ‘90s, most people wouldn’t even consider operating a boat with a motor from the ‘70s. But things are different today. Sure, your outboard is more expensive to buy, generally speaking, but it’s a much better product. When you consider the light weight, the ease of servicing compared to an inboard or stern drive and the low cost of ownership as far as fuel and maintenance, it’s gotta be the best way to power your boat.

Q: Why the increased reliability? Is manufacturing better?

A: Yes, it’s more precise, I think, again to meet stricter and stricter emissions standards. The manufacturers had to tighten up the motors, tighten the specs. You can’t put a sloppy motor on the market anymore and make your emissions numbers.

Q: How have the day-to-day problems an outboard mechanic has to deal with changed over the past 30 years?

A: Back in the ‘80s and even ‘90s, one of the most common problems we faced was engine failure due to poor fuel quality, especially in the spring after customers had stabilized their gas and let it sit in the tank all winter. Today, motors are much more tolerant of poor fuel quality because of the way they atomize the fuel in these high-pressure injection and direct fuel-injection systems. Another difference is that today the new motors have knock sensors so you can adjust the timing if a motor is detonating, a common problem in the old days. And then, there’s the whole ethanol issue—when ethanol fuel first came out, we began seeing a whole new set of problems we’d never had before.

Q: What sort of problems?

A: Trying to make a carbureted motor run correctly on ethanol is difficult. But the fuel-injected motors, as I just said, are more tolerant of ethanol. Obviously, there are filters that need to be changed more regularly in terms of routine maintenance, but the advent of ethanol really put an exclamation point on the difference between fuel-injected and carbureted motors.

Q: How so?

A: Well, first, when the carbureted motor was designed, ethanol gas wasn’t even in existence. And then, let’s say you think you’re burning 10-percent ethanol—the only trouble is you might have 10 percent, but you might also have 8 percent or 12 percent. You don’t know. So, you’ve got a situation where the composition of your fuel is changing more or less all the time, but your motor doesn’t have the capability to adjust. A fuel-injected motor, on the other hand, controls timing and many other factors and makes adjustments to changes in the makeup of the fuel. Right now, they still build some small dinghy motors that are carbureted to run today’s ethanol fuel, but there are always ongoing issues with them. Clogged carburetors, mostly. By comparison, a fuel-injected system has better filters and enough pressure to easily pass minor debris through the engine.

Are the days of having a workshop where you could tweak your motors long gone? This mechanic thinks so.

Are the days of having a workshop where you could tweak your motors long gone? This mechanic thinks so.

Q: Does an outboard mechanic need more or different tools to do the job these days?

A: Fuel pressure gauges are critical—we use them constantly. Years ago, we’d check fuel vacuum and we still do—if you had good vacuum and fuel supply you were happy. Today, however, with these high-tech, fuel-injected motors, you can have a good fuel supply, but it doesn’t mean you’re getting the right fuel pressure to the injectors. And if you don’t have the right pressure, the injectors won’t function properly, and the motor will run poorly or not at all. Then, of course, filters can get clogged in the Vapor Separator Tank or VST, which is basically a small reservoir where the fuel comes in from the fuel tank and a high-
pressure pump inside sends the fuel to your fuel injection system. Just about every motor these days has at least two fuel pumps—a low-pressure pump that draws fuel from the fuel tank and keeps the VST full and a high-pressure pump that sends fuel to the high-pressure injection system. This is why fuel pressure—and the fuel pressure gauge—is so important. The pumps in the VST can be damaged by water in ethanol fuel or other contaminants. The filters and strainers can get clogged. You may have pressure, but do you have the right pressure?

Q: When I was a kid, when there was something wrong with your outboard, you could maybe troubleshoot and fix it.

Q:What about now?

A: It’s not really possible anymore, at least for the average guy. Usually, he’s not going to have the right tools and can’t get access to them. And on top of that, there are just too many wires, hoses and sensors to deal with. And placement of everything is critical—if you don’t put a new component on in a precisely correct way, engine failure is likely. Here at the shop we see consumers that don’t Loctite new parts or torque stuff back correctly and it always leads to problems.

Q: Does the outboard mechanic still use conventional tools, like socket sets, box-end wrenches, that sort of thing?

A: Yeah, but probably not initially. When we begin troubleshooting, we mostly use a laptop, a multimeter and a fuel-pressure gauge. Then out comes the socket set and other conventional tools to access what we need to access. A good example is the VST on most motors—you need to pull the intake manifold off to get at the fuel system, and even if you’re fortunate enough to have the best conventional tools on hand, the job can get pretty complicated.

Q: So obviously, the outboard mechanic’s job—and the outboard itself—is a lot different than it used to be. What does the future look like?

A: Well, you look at all these outboard-powered boats now and obviously they’re producing more and more horsepower. But you’re also seeing more and more integration—the outboard is increasingly a part of the boat itself. Look at the new, direct fuel injected four-stroke Yamaha 425—it has electronic steering. Steer-by-wire! We’ve had shift- and throttle-by-wire for years now, but steer-by-wire? It’s new, and we’ll see lots more of this sort of thing in the future. And then, in terms of how big the outboards are going to get? All I can say, Bill, is look at the builders—they’re making bigger and bigger boats. That means bigger and more complex motors. We’re not dealing with a fad here. So, even though there have been lots of changes, I have to say the future’s basically pretty bright for both the outboard and the outboard mechanic. If you’re someone who likes to work with your hands, at least part of the time, it’s really a great career. I guess I’m prejudiced, but I would heartily recommend it.

This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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