Engine Troubles

By Chris Landers, 9/9/2014

With the transom done and reconstruction starting, this is rapidly becoming two separate projects. On the boat side, I need to patch some cracks on the outside, rebuild the ski racks, and install the seats. I can figure all that out, and I'm not really worried about it, but the more daunting challenge is the engine. I'm a mediocre motorcycle mechanic, but I don't know much about old outboards, so I've got some learning to do.

The boat came with a 1964 Johnson 60hp V4 outboard. The previous owner assured me that it ran when it was put away a few years ago, which is a stock Craigslist phrase meaning "it worked at some point in the past," the same way "Needs Carbs Cleaned" actually means "I have absolutely no idea what's wrong with this thing."

The first thing I did was hook it up with a new battery and turn the key. The starter motor whirred, but it didn't catch. I promised myself I wouldn't get in too deep with this engine, but I did a few things on rainy days while the transom was in progress.

For starters, I built a stand with some scrap wood and casters I had lying around. I used these plans from the iBoats forum, which has been a really good resource for this whole project. I borrowed an engine hoist from a friend and dropped the engine on the stand. In down time from the other projects, I cleaned the carbs and changed the fuel lines and spark plugs.

Engine Stand

Everything turns, and it has good compression in all the cylinders, so I started out hopeful, but a 50-year-old engine is bound to have some surprises, and I started finding them when I changed the impeller. There seems to have been a fastener shortage at some point in the past, so instead of attaching the water pump with the usual bolts, someone used bolts that were an inch or so too long, punching through the outside of the case and causing it to leak. After swearing off the engine forever, I was convinced (by BoatU.S. Executive Editor Mike Vatalaro, to lay the blame where it's due) to take another crack at it. A little grinding, some JB Weld, and a set of helicoils later, the water pump was back on, with its new impeller in place.

The next discovery was the final straw, though. In the process of putting the lower unit back together I noticed that a lot of the bolts were broken or missing, and in some cases, what looked like bolts were in fact lag screws, which are great for, say, building a wooden deck, but completely wrong for the job at hand. I could either grind, fix, drill, and tap just about every fastener below the power head, at which point I would be back to figuring out the problem with the engine, or I could shelve the old Johnson and look for a more reliable source of propulsion. In the interest of not pouring more money into an unknown engine, as well as getting this thing on the water this summer, I decided on the latter. So the Johnson went in the shed, next to a 1965 Honda Dream and a 1981 Moto Guzzi, all of which I'll get to eventually.

So the boat is now equipped with a (running) 1982 Mercury 50. It's not quite period correct, but then again I'm not a reenactor, so I think it will be fine. I've pursued enough quixotic projects to know that sometimes you have to cut your losses. And I want to get out on the water.