"Are old outboard motors reliable?"
"I don't really want to spend money on a new outboard, but
will these old ones leave me stranded?"
Those are questions I frequently hear. Many people are attracted
to the thought of a "cheap" outboard motor, but are
concerned that one has to sacrifice reliability.
The only way I can answer that question is to reply that an old
outboard "can" be a reliable source of propulsion, but
that the owner of an old outboard must assume most of the responsibiliity
for that reliability; one can not merely rely on a warranty or
a dealer as one can with a new outboard motor.
There are "breakdowns", and there are "breakdowns"
Most often, the cause of a breakdown is lack of maintenance.
For example, running a waterpump impeller until it fails, rather
than changing it every couple of years. An ignition system out
of tune. Dirty gas running through a dirty carb. Allowing water
to accumulate in your fuel tanks. Electing to save 4 dollars
and not replace 40-year-old fuel hoses under the cowl. Waiting
until a fuel filter plugs before checking it. Failing to rebuild
the carb with a modern rebuild kit that contains alcohol-resistent
Sitting in your boat, out on the water, staring at a recoil
starter rope that will not "recoil" because you neglected
to replace a 40-year-old spring, or looking at the broken end
of the starter rope because you did not replace it when it looked
Most often, the on-water-breakdowns that I have seen can be
traced to something in the above paragraphs. I am able to avoid
these types of problems by replacing all of the items that I
have detailed in the "start to finish" series, on
any engine that I intend to run. I will not risk losing a rare
day on the water to some some item of maintence that I disreagarded.
I once bought a 5 1/2 hp Johnson, badly in need of some attention,
that had been owned by a gentleman who used to take it on once-a-year
fishing trips in Canada. He apparently never test-ran the engine
before these trips, and did not put much effort into the engine.
When it enevitably failed, almost ruining his trip (he was able
to rent an outboard,) he dumped the Johnson as "unreliable."
Was it the owner or the outboard that was unreliable?
While on the water, a few tools, some well considered spare
parts, and a bit of knowledge of your engine will allow you
to deal with minor problems that can present themselves on even
well-cared-for engines. I have changed a pump impeller in a
1959 Evinrude 35 hp on a muddy river bank; not my place of choice
for such work, but because I had the tools and the impeller,
I was able to get back under way under my own power. If one
has changed the impeller on one's outboard during routine maintenance,
then one has an advantage if it becomes necessary while out
on the water.
It is the same with the magneto ignition. If one has already
replaced the points, condensers, and spark plug wires, then
one is in familiar territory when removing the cowl. The person
who "drops-off" his motor at a dealer for service,
is greeted with an unfamiliar scene of wires and hoses when
he removes his cowling. Who has the better chance of correcting
a problem when the dealer is not around?
Then there are breakdowns; catastrophic failures which will
probably be beyound anything you can handle on the water. For
example, Jim Michalak's 5 1/2 hp Johnson once "threw a
rod," as he describes in his "Messing
with Motors" newsletter.
I believe that this failure was due to a 40-year-old factory
"defect," but irregarless, this is probably beyound
handing on the water, although a desperate individual could
have disassembled the engine, as we did on the pickup truck
tailgate, removed the broken rod and it's piston, and then reassembled
and ran the engine on it's single remaining cylinder.
Another catastrophic failure I witnessessed was a '56 Johnson
30 hp which literally broke in half just below the powerhead.
A change in the exhaust noise, which I could hear from another
boat, but which the operator said he did not notice, gave about
a 15 minute warning as to what was occuring. I thought it was
a blown gasket in the exhaust cover, dangerous only to nearby
paint, wires, and fuel lines, and anyway, I thought he was aware
The owner remarked that he had "swapped" flywheels
with one from another engine, and it is possible that this "unbalanced"
the engine to the extent that vibration was able to damage it.
The author and wife in a 1994 photo. The
outboard motor is the same 1957 Johnson 18 hp engine that currently
power's the author's 18 foot AF4 cuddy skiff. Acquired in 1993
and well-maintained, it has spent the last 10 years powering
a number of different boats. Other than a "spun hub"
in a propeller, it has never once 'broken down" or required
"on-the-water" repairs. Truly a "reliable"
These are the only two major failures of old outboards that
I can recall witnessing over the last 11 years or so, although
there may have been another one or two in there somewhere. But
most of the problems that occur on the water are of relatively
minor nature, complicated by the fact that they happen on the
water, and to someone not throughly familiar with his engine,
and not equipped with a few tools and a basic knowledge of trouble-shooting.
So I keep my outboards in a good state of repair; the various
columns on recoil
starters and waterpumps
and such all orignated due to maintenance replacements that
I was doing anyway. And I always have some tools aboard; old
OMC's don't really require anything special in the way of tools.
And I carry a few spares, such as spark plugs, fuel hose, extra
in-line fuel filters, a pump impeller and so forth.
Spare "shear pins" (often more appropriately called
"drive pins," but the difference is not important
here) should be aboard, as should a spare propeller. Most OMC
outboards built after the mid'50s had rubber-hubbed propellers,
and these rubber hubs can break free, allowing the propeller
to spin free. It has happended to me in the AF4,
and without a spare prop, it would have been a long trip back
to the launch ramp. Michigan Wheel Corp still makes a wide assortment
of brand-new propellers for virtually all OMC engines made since
the early '50s.
What about that fragile-looking rubber hose that connects the
remote fuel tank to the engine? I will not leave the dock without
(2) hoses aboard, even if I have only one tank. It is not uncommon
for a hose or a primer bulb to be damaged by being pinched or
cut by something in the boat. Sunlight and age also take their
toll. In additon to the (2) hoses, I like to carry a spare "quick
connector" for the motor-end of the hose. Once I was running
an engine that had a slight "burr" on the motor-side
fuel connector; This burr ripped the "O"-ring seals
in two of the three quick connectors that I had in the boat
before I discovered why the connectors were leaking.
A couple of passes with a file from the tool box smoothed the
burr and eliminated the problem, but without that third connector
aboard, where would I have gotten to?
Well, right where I was going, anyway. I would have removed
the cowl from the engine and clamped the hose from the remote
tank directly to the fuel pump inlet. If one has replaced all
of the fuel hoses on one's engine, and maybe rebuilt the carb
and the fuel pump, one has learned much about the workings of
the engine and that is how one learns to improvise in odd situations.
If the quick connector has a vaccum leak, or if you SUSPECT
that the connector has a vacuum leak, you by-pass the connector.
If you have been working on your old OMC, you will be aware
that nearly all have a groove for a rope on the flywheel; if
the recoil starter and/or electric starter "dies,"
you know that you can wrap about any old piece of rope around
that flywheel (after removing the cowling and maybe a few other
parts) and start the engine that way.
If you have read the manual and adjusted the linkage on the
forward-neutral-reverse shift, then if the motor starts "jumping
out of gear" on the water, you know something about that
system, and you have options to try if it happens out on the
water, a long ways from home. Read about Jim Michalak's experience
with the shift on his 10 hp Johnson here.
With some prior knowledge of your engine, gained through proper
maintenance and tune-ups, and a few tools and a repair manual
(such as the one that I
reviewed for Duckworks) aboard, you have a much
better chance of over-coming difficulties with your old outboard,
than does the owner of a high-tech new outboard, who is met
with a bewildering array of wires and hoses and gagets when
he removes the cowling of his hood.
Then there is the biggest "spare part" of all; the
spare engine. Yes it is a pain to deal with, and yet another
expense, but having a ready-to-run spare engine can sometimes
be a life-saver.
Unless I am traveling with another boat, I almost always have
a "get-home" engine along for the ride; in the case
of my AF4,
it was a '58 Johnson 3 hp but that was not really adequate in
wind or current, so I now carry the Johnson 5 1/2 that is the
subject of the "start
to finish" Duckworks series.
I will also point out that in 11 years of playing with old
outboards, I have yet to need to use the auxiliary engine, or
get a tow, to get to where I was going. I have had occasion
to "tinker" with an engine to keep it running.
And I have had opportunities to tow-in others.
The bottom line is this; if you are willing to learn and to
work a bit on an old outboard, you can most likely have an engine
that you consider to be "reliable," at a cost that
most would consider to be "reasonable."
But there are no gaurantees; Much depends on your willingness
to learn all that you can from service manuals and from the
internet, and to proceed in a logical manner as you select and
work-on your engine. And just as in the building of a boat,
don't allow an occasional set-back to destroy your resolve to
move from the ranks of the "outboard challenged."
There may be an ocasional disapointment, but those who persevere
will eventually achieve their goals.
If you would prefer to not deal with engines, then it is probably
best to look at new engines with dealer support. Certainly nothing
wrong with that; it justs costs more money, but maybe fewer
It is just a matter of what kind of outboard you want; one that
is "fool-proof," or one that any fool can fix..