Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sea-Bee outboard tuning

This one is from the files, I was digging through some old SD cards that were in my desk the other day, making sure i had all the important DATA off them, and I found pictures I thought I'd lost or forgotten to take of my outboard project.

About 2 years ago Caitlin told me her grandpa promised her his old fishing boat at one point in time. Its an ancient 13 foot aluminum thing that has been sitting upside down behind a shed up at his land for the last 10 years since a notable incident where he almost drowned and decided to stop fishing from a boat. He's 90 now, and probably was in his late 70's when he last got in it, and almost never made it back to shore.

Johnson QD - my ideal outboard (from

I decided that if we were going to be getting this boat I should probably find an old outboard of the same vintage to compliment it. Luckily I live in the home of Ole Evinrude, a few miles from Mercury and within shooting distance of almost every notable outboard manufacturer in America. Craigslist is literally littered with antique outboards in need of a carb cleaning, and most can be had for about scrap prices. Its a shame because I'm sure wisconsinites send dozens of these things to the shredder every day, and they are a real unique part of our manufacturing and sporting history, as well as being some of the most interesting industrial design pieces of the 20th century.

I found a kindred spirit who runs the website Oddjob Motors .A fellow Moped and subaru fan, he has one of the most complete outboard sites on the internet chronicling dozens of beautiful vintage outboards, and his love of them. I was infatuated and probably looked through the entire site getting all excited for a summer of boating. I even emailed the fellow and discussed what to be looking for in a candidate for restoration. I concluded the QD Johnson above would be about perfect, and let a few slip through my fingers that were priced too high ($40+).
Mercury marine were some of the best looking outboards of the day

The Goodyear/Gale SeaBee I thought I was getting

Long story short, I finally settled on a Gale 5 hp, marketed by Goodyear Tire as a 'Sea-Bee.' I bought the engine sight unseen from a friendly guy who offered to deliver it to my work for $15. I gave him a $20 and had him keep the change.

It ended up not being the model I wanted, I was looking for the later model with the transmission, but regardless this one was pretty cool. The styling wasn't my favorite at first but since having rebuilt it, has kinda grown on me in its overly flourished 40's garishness. Obviously they expected this to be going about 80 mph to need such elaborate streamlining!

The 1948 SeaBee as I got her
Cursory inspection revealed that the pull starter, while somewhat operational, was pretty mangled. The tank was still partially full of gas that probably had lead in it. A sealable gas cap was used, presumeably so you could put it in the back of your vista cruiser sideways without gas spilling out, and that cap preserved the incredibly varnished gas for many years. I was soaking the tank with MEK thinking 'this gas is probably older than I am.. crazy.

Obviously the engine would need a thorough cleaning, new gear oil, maybe a seal or two here and there, but by and large looked mostly complete and turned over smoothly.

I thought it was going to be a quick saturday project. I started off puling the tank, starter, flywheel, carb, reeds off the power head. Everything was going along smoothly when I got to the part of pulling out the drain plug to check on the gear oil in the gearbox. The screw was kinda stripped coming out and behind it was a pile of rust dust. damn. That is never a good sign.
Yup, there's the problem.

Turning the propeller by hand in relation to the power unit revealed the source of the dust, what used to be the bevel gears in the gear box. One was half rusted off. Probably a previous owner stripped the plug for the gear case and didn't concern himself with the fact that the engine was sitting with water in the gearbox. Doing that for awhile turned the lower gear (which runs on a horizontal axis and was therefore half submerged) to dissolve the submerged half. Someone surely tried to run it after that and made a mess out of the rest of the gearbox. Totally mangled.

Since drive gears for a 1948 Gale outboard aren't exactly something you drive down to NAPA and pick out of a catalog, I had to start doing some research.  Turns out Gale was making outboards in northern Illinois since world war 2. The engines were marketed through 'brand engineering' at department stores, sporting goods stores, and even Goodyear tire stores (which used to sell a lot of general automotive-type junk). The Good Year store sold the Sea-Bee, Hiawatha was sold by some long deceased sporting goods store, there was another one that came from Montgomery Wards even. With this additional knowledge, I was able to get on Ebay and find some of the more popular brands. A short search turned up a lot of lower unit gearboxes, but only one matched visually to the one I had. Several years of Gale shared similar lower units, but the very early model that I had was a slightly different casting and assembly. I ordered it and paid $25 including shipping from Arizona, crossing my fingers that it would be the right one, and not be trashed in a similar manner.

The new lower unit came a couple weeks later and I set about to adapting it. No propeller and the water pump was a mess, so i was able to keep those. The water pump casting was a little different but enough parts were similar that it could be cobbled. The mounting hardware was different too, a short stud where i had a long stud and a different water pump feed tube. No biggie, that was all adapted as well.

At this point summer '11 was quickly approaching and I was hoping to get something running ASAP to get out on the lakes and rivers around Milwaukee. I was also moving my shop and trying to get the engine finished up before having to pack everything into boxes and risk loosing a bunch of parts. What a mess.

The engine at this point came all the way apart, I was pretty close by having removed everything from the engine and removed the stern drive. It was logical that I continue the process. Plus the inside of the water jacket, from what i could tell, was a complete mess. There was some kinda crummy coating that was peeling off with lots of scale behind it, someone had done some work on the engine at one point in time and bent part of the engine casting leaving it with some sealing issues, and I figured while i was this far along, it would be fun to port the thing out a little bit and see if we couldn't get that '5' hp up a little higher.

I pulled the covers off the engine, no small feat considering the 60 year old gasket goop holding them on! Cleaned everything up with quite a bit of time in the ol' sand blaster. The porting was crossflow, which is the predecessor to loop scavenging and much more suited to low rpm's. Large heavy pistons with scoops on them direct the flow of air from the transfers up and over the piston so it scavenges the chamber, then down out the other side through the exhaust port. Definitely not ideal for performance. I could also tell that the ports were drilled into the casting with a drill bit. Obviously a manufacturing concern, trying to avoid the use of additional cores or tricky machining, but not the best for performance. Since I don't really know anything about porting crossflow engines, I pretty much just went by feel, trying to get a little more exhaust area and get the ports to open a bit earlier. Hopefully my gut feeling isn't too wrong, but i really dont think three crummy drilled holes are magical in any way.
Ported on the right, unported on the left.

I also left the raised area on the casting around the ports. Not sure why this was there, but I think there might be some significance to it, a port without significant length can cause wierd eddy current stuff and I didn't want to risk getting the area too thin around the ports where they could have heat problems.

Final porting. symmetrical? you be the judge.
The flywheel, points and stator plate was all in pretty good shape. Spark plug wires were gone. I found some cool fabric braided spark plug wire and soldered that on the coils, dressed the points and adjusted everything. How did I know what timing to set? It doesn't matter, the engine is goverened largely by adjusting the timing advanced/retarded. This was a pretty common thing back in the days of crappy carburetors that really only ran well at full throttle or no throttle. The carb in this thing was really crummy, one jet and no real metering system other than that.

I had thought about putting a big mikuni on there, but thats just getting silly. I'm not trying to set a record with this, i just want to put around the river and crash condo parties all done up like Huck Finn.

Here is the engine all finished up. There is a shroud that will go over it, but I haven't put that back on yet, still ironing out some bugs.

In the end it should look like this Hiawatha which I photographed at an outboard museum in Sayner, WI.

The patina will be retained on the Sea Bee, I like it looking like something that I dug out of my grandpa's shed and miraculously still works. I think leaving it like that does true justice to the heritage of the machine and the people who designed and built these beautiful things with old school american craftsmanship.

In other news, Leo the 90 year old grandfather-in-law has since decided he doesn't want to part with his boat for now, so it will remain sitting in the weeds in northern wisconsin while my poor engine languishes in Milwaukee with no boat. Oh well, what'cha gonna do?  Fire it up in a 5 gallon bucket and annoy the neighbors? Yes please, I'll try to get a video for you!


  1. Sounds like the engine turned out well, as far as the boat problem you can just wait that one out.

  2. I was searching for a long time a blogging section which is discussing about boat maintenance and your blog is that one so I would like to thanks for sharing this wonderful info as well as some pics. I also enjoyed your experiences also.

  3. sor e about you moving to texas, but austin is worth it for sxsw and make sure you catch this: james mcmurty at the cadillac bar on wednesday (?) nights with the full band when he's in town. check out his website with the free download. texas sticks in my craw between perry, the republicans, bush (shrub, evangelical, war criminal, hypocritical, draft dodging, usa gutting, worst president ever), perry, anti science, not teaching evolution, associated blow hards and religious bs, heat, wind, drought, lack of shade, flat, barren, vast (inescapable) etc, etc, etc.. i've lived in both and i prefer nc but it's gone nutso republican too. note: religious charter schools are being funded with public funds