X Marks the Spot

Led by a police motorcycle escort, complete with flashing lights, I finally got a chance to visit Lake X, Mercury’s legendary test site whose history begins in 1957, when Mercury Marine founder Elmer Carl Kiekhaefer discovered 14,000-acre Lake Conlin while flying the company plane over central Florida, near Orlando. After acquiring it, he personally bulldozed a path to the lake and fiercely guarded its privacy, to the point he once refused a Boy Scout troop’s request to camp there for fear one of them could be a spy. He did hold one semi-private event later that year.

To counter the common adage that his Kiekhaefer Mercury engines were fast but not reliable, he devised a test to be held on Lake X. Two 16-foot Raveau boats, powered by 60 hp Mark 75 engines and driven by Kiekhaefer’s platoon of test drivers, would simulate not one but two 25,003-mile trips around the world — each boat to make 9,052 laps around the lake. Sanctioned by the United States Auto Club (USAC), which also presided over events such as the Indy 500, the endurance test began Sept. 11, 1957, with engines selected at random from the assembly line. The boats — equipped with auto headlights to run at night — stopped a couple of times to replace points and spark plugs but otherwise ran nonstop and in all conditions, fueling and changing drivers on the fly every four hours.

There were a few moments of excitement, one chronicled by a driver’s log: “Sighted 8-foot alligator dead ahead. No time to take evasive action. Felt solid bump. No damage to boat or motor. Damage to alligator unknown.”

At the end of the first 25,003 miles, which took 34 days, 11 hours and 47 minutes, USAC officials snipped the seals that were put in place to prevent tampering with the motors and then disassembled, inspected and found them to conform to standard specs. It was noted there was surprisingly little wear. The outboards were then reassembled and sent back to Lake X for the second run “around the world,” without replacing any parts. Years later it was discovered the mechanics had, in fact, found a way around the seals and changed some parts while Kiekhaefer took the USAC officials to lunch. The “Old Man,” who was a hardnosed taskmaster, likely knew nothing about the repairs.

The old test site is now a preserve known as the Kirchman Foundation at Lake X, but I
was pleasantly surprised to see the large mid-century modern boathouse and timing tower still intact. Although the previous test was in 2004, when Mercury secretly flogged its supercharged Verado line, it worked out a deal to allow the press to test its incredible new line of six-cylinder FourStroke outboards, which you can read about next month.

Alan

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