I clearly remember the first time I tried to start a four-stroke outboard that was already quietly going about its business. As the starter motor and the boat's owner whined in unison, it felt more like an epiphany than just another 'senior moment'.
Boat manufacturers are looking to multiple installations as outboard technology has improved.
To someone long raised on a diet of cantankerous, rattly two-strokes, one erroneous turning of a key also signalled a turning point for the trailerboat industry.
Life with outboards would never be the same again, for a new level of excitement and user-friendliness had been ignited. No smoking, no flatulence or fussing at start-up, less vibration and so little noise at idle you weren’t to know the damn things were running.
We had the Americans to thank – not so much for the technological leap, but the legislation which begat it.
In 1998, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) dipped their toes in the sparkling alpine waters of Lake Tahoe and solemnly declared that conventional two-stroke outboards would be banned. Federally, they nominated 2006 as the cut-off year for manufacturers to reach stringent new emission goals.
Hewn by glaciers two million years ago and now sleeping amongst verdant valleys, Tahoe is stunningly beautiful, extraordinarily deep, and relatively sensitive, due to a lack of natural flushing. Equally pristine and delicate waterways exist all over the world, of course, so it was inevitable that a line would be drawn on a sandy shoreline somewhere.
At no stage was Australia implicated in the marine legislation, but the US market was too big to ignore and Europe was set to follow suit.
Debate raged as to whether it was fair to target outboards among the two-stroke brigade, since far more motorcycles, lawn mowers, chainsaws and the like littered the planet. But the car industry had been copping the EPA’s wrath for years, plus there was a compelling argument that boats required substantial power to lift onto the plane.
Even with the 2006 emission standards applied, one hour of operation of a 'green' outboard still produced the same pollution as 50 cars run at a similar speed. Older-style outboards were 10 times worse than conforming engines.
Among the emissions were volatile organic compounds (hydrocarbons to their friends), oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide and a range of water and air toxins such as benzene.
Petrol-driven contrivances had existed since the turn of the century. The American Motor Co of New York produced a motor called the 'American' in 1896, which was rated at 2hp and propelled a rowboat at up to eight miles an hour.
In 1908, Ole Evinrude was rowing to get ice-cream for his fiancée, Bess, when it occurred to him that a detachable gasoline motor clamped to the transom was the way of the future, if only to stop the ice-cream melting.
His first effort was a 1.5hp donk that Bess reckoned looked like a coffee grinder. In 1911 he earned a patent and the days of rowing boats were numbered.
One hundred years later the days of conventional two-strokes are looking shaky.
The fault lies in their inability to completely separate the inlet gases from the exhaust gases – with the exhaust and intake ports being opened simultaneously at the bottom of the piston stroke, a portion of the fuel/air goes directly out, unburned, through the exhaust port.
Up to 30 per cent of the fuel is wasted and, what’s more, oil is being added to the petrol for lubrication. It's a vicious cycle that has to be broken.
Realising it would take time to solve the design challenge, authorities have set incremental targets as well as allowing a fleet average across the manufacturer’s horsepower spectrum.
The EPA’s 2006 standards identified engines that produced 75 per cent fewer emissions than conventional two-stroke engines, but the Californians moved the goalposts forward to 2001. It was designated with a One-Star label.
Two-star engines met CARB’s 2004 standards by producing 20 per cent less emissions than One-Star engines. CARB 2008 carried a Three-Star label, with engines producing 65 per cent fewer emissions than One-Star engines.
There’s also a Four-Star rating for four-strokes, which two-strokes aren’t obliged to meet.
Suzuki has long been a fan of the four-stroke.
Early on, Honda and Suzuki decided that a greener future lay with four-strokes. Certainly, it was easier and cheaper to make them comply, although in those days the automotive-based four-strokes were heavy, complex and lacklustre in mid-range response.
With a power stroke every two engine cycles, as opposed to every four cycles for four-strokes, the two-stroke engine has power aplenty.
Enter 'direct injection' for two-strokes, which brought air – and air alone – from the crankcase, with fuel not being injected until the piston rose and all ports were closed.
Opinions were divided on how best to force-feed the combustion. OMC, the manufacturers of Evinrude/Johnson, turned to Ficht injection; Mercury/Mariner chose Orbital technology for the OptiMax injection system, while Yamaha opted for HPDI (High Pressure Direct Injection).
The German-engineered Ficht system was unique in that it didn’t require a high-pressure pump to inject into a closed combustion chamber. Rather, it had an electric solenoid pump for every piston, each capable of producing sufficient pressure.
An enamoured OMC invested heavily, but was plagued by initial warranty issues. Ficht RAM came out in 2000, with fewer parts and higher voltage, but OMC was soon beset by financial problems.
New Evinrude E-tec motors have none of the reliability issues of their forebears.
In December 2000 it declared bankruptcy and a year later was bought by BRP, of Sea-Doo fame. Since 2003, Evinrude has been using the simpler, more reliable E-TEC system and has been recognised with the 2005 EPA Clean Air Excellence Award.
E-TEC can inject fuel extremely quickly – with each quarter-turn of the crank – so the burn rate and efficiency is exceptional.
Mercury Marine’s Orbital-based system injects a mixture of finely-atomised fuel and compressed air into the chamber. A three-cylinder, 1.2lt Orbital DI two-stroke had similar power to a four-cylinder, 1.6lt four-stroke, but was smaller, lighter, used less fuel and had lower emissions.
There were fewer reliability issues than Ficht MkI, though the same couldn’t be said for the so-called Smart Gauges that occasionally infuriated owners. Direct injection can’t happen without advanced electronics, which meant introducing computers to the marine environment.
Seeking a long-term four-stroke engine platform, Mercury released the Verado series in 2004. Developed in the United States over five years at a reputed cost of US$100m, this was the worlds first supercharged outboard.
The merry men of Mercury called in Lotus and Cosworth to extract maximum performance from the inter-cooled, 2.6lt inline six. In 2007, a 300hp engine was introduced and there’s now a four-cylinder version.
While the big two slugged it out, Yamaha kept its cards close to its chest and a foot in both camps, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors. In 1998, it released the four-stroke, four-cylinder F100A before unveiling a 200hp two-stroke V6 HPDI in 1999.
The HPDI differed from the Ficht/E-TEC and Orbital systems by using a separate, belt-driven fuel pump to mechanically generate the necessary pressure. Meanwhile, EFI was employed on the new 115hp four-stroke in 2001, and in 2007 the industry’s first V8, 5.3lt, four-stroke 350hp giant was unleashed.
Honda motors are growing ever larger, using car engines as the base.
Honda Marine stayed faithful to four-strokes and its current production models all meet the standards set forth by CARB 2008.
The current challenge for two-stroke designers is to make the technology economically viable in smaller motors, which are not only price sensitive but have a smaller differential in fuel usage.
A new wave of cheap two-strokes are pouring in from China.
Some of the two-stroke motors coming in from Chinese manufacturers have turned back the technical clock in favour of super-low prices. Whether that's a positive remains to be seen but certainly they're selling quite well.
All that conservative consumers have ever wanted is a cheap and durable workhorse that will get ‘em to their fishing spot with minimal fuss for the next 20 years ... what they get is a high-tech, finely-tuned instrument, albeit one that provides fabulous fuel economy, low oil usage and smoke-free, user-and environmentally-friendly operation.
The weight benefit of two-strokes makes them popular as portables.