by Terry Parkhurst
Chrysler Corporation entered the marine business with one of its most reputable engines: the 289 cubic inch, 835-pound Imperial straight-six. Two were installed in the racing-hulled Miss Frolic and entered into a 1926 Gold Cup race (an accident prevented her from finishing), and one was put into Baby Frolic, which took second place in the Junior Gold Cup race in Detroit in 1926.
The first engines to be sold to the outside world appeared in 1927, making 100 horsepower, again based on the Imperial Six. At that time since “there were no small high-powered units of superior quality, available at prices that would enable a person of moderate means to own a boat, which was necessary to stimulate the boating industry,” according to the May 20, 1936 issue of American Machinist magazine.
Chrysler based its marine engines on its sturdy truck and motor coach engines, produced on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit. In 1928, they added one based on the original Chrysler six, modified to 249 cubic inches; it produced 82 horsepower at 2,800 rpm. The Imperial Marine was then enlarged to 310 cubic inches, making 106 horsepower. (Both engines were available in lower horsepower versions). Eight cylinders soon joined the line.
According to Willem Weertman, converting an engine for marine use was a long process. The exhaust manifold had to be water-jacketed so hot surfaces would not ignite fumes; updraft carburetors (with adapters for leveling) were often needed to save space; a spark arrestor was used with the air filter; and the oil pan, valve springs, and core hole plugs had to be more corrosion-resistant.
Early engines used timing gears, rather than chains, for durability. The company needed reverse rotation engines with special cams, starters, and such for twin engines and propellers.
Chrysler adapted many engines, including the slant six, 331 Hemi (with dual four-barrel carburetors), the 273, 413, 440, and 426 Hemi, running at 525 horsepower and using its racing-type dual-plenum, short cross-ram intake manifold, and dual four-barrel carbs. See Willem Weertman’s book for more.
Durable Oilite® bearings were a large part of Chrysler’s appeal — they predated the creation of the marine division by just one year. These bearings that were made of powdered copper, tin, and graphite, impregnated with oil (30% - 35% of oil by volume), so they usually needed no service attention after installation. (Carl Breer wrote about this in his autobiography.)
Thanks to the Chrysler Museum for their provision of background material!
Chrysler introduced the “Royal” six-cylinder engine in 1928, and secured its marine future when Chris-Craft chose the Royal as the engine to power its Cadet runabout; that led to Garwood, Hackerl, and Sea Lyon selling optional Chrysler engines. Chrysler’s compact marine engines became standard on boats built in Canada by Ditchburn, Greavette, Scott, W.E. Johnson and Taylor, and even led to use inFrance’s Despujol boats.
All production of marine engines was transferred to a new division, Amplex, in 1930. E.S. Chapman, head of Amplex, had joined Chrysler Corporation in 1928 as a member of vice-president K.T. Keller’s staff. H.E. Fromm, an engineer and designer in the boating industry for 33 years, was in charge of the marine and industrial engine section. He’d joined the Chrysler Corporation in 1926; and in late 1927, he was transferred to the sales division of the new marine division.
Chrysler started to produce both six and eight-cylinder engines for marine use in 1931. The division of the company doing that was then renamed Marine and Industrial Activities, Amplex Division.
Chrysler pioneered a small bore engine with built-in reduction gears, which added efficiency and savings in cost, space and weight. With various combinations of reduction gear ratios, a wider range of power plants was possible.
By 1936, the Chrysler marine line consisted of four engines in two rotations, in straight drive types, and also with 2-to-1 and 2.5-to-1 reduction gears, making it possible for Chrysler to power for boats ranging from a 16 foot long high speed runabout up to a 70 foot long twin-screw cruiser. Chrysler was able to claim in their brochures to be the largest maker of marine engines in the world, as well as one of the largest industrial engines makers.
In the year that World War II started – 1941 – Chrysler produced 2,587 marine engines and 8,794 industrial engines.
Chrysler ended production of anything for civilian use with the onset of World War II, producing a mere 5,292 cars in the calendar year of 1942 and about 36,000 for the model year. Chrysler then set to turning out anti-aircraft guns, Wright Cyclone airplane engines, land mine detectors, radar units and tanks – which became its most famous wartime product.
Chrysler still produced marine engines – albeit for military use – and, in a hint of what was to come in later decades, “Sea Mule” harbor tugboats.
There were 12,464 marine engines made in 1943, along with 37,775 industrial engines for a total of 50,239 engines in that year. The following year, 1944, saw Chrysler hit a war-time high with 15,416 marine engines produced and 40,903 industrial engines – for a total of 56,319 engines for special applications.
The end of the war saw Chrysler marine engines hit unprecedented civilian sales, mirroring the pent-up demand that drove automobile sales. It helped that returning soldiers and sailors had experienced those engines’ dependability and durability under the most demanding of circumstances. Chrysler Marine ended up with 40% of the entire marine engine market right after the end of WW II.
In 1946, Chrysler built 12,553 marine engines and 15,658 industrial engines; and in the following year, they built 13,460 marine engines and 29,075 industrial engines. In 1953, the marine engine plant, historically at Jefferson Avenue, moved to a new plant in Trenton, Michigan, which was to become the Trenton Engine plant.
By the middle of the Fifties, the Marine and Industrial Engine Division became part of the Special Products Group, though they would often be referred to individually in Chrysler materials. In December 1958, the Marine and Industrial Engine Division started operations in new quarters at the Jefferson Assembly Plant; new for 1959 was the 177 horsepower “Sea-V” V8 engine for marine use, and twin-engine packaged power units for industrial use. The Sea-V was more compact, but still met power needs of “more than 80% of all inboard boats.”
In 1963, the Special Products Group split into two (still headed by W.L. Pringle): the Marine Division and the Industrial Products Division “in order to emphasize the two separate markets being served,” according to a company newsletter of the time. The offices of the two divisions, employing over 400 people, were moved from the Jefferson Avenue plant to expanded facilities at Marysville, Michigan.
The Marine division was, by this time, producing stock engines that ranged from 110 to 325 horsepower. These engines included a variety of diesel engines and an engine producing 415 horsepower on marine gasoline. All those engines accounted for up to 15 percent of Chrysler’s marine and industrial business.
All this was just the first chapter in Chrysler’s marine history. The next was producing their own boats — powerboats and sailboats alike — with fine reputations.
See Chrysler boats and newer marine efforts
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