In the mid-60’s, Carl Kiekhaefer was at the helm of “the” name in performance in the highly competitive marine outboard and I/O industry. Merc was far ahead of their competitors in speed, durability, engineering and styling, as they had been since the late 1930’s when Carl started re-engineering a quantity of poorly designed outboards that he bought from a defunct manufacturer, in an old sewing machine factory in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Always driven to stay ahead of his competition, it probably came with some alarm that OMC was successfully selling it’s newfangled snow machines, along with many other companies in the marine industry (Boatel, Princecraft, Glastron, Larson to name a few). Around 1966 he put together a team to buy up models from several manufacturers available around the Fond Du Lac, WI area and tear them apart and see what made them tick and, more importantly, what didn’t. The result of their efforts debuted in 1968 with the unveiling of the first “Snow Vehicle” ( as the early Mercs were referred to), the Model 150E.
The 150E, like many of the early Mercury’s, was an odd combination of advanced design and bad design. Only about 400 were manufactured, with at least one being shipped to each Mercury dealer in the snowbelt. The machines were troubled from the start with overheating problems, poor clutching and poor handling. They were tippy, squirrelly in deeper snow and a beast to work on. The cowl resembles the more common Model 250, only it is low-slung. The entire cowl unit and belly pan are one and the same, requiring any servicing personnel to remove the skis and 8 wing nuts to get at the innards (imagine changing a drive belt!). The tiny fuel tank was front-mounted, with a filler tube protruding through the hood, capped by a marine-type gas cap with a vent screw peeking over the profile of the cowl.
A single chain and sprocket system was covered with a plastic shroud (unsealed) and lubricated by two pieces of fuel line, clamped and aimed at the chain, through which spent 2-stroke oil was fed from two fittings on the bottom of the crankcase of the 312cc twin cylinder mill.
The engine itself was interesting in that it was borrowed from a large, two-man chainsaw that Mercury manufactured at the same time. Since the engine was not designed for snowmobile use, this contributed to the overheating problem. The cylinders were a single unit, prohibiting proper 360 degree airflow to keep temps down. To offset the overheating problem, early in production a large cast-metal “sewer grate” vent was shipped to dealers, to be incorporated on the right side of the cowl for the fan to draw air through. A few lucky persons have 150E hoods without this vent. Later still, chrome air ducts such as found on marine I/O blower systems were added to scoop more cold air to the 15 hp twin. (Like their outboards of the period, early Merc model numbers were designated by the horsepower+0, not by displacement.)
Some of the innovations found on this model are CDI Thunderbolt Ignition (in ’68!), twin cylinders, electric start, hi-lo beam lights, an enclosed dashboard and a kickstand (important in the early days to run the snow out of the tracks to prevent freeze-up), and an aluminum tunnel. However, the overheating problem still plagued the 150 and Kiekhaefer recalled all 400 units back toFond Du Lac.
The first attempt at curing the 150’s fever was to drill holes between the jugs to permit airflow 360 degrees around them. This was followed by a complete disassembly of the engine, separation of the two cylinders and an entire new crankcase and shaft measuring about an inch longer, retrofitted to utilize a more conventional airflow configuration. About halfway through this retrofit, the entire 150E project was abandoned and whatever sleds were left intact at the factory were sold off to employees at a discount.
In 1969 the Model 220 was unveiled, with the 250 debuting shortly thereafter. Both were based on the 150 cowl style, with the belly pan thankfully being a separate unit, allowing easier hood removal. Comparing these to the 150, they look a lot like the 150 on steroids. Both models were available with electric start (220E, 250E) and reverse (220ER, 250ER). The reversing mechanism was simple, the driven clutch was designed to operate in both directions, and the engines had two separate starters mounted over the toothed flywheel. To put the units in reverse, one would shut the engine off, flip a toggle switch and start the motor in reverse! This design was borrowed from their early “dock banger” outboards, which had no neutral gear but were started in forward or reverse from the control console.
The 220 had a manual timing advance lever to retard the ignition for starting, advance for forward operation, or to set to run in the reverse mode. It featured a single headlight, rear mounted fuel tank, Thunderbolt Ignition, underseat storage and electric start models for both the 220 and 250 came with a dash mounted ammeter as standard equipment. The 220 had a 399cc 22hp engine, completely enclosed behind the dashboard.
The 250 had a more conventional timing advance mechanism, a large chrome automotive-type air cleaner, twin headlights, a rear mounted gas tank, and a large muffler under the seat with the tailpipe exiting at the rear of the sled, under the fuel tank. Louvers ventilated the aluminum tunnel around the muffler to aid in cooling and keep the rider’s legs warm. This exhaust system was also handy for cooking hot dogs wrapped in aluminum foil and tossed under the seat! The track was reinforced with steel cable because of the 250’s weight, which is wisely not listed in the owner’s manual but is massive. This steel cable tended to make the track as stiff as wood whenever the sled sat unused for a few hours under cold conditions. To free up the track before use, one would have to remove the hood, put the rear up on it’s kickstand, and manually turn the driven sheaves backwards a few turns, to give the motor a “running start” at loosening up the stiffened track without burning the drive belt to shreds. The engine was a 436cc 25hp twin, with a Tillotson carb featuring a fixed, “Mikuni-style” high speed jet.
Model 200. The 200 was basically whatever 150 tunnels were left over, with a bellypan riveted on. Early productions of this model had a butt-ugly hood which resembled a one-eyed frog, but later ones looked a lot like a black Rupp Sno-Sport. This was Mercury’s one and only single-cylinder sled and the first to have an engine manufactured by an outside company, namely Hirth, a 292 being the choice. Handling is remarkably nimble and fun in deep snow.
In 1971, the 220 disappeared but the 250 remained unchanged and available. The Lightning and the Rocket were unveiled, each resembling the rear of the 200 and the front of what was to be the Hurricane. The Rocket had a 340 CCW twin, and the Lightning featured a CCW 399. Merc had their own recoil housings made, which had their snowmobile logo cast in, to give the appearance of using their own motors. Both had the twin headlights with clear plastic covers that defined the styling for all of their sleds to come, save the Twisters. These were the first of the sleds that would re-define the image of Mercury Snowmobiles, which up until this point were known as dependable but slow, ugly, cumbersome and heavy.
Also in ’71, a project was embarked upon to design a new sled using a Mercury made motor. Designated the Model 350, it would have a padded, contoured seat, a forward-mounted horizontal reed valve 644 twin, stylish lines, ski shocks, a much “sexier” rear fuel tank area than the stark metal tanks in previous models, and a tach and speedo. When unveiled in 1972, the name was changed from Model 350 (possibly to avoid association with the earlier “lead sleds”) to “Hurricane”. This was the pinnacle of the Kiekhaefer years, a smart looking, fast, reliable machine that finally met the kind of image that Kiekhaefer Mercury had been known for in the outboard industry.
Brunswick controlling portion of Kiekhaefer stock, leveraged a buy out of Mercury and Carl Kiekhaefer left the company. The corporate name was changed to Mercury Marine, and Merc snowmobiles hung around for a few more years. The Hurricane upgraded to a para-rail type suspension and got a 15 hp boost in power, and the Rocket and Lightning mutated into the Max and S/R series. Carl Kiekhaefer started Kiekhaefer Aeromarine and focused on marine racing. He did, however, produce an axial twin 440, which can be found on a few Bolens and Northway models.
The Kiekhaefer sleds may not have been the engineering and performance marvels that the Twisters were, but they laid the foundation for the kind of firm commitment to building snowmobiles that was necessary to create the legendary Mercury Sno-Twister.