Stern Drive History
Born in Moorhead MN in 1886, David Warren Onan started his life in the automotive world in 1906 working as an automobile mechanic in Minneapolis. By 1915 he was foreman of the automobile repair shop for Reinhard Brothers Company. He had developed a line of automobile repair tools and specialized in electrical and carburetor work for which he became well known. He was an instructor at the Dunwoody Institute in 1917.
He took his basement shop into the garage in 1918 and expanded into a number of automotive specialties. The automotive electrical experience led him to offer electric starters for outboard motors in 1930 and a “Stern Drive” which bolted to the transom of a runabout and powered by a Ford Model A engine.
The demonstrator boat was a Dingle, modified to accommodate the Stern Drive. Only the part of the stern drive below, the cavitation plate turned. In fact , it could be rotated 360 degrees. The transmission and gears were made by Auto Engine Works of St. Paul, makers of “Capital” gears. Capital gears were used on Liberty aircraft engines to power high speed boats after World War; and David Onan helped modify the ignition and carburetors for marine use.
A number of things prevented the Stern Drive from becoming a huge success. It was the depression, too much weight at the back of the boat, and water getting into the transmission gears. World War II took care of many of The problems, but by then the Onan business had taken a major turn in another direction.
Editors Note: Our thanks to
David W. Onan II, who supplied
copies of the promotion letter
and sketches of the Stern Drive.