• Mercury's Project-X Launch: A Retrospective

    A Look Back at an Extraordinary Day in Marine History

    Major product launches are huge affairs, often resembling a stage show at an arena rock concert. They have to be, in order to achieve the maximum impact, leaving members of the press feeling not only positively impressed, but exhilarated. However, no matter how impressive the press event, if the star of the show - the product being introduced - does not match or even exceed the buildup of excitement, the entire experience falls flat, and that's not the impression that any manufacturer wants to leave in the minds of the boating industry press.

    With the recent introduction of the monstrous Mercury Racing 450R, I felt it would be a perfect time to look back at where Mercury's four-stroke outboard ascendancy began. That was 16 years ago, with the introduction of the Verado in 2004.

    Mercury Marine's press event and product launch for the Verado outboard at the Miami International Boat Show was a spectacular standout event in every way, with the climax being the debut of a product that was so revolutionary that it created a frenzy of stunned excitement among the hundreds of people that witnessed it.


    After an extremely successful 15-year production run, the first-generation Mercury Verado's swan song is the mighty Mercury Racing 400R, which will share the stage with the new 4.6-litre V8 Verado, which is an engineering marvel that is just as impressive as a supercharged outboard was 15 years ago - and still is. As Mercury continues to redefine expectations of what a four-stroke outboard is capable of, I wanted to reflect on the extraordinary event that launched the revolution of Mercury's four-stroke outboard engine technology.

    It was referred to as Project X for years prior to its launch, and that is all the marine industry press knew. For over a year prior to its launch, boat show-goers saw full-size mock-ups of what the mysterious new outboard might look like, but no details about what would eventually be under the cowl. To cultivate a feeling of aggressive technological intent, the image of a shark
    was used in association with the Verado pre-launch promotion materials. Indeed, part of the aesthetic of the Verado were gill-like graphics.



    For a few boat shows prior to the official launch, Mercury would display a full-scale mock-up of the new engine, and based on that it sure looked much different than contemporary outboards back then. The official launch would be at the Miami International Boat Show on February 15, 2004, and I would be there for it. The following is my experience from this event, which represents the most fascinating product launch I have ever taken part in.

    The name Verado is derived from the Spanish verdad, which is a descriptor for ‘truth and authenticity’. I am not sure if this was the original meaning of the outboard’s name, however, though the Verado outboard definitely was indeed truthful in living up to the very high expectations I had for it. Mercury Marine's long history of cutting-edge and even provocatively daring innovation instilled a great deal of anticipation among the marine press and performance-minded boaters.



    The speculations were varied, ranging from a high-powered OptiMax, to an all-new four-stroke V6. I recall there were a few lone speculators that put forth the notion that the Verado could possibly be a supercharged or turbocharged outboard. What? A forced-induction outboard engine? How could that possibly be made to be consumer-friendly and reliable? No way, I thought.

    But Mercury Marine was exceptionally adept at keeping secrets here, while allowing the speculation and excitement it fueled to continue. And I also knew that Mercury Marine was also exceptionally adept pushing engineering innovations beyond the safety nets of traditional outboard engine designs. The Verado would be something uniquely Mercury.


    As the date for the Miami Boat Show drew near, threads blazed with speculation and expectations. There was a leaked photo showing the Verado on a bass boat on the Scream And Fly forums just a few days before the show, which I quickly removed. Naturally, that action only served to accelerate discussions. Being in a position of reporting on exclusive content is enticing, but never at the cost of professional journalistic integrity. We would all be rewarded for our wait, though.

    I was invited to the official Mercury press event the night before the show, which was more like a high-society party then an official event. And Mercury knows how to throw a party and impress. This was not all about South Beach-style entertainment; it was a rare opportunity to converse with those that made this extraordinary new outboard possible. And as impressive as the media event was, my real excitement was reserved for the surprise that Mercury had in store for us.

    This was definitely going to steal the show the next day, and it certainly did just that, and in ways I did not think was possible.


    And there it was. A 2.6-liter tower of power, re-imagined. Six-cylinders, in-line and supercharged. My outdated general disinclination toward four-stroke outboards was completely shattered in the wake of how radical the Verado was. It was, without question, the most exotic outboard engine ever released to the consumer market. And now, fifteen years later, the Verado is still the most exotic consumer outboard engine ever produced. How many products could we really apply that statement to? The engineering scope and effort behind the Verado must have been enormous.

    While I was at the Wednesday evening Mercury press event, I made a point of calling our test driver Helmut Freitag to let him know that I was at the Verado press briefing, on the roof of a hotel on South Beach while it was snowing in New York. I just could not help myself.


    All of the key people at Mercury Marine and Mercury Racing were present that night, making the event a journalist’s dream. Claus Bruestle, Mercury’s former vice president of research and development on the Verado project, was somebody that I really enjoyed talking to. He is a very serious and focused man, and had a way of staying on-track with details while injecting a witty joke here and there.

    My discussions with Claus, as well as many other associates at Mercury really gave me a lot of insight into the effort that went into creating this incredible machine. Naturally, I had to ask Rick Mackie, senior marketing manager at Mercury Racing, about future plans for a high-performance version of the Verado. He just smiled and said, “you never know.”


    February 15, 2004: Launch Day

    Early in the morning of the show’s opening day at the Miami Convention Center, I attended a pre-show Mercury product presentation. The official unveiling of the Verado would take place right as the show began, at 8:30 AM. The presentation ended at 8:15, and I literally ran to the Mercury display area. There was already a massive crowd of people there - mostly press, with video cameras lined up around the covered engines and speaking podium. I squeezed my way to the front, determined to get close-up images posted on Scream And Fly as quickly as possible.

    I could not believe how many people were there. They numbered in the hundreds, with Mercury associates on-the-ready to remove the black veils over the engines at the right time, as well as guarding against any overly-ambitious people that may try to get an early peek under the covers. The rest of the entire convention center was empty. Nobody wanted to miss this.


    I already knew what the Verado was, yet I was just as excited as if I didn't. I knew I was going to witness something that would hit the industry like a big, phantom black tsunami. I needed to absorb every detail of this event.

    The unveiling event began with theater-like video action sequence, complete with a sound system that would make you literally feel the action. I loved every minute of it. Following the video presentation, an introduction by former Mercury president Patrick Mackie. Mr. Mackie would never deliver stale, cookie-cutter product introduction monologues at press events; he knew us individually, not as a group, and that's how he connected with us. As an example, he would make a point of talking to each of us to get our thoughts, and to thank us for attending. That might seem like a small gesture, but it made an immensely positive impression on me.


    Like any gifted speaker, Mackie could always read his audience and harmonize his delivery to draw us into the moment more. This is how product unveiling speeches should be done; not simply stating the technological facts about the new Verado, but elevating the sense of impending astonishment.

    Mackie's excitement for the Verado and the launch event was easy to see, and immediately contagious among all of us in the press. At just the right moment, all covers on the Verado engines were removed. suddenly the massive crowd of onlookers surged forward, with people pushing others out of the way in a survival-of-the-fittest clamor to get close to the Verado engines on display, in both black Mercury and gray Mariner livery. Nobody had ever seen such an fascinating consumer outboard in the history of boating, and the images and sounds of the crowd's stunned excitement was a testament to its impact. Some people were simply petrified with awe, being unprepared for what was in front of them. This was a very uncommon situation in which the actual product exceeded most of the wildest speculation about what it would be.


    I wanted to pay extra attention to the responses from the crowd, and I distinctly remember hearing some gasps of intrigue. All at once, camera flashes were going off like it was a 1970s dance club, and people were doing all they could to get closer. And center-stage was a display that would draw most of the gasps and camera lenses.

    Right in the middle was a chromed and polished Verado engine powerhead that had sections of it cut away to reveal internal components that were, as well, chromed and polished. Pistons, valves, and most impressively, the supercharger compressor rotors were all visible. Mercury wanted to be sure that they were going to make a strong statement on the technological impact the Verado would make, and they certainly did. The polished up Verado engine looked stunning to people that might not have even understood what it was they were looking at, and to make an awesome event even better, I was permitted to go on top of the speaker’s podium to get very close shots of the glistening engine.


    I remember Mercury's floor display from that event very clearly. It was a large trailer that was open on all sides with polished aluminum and diamond plate panels everywhere. Inside were all of that year's engines lined up on both sides, bathed in provocative lighting. Center stage, at the front was the star of the show, a 300-horsepower Verado positioned just above the large viewing monitor. The effect was massive in size and impression. The Verado impressively perched up there elevated just out of reach of the crowd gave the subtle impression that it was quite literally untouchable. The symbolism was not lost on me.

    Just as all of the Verado engines were uncovered, I moved into position to get some closeup photos, and just as I was ready to press the shutter-release, I could hear Japanese discussion by some very eager onlookers next to me, and naturally it caught my interest. There were three associates from another major outboard engine manufacturer right next to me, and they looked very frantic, with two of them shooting photos while the third would point to areas on that gleaming cutaway Verado to photograph. This is the kind of thing I would never have imagined seeing. To me, the Mercury Verado was a very bold example of marine engineering. To others, the Verado was a frightening display of Mercury's technological might. Mercury had not simply been satisfied to enter the four-stroke outboard fray - they were going to change its landscape.



    I felt it was important to see how this event would play out in other areas of the convention center that morning. After the initial excitement subsided somewhat, I began to make my rounds within the convention center to cover the happenings of the other manufacturers in attendance, which turned out to be an almost surreal experience. The main display areas of some other manufacturers were mostly vacant. While demonstration movies played on large-screen monitors and their product launches took place, it was entirely to an empty floor. Chairs that were set up in many rows for what was expected to be a busy morning were empty. In one area I saw associates playing a card game on a table. It was a bizarre experience on the opening day of the largest boat show in the world.

    Mercury had upended the outboard engine industry so fantastically and dramatically, that they very literally stole the show. The impact they made was total. Nobody had ever seen a production supercharged outboard engine before, and the endless speculation building up to that moment on Thursday, compounded with the desire of the press (myself most definitely included) to take everything in at that moment created a near frenzy at Mercury’s floor space.


    Once I was satisfied that I had all of the material I needed of the launch event, I immediately hopped on the shuttle to the Miami Beach Marina, where test boats were waiting. Although it was still the morning, the docks were already crowded, but the Mercury associates made sure I would have no delay in getting on a Verado-powered boat.

    My first impression of the pair of 250-horsepower Verado engines was rather surprising. I was eagerly awaiting the moment these big engines would be started. But they were already running. I had never seen any outboard engine idle so silently and so smoothly. No vibrations. No sound. And no smoke. We set off for a test ride.

    Once the throttle was opened to get the large boat on plane, power came on very quickly. The Verado was designed to mute the intake vacuum sound of the supercharger, but I could still hear hint of air being drawn into the engine as the power was increased. At maximum throttle, the Verado was very quiet, but what sound it did make was pleasing.


    I should make an important point here; producing an outboard that makes a lot of horsepower is not difficult. However mass-producing an outboard with forced-induction, with the running manners and performance of a high-end luxury car for the consumer market that is very reliable, Three-Star compliant, and with a full warranty is entirely another matter. It was a consumer-friendly hot rod of an outboard. I also knew that Mercury Racing would set aside the engine's consumer-minded pleasantries and unleash its potential.

    It was a fantastic experience for an equally fantastic engine platform. I've been told by people at Mercury that these engines routinely rack up 3000 hours of use without any issue. How rare it is to see a groundbreaking product introduced with all of its technologies mastered in its first generation. Fourteen years later, the Verado is still at the top of its game, with its 400-horsepower Mercury Racing sibling still unmatched in outboard-powered racing boats at the time of this writing. As a singular product, the Mercury Verado introduced in 2004 introduced a new era for Mercury Marine. In a wider scope, it became the far-reaching launch vehicle for an entirely new breed of Mercury high-performance four-stroke outboards in both consumer and racing trim.

    The new Mercury 4.6-liter V8 engine platform has already set the stage for a repeat of an event I thought would never happen again. As I see it, the Mercury Racing 250R and 300R as well as the revolutionary new 450R are to outboards what the Kawasaki Z1 was to four-stroke motorcycles back in 1972 - that is, the beginning of the technological force that will shape performance boating for decades to come. And this is just the beginning of what will be a very interest future for high-performance outboards.

    It's a great time to be a performance boater.


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    Comments 4 Comments
    1. bernie's Avatar
      bernie -
      I am pretty sure Tim Hackbarth, a long time Mercury technician in the Exhibits Department, was responsible for the construction of the cutaway; I would say the most awesome cutaway their group ever produced.
    1. Scream And Fly's Avatar
      Scream And Fly -
      Quote Originally Posted by bernie View Post
      I am pretty sure Tim Hackbarth, a long time Mercury technician in the Exhibits Department, was responsible for the construction of the cutaway; I would say the most awesome cutaway their group ever produced.
      I agree, it's spectacular. The impression it made on launch day was insane. I wonder if they still have some of the incredible displays they made back in the 60s, including a massive propeller that spun, and had smoke coming out of it to promote the Jet-Prop exhaust!
    1. bernie's Avatar
      bernie -
      Quote Originally Posted by Scream And Fly View Post
      I agree, it's spectacular. The impression it made on launch day was insane. I wonder if they still have some of the incredible displays they made back in the 60s, including a massive propeller that spun, and had smoke coming out of it to promote the Jet-Prop exhaust!
      Far as I know, and I haven't seen it in a few years, they still have the propeller. The one I like and they still have is that T-bolt ignition thing that goes around and drags a foot long spark from every terminal it goes past. They also still have a running cutaway for the 644 sno-mo engine all chromed up - as we built the 644 at Plant 4 back in the day, I had that display in our inspection off ice a long time - it came in real handy when we had a problem on the floor with something, you could look at it and figure out if something slightly out of print was going to hurt anything before you sent through a deviation request.
    1. bernie's Avatar
      bernie -
      I wasn't at Miami for the Verado launch, too busy hauling them around to my Northern OEM customers, including a trip to Princecraft in Princville QE with one in the back of my company van. Getting that thing thru customs into Canada is a whole 'nuther story. Merc guys on the docks at the Marriot told me that the BRP guys actually applauded as one of the Verado boats came by.
Frank Mole Transport