by J. V. Reistrup
Cousins Everett Pearson and Clinton Pearson knew they were breaking ground in 1959 when they started volume production of sailboats using a newfangled material: polyester fiberglass. But they didn't realize they would also affect the lives of tens of thousands of sailors, for better or worse, when they chose to power their Alberg-designed Triton 28 sailboat with a simple little gasoline engine from Universal Motor Company in Oshkosh, Wis.--the Atomic Four.
The young cousins were innovative entrepreneurs, going up against the traditionalists' wooden boats. But the age of fiberglass had begun, and soon the Pearsons were doing so well they were able to buy the old Herreshoff boatbuilding yard in Rhode Island. L. Francis Herreshoff himself, Everett Pearson recalls, once visited the yard and told the Pearsons exactly what he thought of their new building material. It was, he said, "frozen snot." The famous designer's opinion of the Triton's auxiliary engine, though, might not have been so uncharitable. The Atomic Four was a reliable little four-cylinder marine engine that fit the Pearsons' bill in every way: it was light, small enough to fit in the 28-footer, and reasonably priced. Its 64 cubic inches of displacement (just over one liter) produced a maximum of 30 horsepower, but its torque--turning power--was produced over a wide range of engine speed.
Except for a couple of one-lungers out of Europe, Pearson says, there weren't any diesels of the right size--and, he says, people were comfortable with gasoline in those days. "At the time it was a really good choice," he says, adding that they might have come to a different decision if they'd had today's wider range of diesels to choose from.
Dozens of sailboat builders followed suit; the Atomic Four can be found in classics from Alberg, Bristol, C&C, Catalina, Columbia, Ericson, Irwin, Morgan, Newport, O'Day, Ranger, Sabre and Tartan. In all, an estimated 40,000 Atomic Fours were produced. Now the fiberglass craft from that era are old and have their own traditionalists, who are trying to keep their beloved sailboats going. To do it, thousands of them continue to nurse along their venerable Atomic Four engines, and a couple of cottage industries have sprung up to help them.
The thing that really gets Don Moyer aggravated is any suggestion, real or imagined, that his dedication to the Atomic Four is in any way quirky or eccentric. He is still indignant that a writer for another magazine a few years back suggested that Atomic Four loyalists are a cult. "A cult!" he exclaims.
"It's just a beautiful engine," Moyer tells a visitor to his Chestertown, Md., home, from which he and his wife Brenda operate Moyer Marine Inc., a business built on providing parts and advice to Atomic Four owners. "Please hear this: It didn't last this long by accident," Moyer says. "It lasts because it was built to last."
Moyer spent 20 years in the Air Force, flying F-86, F-101 and F-102 interceptors. Contrary to the image of hell-for-leather daredevils imagined by screenwriters for Hollywood movies like Top Gun, fighter pilots tend to be surprisingly risk-averse and detail-oriented. After retiring from the Air Force in 1975, Moyer went to work for an environmental services company and then, in the mid-1980s, in a case of love at first sight, he and Brenda discovered sailing. At a used-boat show in Annapolis they bought a Seafarer 31, designed by Bill Tripp and named Water Music. "And that's how we met the Atomic Four, actually. It had an Atomic Four in it." They sailed it for 12 years, during which Moyer became familiar with the engine. He rebuilt the original engine, and when he came across one in better condition he rebuilt that one too, and put it in his boat.
Moyer says the tipping point came after an exchange with Daniel Spurr, editor of Practical Sailor magazine, "whom I admired but who always bad-mouthed the Atomic Four. I wrote him, 'I suspect that half your customer base has an Atomic Four. Why don't you help them instead of beating up on them?' "
By Moyer's account, Spurr declined to do that, but he did mention in his column that anybody interested in the Atomic Four should write Moyer. The Moyers went on a vacation at about the time the column appeared, and when they returned there was a pile of mail under the slot in the front door. Moyer already had a small newsletter about the Atomic Four, with under 100 readers, but after the magazine article that quickly grew to about 750. Now, through e-mail and a forum at www.moyermarine.com, he has a flock of some 5,000 Atomic four devotees--a number that represents, he guesses, about 20 percent of the total market. And that, he says, suggests that well over half of the original Atomic Fours still survive. "Everything you need to know about the Atomic Four you'll find in there," he tells his visitor, gesturing toward the den the Moyers have turned into an office. "Either in the computer or in my head."
The Moyers provide more than helpful advice by obtaining and selling parts. Many Atomic Four owners put only 100 hours or so on their engines every year, Moyer notes, although a few motor up and down the Intracoastal Waterway. Meanwhile, their beloved boats are depreciating in value. It doesn't make much sense to spend $8,000 to $12,000 on a diesel conversion, Moyer notes, when the owner won't recover the cost. Instead, he can have the Atomic Four rebuilt or repaired for a fraction of the cost.
At first Moyer provided replacement parts from Westerbeke, which had bought out Universal Motor Company but kept its focus on diesels. As prices went up and Westerbeke stopped carrying some Atomic Four parts, Moyer found himself searching for other sources. He found some in Pennsylvania, where he comes from and where he lived when he began boating. "We have found sources for every part there is on the Atomic Four, partnering with the Amish community and others," he says. Some parts come from a repair shop that was already supplying replacement parts for the old tractors the Amish use, Moyer says. This Amish community has a "take-care-of-things mentality," he notes. A small foundry nearby produces the smaller bronze and brass castings the Moyers sell, and a larger foundry in what he calls "the English community" uses high-tech equipment and lathes to produce larger parts, including manifolds and heads.
Both manifolds and heads are prone to rusting out--the manifolds because they are exposed to moisture on the outside and hot exhaust gas on the inside, and the heads because on this "L-head" design they sit right on top of the engine block, with indentations through which the spark plugs are screwed into the combustion chamber. The heads collect water there, and if they aren't kept painted--ideally in the traditional bronze--they can rust right through. The Moyers' prices for parts are well under those from the original equipment manufacturer, he says. They still rely on rounding up and refurbishing used engine blocks, but Moyer hopes to some day find a manufacturer for those too.
Tom Stevens of Williamsburg, Va., runs his own cottage business, Indigo Electronics Inc., which is more complementary to Moyers Marine than it is competitive. But Stevens came to it out of discomfiture, not loyalty. "I have owned sailboats all my life, and my dad did also. With the Atomic Four. And I got into Atomic Fours out of frustration," he says. He began inventing things not just to maintain the engine but to bring it more up to date.
First it was the ignition system, which was originally like that in older cars. Electricity from either the battery or the alternator would go into a distributor, inside which a rotor turns to touch the breaker points that send a spark to each cylinder in its designated turn. But those points can wear down or corrode, making the engine run poorly or not at all. Ev Pearson remembers putting into Cuttyhunk Island in Massachusetts to change points, and he cites the incident as an example of how easily a do-it-yourselfer can keep the Atomic Four running well. Others, like Stevens, are not inclined to call it a virtue. Drawing on his experience as a General Electric field engineer who worked on large vessels, Stevens devised an ingenious electronic ignition system in which a shutter and an optical trigger (consisting of a light-emitting diode and a photo transistor) replace the conventional points and condenser. Except in the case of fouled spark plugs, he says, the system "eliminates ignition as the culprit" for poor performance.
Next came his freshwater-cooling conversion kit. Although some Atomic Fours came with a closed cooling system like those in cars, most had raw-water systems. Since raw-water systems are prone to corrosion problems, Stevens engineered his own add-on heat exchanger, in which the outside water circulates in tubes inside a container holding the engine coolant and brings down its temperature. Providing an example of the cooperative spirit throughout the Atomic Four community, this Indigo Electronics product incorporates a Moyer Marine pump.
After that came devices to match refinements that have been in cars for years: a crankcase ventilation system and an oil-filter kit. The latest Stevens invention is a three-blade propeller to replace the original two-blade version and improve performance.
Stevens retired from his job last year and now devotes full time to the Atomic Four retrofit business. He says his peak sales come in February and March, as sailors get ready for the coming season. His own Tartan 34, which he sails on the James River, is equipped with an Atomic Four. Stevens says diesel engines stink. "I get absolutely nauseated every time I get aboard a diesel-powered boat, because they're never tight," he says.
Dan Spurr of Practical Sailor, who confirms Dan Moyer's story of how the magazine gave him a backhanded boost, still isn't a big fan of the little four-banger. "The Atomic Four is a pretty dead-simple engine," he says, "but it's just old." In older boats of limited value, he says, and for limited use--a couple of weeks every summer--the Atomic Four is fine. But for the bigger boats Spurr wanted to keep, he says conversion to diesel made sense. "After two Atomic Fours, all of my boats have been diesels. If it came with an Atomic Four, I repowered it myself," he says.
Try telling that to the loyalists at the Moyers' forum, where Don Moyer preaches to the choir of Atomic Four owners. One innocent newcomer posted a query, saying he had just bought an old sailboat equipped with an Atomic Four engine that needed to be replaced and he didn't know whether to put in another like it or a small diesel. "Some sailors I have spoken to say diesel is better," he wrote.
"Whoever told you the A4 is not a good engine needs to have their head read!" came a rejoinder from one reader. A more measured response came from the owner of a 1972 Ericson 35, who also happens to be a marine surveyor and has worked on everything from Atomic Fours to 5,000-hp diesels. "I can say the A4 is a pleasure to work on," he told the newcomer, "as long as you have decent access [and maintain it]. . . . If I was going around the world, or very long distance, I'd contemplate another boat with a diesel engine but never refit my current boat, as I'd never get my money back. But if you are like me and put on one hundred twenty-five to one hundred fifty hours (max) a year in just docking and getting in and out of the marina, that's not much time on an engine." Echoing other Atomic Four owners, he also emphasized the importance of running the blower five minutes before starting to get rid of any gasoline fumes and then sniffing around to be sure.
Speaking of which, that's another sure-fire way to get Don Moyer's dander up: mention the widely held notion that diesels are safer because there's less risk of fire. However true that may be in general, Moyer insists that it is simply not a factor with the Atomic Four. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, he says, the engine has a spotless record. "Not a single, solitary engine fire," he says, before ruefully closing the subject. "We're not going to join this debate over diesel versus gas. That's all they want. And I'm so sorry we ever got down this road."
Everett Pearson, who has been described as the Henry Ford of fiberglass boatbuilding, has gone on to other things since he and cousin Clint put an Atomic Four in the first Triton. They ran into cash-flow problems at the old Herreshoff yard and sold a controlling interest to Grumman Allied Industries in 1961. After a few unhappy years working for a large corporation, Clint left to found Bristol Yachts, and Everett started an industrial fiberglass company.
Then Ev Pearson partnered with Neil Tillotson to form Tillotson-Pearson, which has since become TPI Composites. Over the years, Pearson estimates, he's built as many as 10,000 boats, including about 5,000 J/24 racing sloops. He has now retired from TPI and spends much of his time golfing in Florida, having sold the last sailboat he owned. He maintains an active role, however, in his latest ventures: Pearson Pilings, which makes composite pilings, and the SwimEx line of water-exercise equipment, both headed by his son Mark.
Despite his departure from boatbuilding, Ev Pearson says he still gets e-mails asking him for advice about upkeep of his boats, and he has to respond that he doesn't do that any more. Does he ever get complaints about the Atomic Four?