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Seagull Outboards

 
Seagulls

The historic Seagull Outboards – the legendary low-tech two-strokers, how to fix them and how to start a Seagull
For those who have not had the pleasure of coming across one – and there can’t be many sailors over a certain age – a Seagull Outboard is a small two-stroke, one-cylinder, petrol outboard engine produced by the British Seagull Company, between its conception in 1931 (under the Sunbeam Motorcycle Company) and its demise in 1996.

Seagulls

 

The Seagull Outboard was originally designed as a workboat engine for inshore fishermen and their wooden powerboats, and others who needed a simple, robust motor. After the war, small boat cruising exploded in popularity – and so did the Seagull.

In its heyday of the 1970s, British Seagull was selling over 80,000 motors a year – small, affordable, bullet-proof outboards barely changed since before the war, for pushing the tender, dinghy or the pocket cruiser along at a few knots when the wind dropped. The company even had its own foundries for the production of components.

The Seagull has become one of the few engines ever to achieve cult status, the nautical counterpart of the motor that powered Vespas, another one-cylinder two-stroke petrol engine designed to mobilise working Italy. Even those who don’t know about  Seagull Outboards might recall Jude Law’s dinghy scene with Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley.

John Williams is a man who has devoted his life to saving old Seagulls. Following the Blackwater River to meet him in his corner of rural Essex, I began to form a picture of him: he would fall into that peculiarly English category: the kindly, eccentric old boy; king of the garden shed and fusty, friendly curator of his own childhood.

John Williams

As we sat in his kitchen and John, in his British Seagull sweater, talked about his beloved engines, it became clear that John is a more modern sort of creature. He talked optimistically about the possibility of siting wind-generators in his part of Essex and about how he has learned to run his own website since the death of his close friend who built it.

I wasn’t entirely wrong either: John is the king of not one, but two garden sheds, one housing Seagulls in various stages of refurbishment, and the other stacked to the ceiling with spares. This is where the Gulls come to roost.

“It all started with my own sailing. I had a Mirror and wanted an outboard. Everybody – literally everybody – had a Seagull in the 60s and 70s, and I had an affinity with the things. I could make them work when others couldn’t. I love them for their simplicity and honesty. They’re a bit like me I suppose! Aesthetically, I also find them very attractive.”

Seagull cutaway

John talked about the beginning of the affair – an affair that, like Don Street’s, sometimes tries the patience of his family. The appeal of Seagulls is powerful. The low-tech wonder only has three moving parts at the engine end of the shaft, and for many, the functional styling has its own visual appeal.
After an accident in a classroom in the early 90s, John had to retire from the police force where he had worked for nearly 29 years, the last 20 as a boatman on the Thames. His plan to teach boathandling as a civilian was dashed by his injury which prevented him gaining his medical pass.
Worried about impending legislation to ban two-stroke engines, and up against  competition from quieter, more modern four-stroke outboards, British Seagull was in a similar plight. The company had slashed manufacturing in 1993, and it was clear to many that the end was nigh.

As a result of this, dealers lost interest in servicing Seagull Outboard motors, as greater profit was to be made from servicing and fixing more complex modern engines under guarantee. John took over the upkeep of Seagulls, clearing the factory of spares, and buying up yet more bits and pieces from chandleries and dealers.

Today, his home and his life are their sanctuary. From 1994 to 1996, John was Seagull’s technical adviser, and ran their stand at the London Boat Show. “One year a group of navy divers came to the stand. They had recovered a Seagull in Plymouth Sound and were amazed that the flywheel – covered in weed and barnacles – still moved. They put it on the skipper’s RIB for a laugh, and it went buzzing around with weeds flailing off it.”

It’s a common story. Many of the phone calls John receives are from people who have found a Seagull in the loft, pulled the cord three times and been amazed to hear the thing start. “They always do – and often on the third pull,” says John. “There must be absolutely thousands in cellars and lofts around Britain.”

As if to prove it, a sailing couple arrive with three seagulls in the boot; found in a shed of course. Saving Old Seagulls, as John calls his operation, is a busy concern. The phone rings all day, half a dozen orders for parts arrive every morning, and a stream of emails beg for help.

John services and repairs engines in the winter, and in the summer gives advice and sells parts, if he’s not off sailing his Eventide. He makes enough from it to keep his boat in
Burnham Marina, but what drives him more is his passion to keep the machines running. He won’t sell a part if it’s not strictly necessary, first vetting customers on the phone to ensure they really need it.

Vintage advertising poster

Alongside his work on the engines, John is a keen historian of the company. People from around the world send him posters and literature, and it’s this dated advertising from a more innocent era that is part of the folklore of these motors. A pre-war example has a drawing of two men in a sailing dinghy accompanied by the sing-song verse: “One-designs can venture, Far from home all day, As long as they’ve a Seagull … Stashed away. Telephone Poole 818.”
When pressed for tips on maintaining Seagulls, John suggests keeping one’s voice down when boating, “as sound travels over water, and there’s already enough trouble waiting for you ashore”. For a second I doubt his sanity, but the mystifying advice is another eccentric snippet
published by Seagull in their gloriously vintage marketing blurb.

“Make no mistake,” warns John. “Seagull Outboards are tough old birds, but they won’t last forever.” The lifespan of a Seagull Outboard is about 25-40 years, at which point the cylinder-blocks corrode beyond redemption. This is the Seagull’s death cry, as the blocks are running out, although Sheridan Marine still make a good range of other spares.

The perfect outboard for a classic tender

John’s larger shed, which he uses as the workshop, contains over three dozen of the machines, standing upright under tarps waiting to see what the future will bring. Some will be broken for parts, some resurrected, and some simply junked.
Later, we stand in John’s garden running one of the engines, ears straining for the moment when the syncopated sputtering of a Seagull “four-stroking” on idle becomes a blurred waspish buzz, an engine note as distinctive as an air-cooled VW Beetle.

 

Simplicity: single cylinder and transfer port

The water churning in the tub is black with discharged oil and carbon. The Seagull Outboard in action is living up to its reputation as a smelly, noisy, dirty engine. But it’s not all bad news: a 14ft (4.3m) dinghy puttering along at 3 knots with a small Seagull running on biodegradable two-stroke oil on half throttle burns only a shade over two pints (1.1L) of fuel an hour and does no harm to the riverbank.

 

A 70s magazine advertisement for the Seagull Company explains that “to attempt to drive an ordinary displacement boat faster than hull speed is a waste of time, money, power and fuel and creates all the wash and disturbance”. The pragmatic, slightly fussy tone of the message – so of its time – is an antithesis of the more sentimentally phrased messages we hear today.

That Seagulls hail from an era when responsibility to the    environment meant  “rinsing and returning”, means a lot today as the motors grow older. John explains why: a modern outboard is without argument a more efficient motor than a Seagull Outboard, with its crude carburettor: but a modern outboard wears out after 7-10 years, something many owners find hard to come to terms with after owning a Seagull that powered three generations through the water. And the biggest waste of energy produced by any engine is in its manufacture, something recognised by the Department of Trade and Industry when it gave its Green Apple Award for environmental friendliness to the Morris Minor, in many ways the Seagull Outboard’s automotive counterpart: over-engineered, fault-tolerant, and capable of huge mileage on few, recyclable parts. Fittingly, it’s also the van – Seagull liveried – that John drives.

This longevity is something Seagull owners can be proud of, but it’s not why they own them. For some, Seagull Outboards represent the same values they always have:they’re cheap, practical engines. With most owners though, it’s about nostalgia, a whiff of Maurice Griffiths’ world or a reliving of childhood. John explains: “A man came in the other day with his eight-year-old son [and a Seagull]. His dad had it, and now he wants his kid to have it; happens all the time.”

Seagull

The Seagull Outboard, like anything, has a limited life but for many thousands hiding in attics, lofts and sheds, the autumn of their lives will begin many years from now when someone digs them out, pulls the cord once… twice… and they will whirr back into life. When the powers that be ban the manufacture of all two-stroke engines, the Seagulls will be waiting. And long may they live.

How to start your Seagull Outboard motor engine

Super Lightweight Nine

1   Undo the air bleed on top of the tank

2  Let the fuel out of the tank by pulling the fuel tap out

3  Tickle the carburettor till it floods

4  Flip down the metal choke

5  Set throttle to halfway or a little more

6  Ensure it’s in neutral – if there is one

7  Give it a smart pull

 

 

For more information on Seagull Outboard motor engines:

Read our: Unofficial Seagull Outboard Maintenance Manual

Download direct from John William’s website: Download for only $1.99