Just like a boat ride along unchartered waters, Donnie LeJeune never imagined the direction an online purchase would take him.
LeJeune, a resident of Jarreau and deputy for the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, accelerated his love for boat motors when he purchased a dilapidated antique boat motor 14 years ago on eBay.
He brought it home, cleaned it and had it running as good as new.
“I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread – and then a hobby was born,” he said.
The work on vintage boat motors revved up a labor of love which has led LeJeune to buy more than 100 motors and refurbish several dozen models.
Thirty-seven of his boat motors are on display at the New Roads Visitors Center on Morrison Parkway.
The collection includes vintage models from the 1950s and 1960s, and as far back as 1913.
LeJeune is no stranger to mechanical work. He fondly remembers his childhood years when he would watch his father toil with all sorts of engines.
“I pursued a career in electronics, but my father was a master mechanic who worked on any kind of engine – boats, lawnmower, cars … you name it,” he said.
“I miss those days, so this has been a way for me get back in touch with my father, who died 30 years ago.”
The term “One man’s trash becomes another man’s treasure” may describe the motors LeJeune buys.
They arrive at his home in total disrepair, but he brings them back to life.
It’s almost like performing surgery, he said.
“When I tear them down, every part comes off, down to the piston, and then I put it together and make it run, and then I clean it up again and use it for display,” LeJeune said.
“I do that to prove the motor will still run, even though it’s not designed to run at that age when it’s oily, dirty and smoky.”
The work extends beyond a mere hobby for LeJeune.
“It’s a challenge, and I like the process of finding the parts, making it run and perhaps make it run better than it did originally,” he said.
“My rule is that if I can’t start it in one pull, then I start the whole process over again.”
Antique Outboarder, a national club, brings together boat enthusiasts, many of whom buy rare, hard-to-find parts from one another.
The challenge does not stop with finding the parts. LeJeune also seeks the nameplate on the flywheels and the original logos for the motors.
“It’s all about maintaining its original integrity,” he said.
Some of the models hit the market before the term “outboard motor” became associated with boating.
The first outboard motors were introduced in 1896 by American Motors Co. – not to be confused with the now-defunct car manufacturer – that built 25 motors, but none of the company’s pictures or paperwork still exist, LeJeune said.
“Everybody had rowboats, and some had inboard motors and others had outboard moters, but you couldn’t take them off – they were built onto the boat,” LeJeune said.
“The key word here was ‘detachable,’ much like cars were originally known as ‘horseless carriages.’ ”
Most of the models on display are two-stroke motors, but one of his favorite is a four-stroke engine, which dealt LeJeune his biggest challenge.
“It was such a rare breed,” he said. “Four-strokes are much more complex, while a two-stroke uses fewer parts and is less complex.”
Two-stroke models remained the rule of the day until last year, when environmental regulations put them to rest.
The display also features a dual-piston boat motor from 1937 which had the nickname of a popular film starlet of that era: Mae West.
He also has a 1920s-era Johnson aluminum motor, which introduced boaters to a much lighter model in an era when steel motors were the norm.
“It was very innovative to use cast aluminum that would hold up for an outboard motor,” LeJeune said.
World War II phased out aluminum boat motors because of the metal’s steep demand for the construction of aircraft.
The postwar era ushered an improved aluminum motor.
“When they continued making them after the way, they were able to make them thinner, lighter and stronger,” LeJeune said.
“The war gave us new technology, and it also triggered a boom in the sales of outboard motors during one of the nation’s best eras of economic prosperity.”
The history of outboard motors also encompasses an industry that has gone from hundreds of manufacturers to now only a fraction.
In June, Evinrude Motors announced it would discontinue the outboard motor, which marked the end of a brand synonymous with the product.
As for LeJeune, the projects will continue.
“I do it mainly during winter, when things are slow,” he said. “I have so many of these motors that I was about to have to put them in our bedroom, but I’ve since bought a shed, so they now have home.”
The shed stores more than 100 extra boat motors, which says something about his plans for the future.
“I probably have enough of them to keep me busy the rest of my life,” LeJeune said.