I am amazed how dialogues come and go from year to year, resurfacing regularly for a variety of reasons. Recently, that was the case with marine engines, from the recent boat show in Annapolis, and in discussions as we plan for another cruising season.

Most boat owners have experience with more than one brand of marine engine, whether gas or diesel. Over the course of owning several cruising boats, one develops an appreciation for one company’s product line that, in many cases, gives a good experience when compared to other brands. And let’s not forget the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to parts availability and product support and service.

Personally, I have an attraction to John Deere engines, because I knew many people at John Deere and have had excellent experience with two different models of Deere Marine engines. For me, the Deere brand is synonymous with quality, reliability, and power.

Seen below: 'DIRONA, a 52-foot Nordhavn Yacht that has crossed every ocean including the Atlantic twice. It is powered with M2-rated John Deere 6068AFM75 IMO Tier II emissions engine producing 266 hp.

Nordhavn Yacht 

But that is me, and my friends feels the same about their experiences with Cummins, Caterpillar, Yanmar, and Volvo. And there are many others out there, such as Westerbeke, Lehman, Detroit Diesel, Perkins, and Beta Marine.

I touched on this subject a few years ago, but given the recent conversations, I thought it would be valuable to reshare the comments from a couple of experts in the marine engine industry.

These statements are highlights from my discussions with these respected engine experts. The trend is all about global partnerships, where sourced products often span continents.

Greg Light is an experienced engine guy who was a major force at Cascade Marine Diesel, as well as Alaska Diesel in the Pacific Northwest. Greg has been around engines an exceptionally long time and knows the industry inside and out. His knowledge always make for interesting and informative discussion. Now retired, he still knows so much about this subject.

He told me of a conversation he once had with a couple cruising on their large motor yacht. They were having problems in their engine room and sought some guidance from Greg as to the cause…and possible solution. Seems the boat was moored for some time in an area where the surrounding water was covered by an oil slick. This unnatural environment caused both cutless bearings to swell up and freeze around the shafts. It was an expensive repair.

As he recalled the story, Greg mentioned to the couple that the boat’s large Caterpillar diesel engines were manufactured by Fiat. In fact, he went on to explain that only certain size engines are still built by Caterpillar. The rest are contracted to another manufacturer.

Seen below: Workers at the FPT Industrial Factory, a division of Fiat, use cutting-edge robot technology. FPT stands for Fiat Powertrain Technologies.

workers and robots at Fiat

Which is how this topic came up again. It seems many people are not aware of today’s engine branding, and don’t really know the heritage of their engines in these days of strict emissions regulations. None of it is a secret, particularly, but it is not talked about very much either.

Simply put, the name on your engine may be just a private label, attached to an engine by another manufacturer. Caterpillar chose Fiat engines for certain horsepower ratings because it makes financial sense, as the enormous cost of new engine development is not justifiable when there are alternatives. Fiat Powertrain Technologies happens to be an industrial giant that manufactures millions of engines a year. This is not the Fiat to confuse with those unreliable cars of our youth. (When the joke was that Fiat stood for “Fix It Again, Tony.”)

I also spoke with Bob Tokarczyk, who retired from Bell Power Systems a few years back, the NE distributor of John Deere products. Like Greg Light, Bob has a wealth of knowledge about marine engines and power systems, in an industry that has come a long way in the last 40 years.

With the increasingly strict emissions imposed by the EPA beginning in the late ‘90s on up to Tier 4 regulations for compression-ignition engines (diesel engines), manufacturers have faced increased pressure to spend millions of dollars on research and development of new technology if they want to continue selling new engines to the world. And, in our case, the recreational boating market.

Some engine manufacturers decided at some point that it simply was not worth the enormous investment to chase these moving goalposts, so they pulled out of the market of certain horsepower and displacement ratings when their existing product lines could no longer hope to satisfy ever-tougher regulations. When a large manufacturing giant only sells 1,000 engines a year to the marine market, it is hardly worth the additional investment. Cummins, for example, dropped out of the lower horsepower market altogether.

Bob reminded me that engineers can only tweak engines up to a point. Beyond a certain performance level, reliability suffers, things break, sometimes causing serious damage to the surroundings. He recalled in the ‘70s, when Detroit Diesel pushed its 92-series engines beyond reasonable limits, they began failing in record numbers. One large equipment operator almost went out of business when over 50 percent of its fleet was out of commission at any one time due to failed engines.

For Caterpillar, it was no longer possible to further develop some engines in certain horsepower ranges, so the venerable 3208s, so common on our trawlers and motor yachts, were doomed, as were the 3116 and the 3126 engines, although they had some other issues as well.

As the world woke up to the requirements to control emission into our environment, the EPA forced engine manufacturers to reevaluate their core businesses. For many, the clear and obvious solution was to align with other manufacturers who had engine products that already met or could be made to meet the newer regulations. If a company could save the tremendous expense of developing new engine technology by buying engines from another manufacturer, the decreased costs and subsequent increase in revenue represents a win/win for everyone.

Seen below: Caterpillar's latest engine technology focuses heavily on higher efficiency, lower emissions, and reducing the carbon footprint of every boat.

In this decade, global partnerships have become the new normal, and business goes on as usual, only differently. And to some extent, this is nothing new. Bob told me at one time Caterpillar even had an unlikely relationship with Perkins to produce small diesel engines.

The Yanmar engines in my 41-foot power cat were manufactured by BMW, marinized by Yanmar in Europe. Toyota and Scandia also fit in the Yanmar lineup. John Deere was one of the base engines of Alaska Diesel’s Lugger brand, and Deere has in the past partnered with Nanni.

The gasoline engine in my Hunt Harrier 25 is labeled as a 375hp Volvo Penta engine. But it is really a General Motors V8 Vortec gas engine, marinized by Volvo Penta.

As anyone can clearly see, such global partnerships make excellent business sense. The engine in John Deere’s small tractor is a Yanmar diesel, for example. And over 50 percent of all Deere engines go to engine distributors to equip other manufacturers. The worldwide volume of this global scale is staggering. The Deere operation in Mexico builds between 300,000 and 400,000 engines a year. Few come into the marine industry.

Unfortunately, with cleaner emissions come an increase in cost. A few years ago, Bob Tokarczyk said that to meet the latest standards, engines that used to cost $60,000 would likely be closer to $95,000. Clean comes at a cost. Today these costs are even higher.

With all of this behind-the-scenes partnering going on, so what? Does it really matter who ultimately built your engines? Caterpillar’s exacting standards are kept intact when it selects engines from another manufacturer, even Fiat Powertrain Technologies. Warranties, distribution, parts, and service facilities all remain Caterpillar-centric. One might never know one way or the other.

And the same goes with the other companies. It is just using a modified business model. Everything else stays the same, which is probably why it is not widely known. And the boat owner doesn’t really need to know because it makes no difference in the long run.

So, the next time you wipe down and polish the shiny label on top of your engine, take a moment to reflect on where you think it might have really come from. And do you even care?

I suppose for the ultimate gearhead party, one might celebrate the heritage of a boat’s trusty diesel engine. Be aware, however, it may not call for a couple of racks of BBQ ribs and beer, as you once thought, for an engine that you assumed came from the U.S. Midwest. It may be much more fitting to serve a family-style bowl of penne and meatballs, with garlic bread and a robust red wine. Mangia!

Our world is global and there is no going back.

Enjoy these other boating and cruising articles by Bill Parlatore: