Hicks Marine Engine Archival Collection

A volunteer showing a Hicks engine to a visitor on Hyde Street Pier.
A volunteer explains how a Hicks engine works to a visitor on Hyde Street Pier.


By Palma You, Archives Technician

Say the words "potato, potato, potato" and you will hear the sound and rhythm of a Hicks marine engine circa 1910 through 1950. Hicks Engine plans and marketing materials (SAFR 17336, HDC 1092), the Park's archival collection of over 2,850 Hicks engine fabrication blueprints, provides details about the gasoline engine used most often during the first half of the 20th century in Monterey fishing boats along San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, the West Coast and Pacific Basin.

Location, location, location - San Francisco was an epicenter of gasoline engine manufacturing and production because of its proximity to the developing West Coast. In the first half of the 20th century, California was home to more than two dozen engine builders including Hicks Iron Works in San Francisco (Grayson, 1994).

A photo taken in 1936 of Monterey fishing boats at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, CA.
Monterey fishing boats along Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, CA, May 18, 1936. A Hicks Marine Engine Repair shop is located left of center.

NPS, SAFR A12.28,689n

An illustration of a single-cylinder Hicks engine.
An illustration of a one cylinder, eight horsepower Hicks engine that is in the Park's artifact collection, circa 1940. SAFR 17336, HDC 1092


By 1910, Irish immigrant, James Lee Hicks, had modified and refined the single cylinder four-stroke gasoline engine for optimal reliability under marine conditions. The Hicks heavy-duty marine engine was less likely to foul from moisture and was thus extremely reliable (Prine, 2010).

The smallest of the Hicks heavy-duty marine engines, single cylinder between 6 to 9 horsepower and 350-500 rpm, could weigh up to 1,700 pounds. With solid construction and simplicity in design, users viewed Hicks engines as sturdy, easy to start, durable, dependable, and economical to operate and repair because all the parts are visible, in essence, a friendly engine. Local manufacturing plants meant parts were easy to obtain.

Advertisements touted the Hicks engine to fishermen as a “SURE” piece of equipment they could rely on. “Sometimes there’s a heavy sea, contrary winds--power is absolutely necessary. Your life is at stake. Your earnings depend upon how the engine works,” claimed a 1930 Hicks Engines, Heavy Duty Marine Gas Engines catalog number three, circa 1940. The Hicks engine offered the ability to be competitive in the fishing industry and the “SURE” meant the Hicks engine would reliably bring you home for supper.

Yuba Manufacturing Company factory.
Yuba Manufacturing Company factory.

NPS SAFR 17336 HDC 1092

What happened to the Hicks Iron Works?

Around 1920, Mr. Hicks retired and Yuba Manufacturing Company of Benicia, California (1898-1957), made Hicks engines for marine vessels until in the late-1940’s, selling the Hicks "heavy duty" marine gas engines through the Hicks Engine Sales Company from San Francisco and Martinez, California. To meet demand during a time of high demand for fabricated iron and steel, “The Yuba”, as the company was known in Benicia, California, contracted other companies, such as the Bay Specialties Company to manufacture and distribute Hicks engines and parts. Alex Thomson founded the Bay Specialties Company (1939-1950) of Martinez, California. Mr. Thomson’s grandson donated the Hicks Engine plans to the Park in 1994.

This collection of plans with detailed specifications is an excellent source for model makers, and vintage/classic gasoline engine enthusiasts. The collection includes blueprints, assembly and price lists, a catalog and instruction manual, photographs, and illustrations of parts. Blueprint title blocks indicate the unique engine series number, part name and number, and issue date. Plans for series B, C, D, E, F, W, Sketch, AY, BY, CY, DY, EY, FY, GY, HY, KY and LY model engines, which have one to three cylinders and horsepower ranging from 6 to 45, are included.


About a half dozen Hicks engines are alive and well today (Prine), chugging along in vessels on the San Francisco Bay. Two are on display at Hyde Street Pier. Visit the small craft dock at the pier and see the WETTON, a 1923 Monterey boat, with a Hicks engine on exhibit. You might also hear the distinctive "potato, potato, potato" sound while on the pier. A park ranger or volunteer may have the stationary Hicks engine fired up and running for a demonstration. Look for it near the end of the pier. Ranger-led tours of the small craft moored at the pier are conducted regularly during the year. Call the visitor center for Hicks engine demonstration dates and times, 415-447-5000. To order copy of plans, please contact the Historic Documents Department, 415-561-7030.


Grayson, S. (1994). Old Marine Engines. The world of the One-Lunger. 2nd ed. Marblehead, MA. Devereux Books

Nostalgia Engineering (2000). Nostalgia Engineering presents the Hicks model engine. Video recording (VHS cassette). SF Maritime NHP Research Center library collection.

Make and break ignition: YouTube clip of an operating HY 16-23hp Hicks Engine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=heleyhqLWwk&safety_mode=true&persist_safety_mode=1

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tappet

Guide to the Yuba Manufacturing Company, 1898-1957

Personal Interviews:
Canright, Stephen (October 2010). Curator of History, SFMNHP.
Jablonowski, Michael (October 2010). Volunteer, SFMNHP.
Bay Specialties Company (October, November 2010). Donor.
Muir, John (October 2010). Small Craft Museum Curator, SFMNHP.
Prine, Bill (October, November 2010). Vintage gasoline engine collector.

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Last updated: April 23, 2021

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