100 years have passed since Ole Evinrude invented the first outboard engine. This is the story of an ingenious idea that came about by chance. And a sweet tooth..
Once upon a time… This is how all the best fairy tales begin. We could start by telling you about a five-year-old boy, born in 1877, who moved away from Norway with his family to the town of Cambridge, Wisconsin in the United States. A boy who grew up and at sixteen started working in a factory and studying engineering textbooks in the evening. And who fell in love with a girl, with whom he enjoyed long boat trips. One summer Sunday in 1906 – the boy became a man they berthed on a small island for a picnic. At the end of their lunch Bess, (this was the girl’s name), sighed: “An ice cream would be great!”
No sooner said than done. Or almost, at least. Big Ole, as everyone called our hero, didn’t need to hear her ask twice; he jumped in the boat and started rowing towards town. It was two and a half miles there and another two and a half back. Out of breath, Big Ole handed the, by now, almost melted ice cream to Bess and said: “Someone should invent an engine for these boats!” and added, “Maybe I could do it.”This man was Ole Evinrude. We could also tell you that, two years later, Ole Evinrude married (yes, he married Bess!) and then became father to young Ralph. Along with his brother-in-law Russ, he hired an old rowing boat for 50 cents and tested his new invention: a small noisy contraption attached at stern. “It’s like a coffee grinder”, said Bess. However, it worked. The boat moved without rowing! Over the winter, Ole perfected his prototype and in 1909 manufactured by hand the first series of engines. Power: one and a half HP. Weight: 62 pounds (27 kilos). Price: 62 dollars. In the summer of 1909, Bess wrote the first advertising slogan and paid for its insertion in a Milwaukee paper. It read, “Enough rowing! Throw away your oars! Use an Evinrude engine”. All twenty-five engines were sold in an instant and the Evinrudes decided to venture into the world of industrial manufacturing.
The only problem? Lack of funds! Ole and Bess worked day and night and amazingly managed to produce and sell a good thousand engines for the summer of 1910. In September of the same year, the patent for a “removable engine for rowing boats” was registered in the name of Ole Evinrude. At the start of 1911 the Evinrude Row Boat Motor Company was established in a former soap factory in Reed Street, Milwaukee, with 5,000 dollars invested by a certain Chris Meyer, who became a partner in the company with a 50% share. It was a phenomenal success. In 1911, sales exceeded two thousand units and the new company employed more than one hundred people.
Ole managed production while Bess handled the sales side and, in fact, she was the one who signed a deal with a New York agency for the sale of the motors in Europe. Denmark and Norway placed orders for more than 9000 engines in the first year! We would like to tell you that the company went from strength to strength. However, like in all fairy tales, destiny played a cruel hand. Bess fell unexpectedly ill and Ole decided to pull out of the business to stay close to her. He sold his 50% share to his partner Chris Meyer, agreeing that he would stay out of the outboard engine market for at least five years. Without his creative genius, however, Evinrude Motors headed into decline. The company launched a heavy, expensive four-stroke twin cylinder engine. Sales dropped year after year. At the end of his five year sabbatical, Ole designed a revolutionary 3 HP twin cylinder engine in aluminium weighing just 21kg. As a sign of loyalty, he proposed it to his old partner who unexplainably refused it. Ole consulted Bess, who in the meantime had recovered, and he decided to go it alone, unbelievably competing with the company that bore his name! Elto Outboards Motor Company was founded in 1929 (Elto: Evinrude light twin outboard) and a year later the first aluminium twin cylinder was launched and instantly sold more than 1000 units. Competition became increasingly tougher, with new companies on the scene like Caille, Lockwood-Ash, Arrow and Kobstan. In particular, Johnson Motors had been set up and in its first year alone sold a good 3000 engines. These were exciting years for Ole and Bess who now had their son Ralph working alongside them. With the new Speedster 7 HP twin cylinders, sales reached ten thousand units in 1928 with a record profit of 300,000 dollars. Evinrude Motors, now in severe difficulties, was sold to Briggs & Stratton in the same period. Stephen Foster Briggs was the one who brought the turnaround: he rekindled relations with Ole Evinrude and together they founded a company that merged Evinrude, Elto and Lockwood, a small company well known for its successes in competition. OMC (Outboard Motors Corporation) was founded, and Ole was once again the owner of the trademark that bore his name. The years to come were difficult as the Great Depression hit America. More than anything, it was the end of an era. In 1933 Bess died. Ole survived her for fourteen months, dying on the 12 July 1934, at just 57.
The future of OMC now lay with Ralph who at twenty-seven found himself at the helm of the company, a role that he would occupy for 49 years until 1983. Together with Briggs, he initiated an expansion plan and they bought out their rival Johnson Motors in 1936. The Second World War put an end to their plans as OMC was entrusted with numerous contracts by the American government for aircraft parts. At the end of the war, the company’s growth resumed and was unstoppable. In 1947 OMC manufactured 262,000 engines, equalling the production of all other outboard engine producers in the United States! The innovations also continued: in 1954, the Aquasonic system was introduced to reduce noise levels and a V four cylinder – Starlite, was launched in 1958. The first pushbutton gear came in 1960 (forward-neutral-reverse), and the powerful V eight cylinders were launched in 1969. The 1970s, saw the experimental launch of the first Rotax outboard with four rotors. During these years, the competition no longer came just from America but also (and possibly principally) from Japan. New technology came onto the market, and after the launch of the Evinrude Spitfire and the Ocean-Pro range in 1995, OMC officially unveiled the direct ignition in Evinrude 2 stroke outboards. At the same time, OMC changed hands and the new owners engaged in financial speculation that proved disastrous.
This, together with technical problems, led to the company shutting down in 2000. The fairy tale seemed to have ended in the worst possible way, but at the start of 2001, Evinrude was purchased by the Canadian industrial giant, Bombardier. The company decided to specialise in the “leisure” sector and that year Bombardier Recreational Products immediately invested in the launch of the first Evinrude DI (Direct Injection) engines. In 2003, an innovation still used exclusively by Evinrude to this day first appeared. The E-TECs, the new two stroke direct injection models, were awarded the Innovation Award by the NMMA (National Marine Manufacturers Association), an American association of nautical producers. The models range from 25 to 300 HP. A risky undertaking, in a market that has favoured four stroke engines. A challenge that Ole and Bess would have enjoyed. Who knows what they would make of it, seeing how far their invention has come. All because of an ice cream, just like in a fairy tale. A modern one, but a fairy tale all the same.