Ole Evinrude and the Outboard Motor – Part 2

Ole Evinrude and the Outboard Motor
by Kenneth Bjork
The Norwegion-American Historical Assoc. Northfield, MN
Submitted by Andreas Jordahl Rhude

Part II

When Evinrude began to produce his outboard motor in 1909 he was not alone in the field. A “detachable rowboat motor” called the “Waterman Porto Motor” was on the U.S. market the year of the Evinrude picnic [1906]. The Porto Motor was a dismally
inferior product by modern standards, and the most enticing statement the manufacturers could think of to advertise it was “Don’t be afraid of it!” So what Ole Evinrude did was not to invent the first outboard but to construct the first model that was practical, the first that would start at least half the time. It took him two years and it is not easy to say just how he made his motor better than the Waterman. Both operated on the same principle, and about the only visible difference between them was in the placement of the single cylinder. On the Porto Motor it was parallel with the drive shaft, whereas Ole located it above and at right angles to the shaft. Beyond that the Evinrude was simply a better engineering job, and while more Evinrudes have been added and refinements like the cord pull and under-water exhaust introduced, Ole’s
original design has been only superficially changed since 1910.

With their motor perfected, the Evinrudes began a successful venture in manufacturing. Ole apparently had never planned beyond local orders for motors. At best he would have only a few extra motors on hand. But even before the company began production on a large scale, orders began to pile up. A friend borrowed Ole’s motor for a Sunday outing. Next day he appeared with ten orders and cash to pay for them. Sensing a large potential market for her husband’s motor, Mrs. Evinrude sat down at her kitchen table in 1910 and wrote the company’s first advertisement. “Don’t row,” the advertisement read. “Use the Evinrude detachable rowboat motor.” The response that followed this notice necessitated an office and a suitable plant to meet a flood of orders. Mrs. Evinrude assumed management of the business, and Ole took full charge of the shop. Capital was needed. A friend, C. J. Meyer, advanced five thousand dollars and became a partner in the new firm. (It was assumed, for partnership purposes, that the motor was worth that amount.) The following year, 1911, Mrs. Evinrude began a national advertising campaign. Ole was forced to increase his shop force to a hundred men. Soon the original five thousand dollars was gone. Pressed for money, Ole designed his own machinery. “By turning materials into finished motors,” his wife later explained, “and selling the motors for cash before the bill on the materials was due, he made a hundred dollars do the work of a thousand in the ordinary plant. And we worked! There wasn’t a night that we closed our eyes before twelve or one o’clock, and some nights it was two or three.”

While its volume of sales increased, the firm nevertheless had problems to overcome. One of its biggest problems was the seasonal nature of the demand for outboards. Seeking a relatively stable market, Mrs. Evinrude contacted export houses through form letters and circulars. She succeeded in getting one large firm to stock a few motors only because the Danish manager of the Scandinavian department, Oluf Mikkelsen (now Evinrude’s largest distributor), seeing an Evinrude circular in the general manager’s wastebasket, suddenly exclaimed that he could sell such motors to Scandinavian fishermen. Cautiously starting with two motors, this firm increased its orders to many thousands, as Danish and Norwegian fishermen set up a clamor for Evinrude motors. By the end of the third year in business, the Evinrude Company was employing three hundred people and had a new factory building.

By the end of the third year, too, Bess Evinrude’s health, never too good, was seriously undermined. It was so bad in fact that Ole decided to sell out his share in the Evinrude Company to Meyer and his associates. The understanding when he left the firm was that the Evinrudes were not to re-engage in the outboard business for five years. Then began a strange interlude in the Evinrude drama. While Meyer and his associates substituted a modern flywheel magneto for the old battery ignition and generally stayed ahead of competitors in the outboard motors field, the Evinrudes during the summer months toured the country with a bed in the back seat of their car and then in the fall set sail on the Mississippi in a cruiser with an engine designed by Ole.
The winter of 1917, which the family spent in New Orleans, saw Ole tinkering around with another motor. “By 1919 the fooling around had resolved itself into a finished model of the Evinrude Light Twin Outboard.” The new two-cylinder motor, called the Elto (Evinrude Light Twin Outboard), was the first of its kind, and it marked Evinrude’s second major contribution to the development of the outboard motor. Capable of developing three horsepower as compared to two for the one-cylinder Evinrude, it weighed only forty-six pounds, or twenty-seven pounds less than the Evinrude, and substituted aluminum where possible for brass and iron.

Ole’s next move was to take his “silvery” Elto to Meyer in Milwaukee and offer it to him for production. Meyer was not interested; the Evinrude was holding its own against competition, and he decided not to try the new article. As a result Ole started the Elto Outboard Motor Company in Milwaukee and put his motor on the market in 1921. Though he took a financial loss the first year, he later built up a successful business. The Evinrude Motor Company, on the other hand, went downhill in almost inverse ratio to Elto’s climb, and Meyer stepped out of the business in 1924. Ole and Bess were now sole partners in the new firm, dependent only on themselves for financial support. Ole designed his own manufacturing equipment, and his wife served as secretary and treasurer of the new firm.

Meyer’s departure from the motor scene did not, however, leave the Evinrudes free of competitors. The original Evinrude Company continued under several managements until 1929 and offered very serious competition indeed. What followed the Evinrudes’ second business venture was a typical struggle for mastery and financial control made still more exciting by the great depression after 1929. In 1926 the Evinrudes put a new Super Elto Twin on the market, confident that this superbly designed motor would steal the outboard market. They had not counted, however, on a notable trend of the twenties. The Johnson Motor Company of South Bend, Indiana, in 1926 came out with a motor that caused a sensation in the outboard world. The Evinrudes had always stressed lightness of motor, ease of starting, smooth performance, and general dependability. The new Johnson motor weighed almost a hundred pounds, thus defying the trend toward lightness, but it could push a boat along at a speed of sixteen miles an hour while other motors could do no more than ten. Besides catching the Evinrudes napping, the new emphasis on speed was in harmony with the mood of the later twenties. The result was that the public, suddenly demanding speed, “forgot all about its preference for light motors and became obsessed with the idea of getting there fast, not just getting there.”

The speed fad proved to be no more enduring than the prosperity of the twenties. Its chief value, in fact, was to advertise the outboard motor. In the words of Fortune:Speed was spectacular, speed was glamorous. A dinky little boat traveling around forty-five miles per hour and leaping six feet in the air every time it hit a wave looked exciting and got into the news reels and roto sections with the frequency of babies and maneuvers of the U.S. navy. For about three years the only function of the outboard motor seemed to be the providing of cheap thrills; then gradually it reverted to its former primary role of substituting for oars.

After 1930 sales took a big drop, and until 1935 the outboard industry was a sick one. Motors now had to fit a new and shrunken purse. A demand for smaller and lighter engines, ease of starting and control, and smooth performance helped put the industry back where it had been before it succumbed to the speed mania. A still greater demand for cheapness brought the selling price down from $115.00, the price of the cheapest motor in 1930, to $34.50, the price of an Evinrude Mate today. A $42.50 model now can do what the $115.00 model of 1930 could do. Since 1935, the trend has been toward greater attention to details — streamlining, covering the motor, putting in self-winding starters, and compactness.

In 1929 the first of two mergers occurred, when the tottering Evinrude Company was combined with Elto and the Lockwood Motor Company of Jackson, Michigan, to form the Outboard Motors Corporation, with Evinrude as president and largest stockholder, and Stephen Briggs as chairman. The new company, though somewhat battered, weathered the depression. Smaller competitors, without sufficient capital reserves, were eliminated. The Johnson-Motor Company, as a result of overexpansion and a reckless advertising campaign, went into receivership in 1932. The reorganized company, after trying a fling at the refrigerator compressor business, was acquired by Ralph Evinrude, Ole’s son, and Briggs in 1935. Johnson was formally merged with the Outboard Motors Corporation in 1936, the new firm taking the name Outboard, Marine and Manufacturing Company. This company, which thus manufactures Evinrude, Elto, and Johnson motors, constitutes the largest factor in the outboard field, accounting for about sixty per cent of all motors sold.

Ole Evinrude died July 12, 1934, a little more than a year after his wife and business partner. His son Ralph is president and a heavy stockholder in the new corporation. About two thousand men in all are employed by the corporation, whose shares are also listed in the New York Stock Exchange. Markets are maintained abroad, Outboard, Marine and Manufacturing, Ltd., of Peterborough, Ontario, making all products for Empire consumption. Though financially the original companies are now one, each maintains a separate engineering department, a fact which preserves much of the early competition though its sting is gone. Mr. Finn T. Irgens, once Ole Evinrude’s chief engineer, who was likewise born in Norway, still retains his original position with Evinrude Motors in Milwaukee, and has complete charge of manufacturing. Thus another small American industry which grew out of the tinkering propensities of a mechanical expert has passed through various stages to attain to a position of stability and usefulness to our daily lives. There are many reminders, however, in the outboard industry even today that it was Ole Evinrude, not an impersonal corporation, who freed America from the need of rowing.

The information contained in this article was derived from a number of sources. Among them are:
Fortune Magazine, August, 1938
American Magazine, February, 1928
Encyclopedia of American B
Biography, July 16, 1934,
Skandinaven (Chicago), July, 1934
An interview with Ralph Evinrude April 22, 1941.