With the news this week that the manufacture of Evinrude outboard motors will cease, an important chapter in the history of boating and fishing comes to an end. Bombardier—the Canadian company best known for Ski-Doo snowmobiles, and the current owner of Evinrude—made the unexpected move amid the economic shocks rippling through the world economy as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Evinrude legacy dates back to 1907 and the inventive genius of Ole Evinrude, who with his wife Bess (not Lena; that’s another story) introduced to the fishing world what many consider the first commercially viable outboard motor. It was an ugly duckling by the standards of today’s streamlined and gleaming outboards, a plumber’s delight of undisguised pipes and rods and levers, with a fuel tank on top and a propeller at the business end. But it earned its keep by relieving anglers of the wearying labor of rowing, and did so as well as—or better than—the competition that it outlived.
Ole did what many savvy inventors do, cashing in on the time and ingenuity he had invested in creating his outboard by selling the business in 1914. As you might expect, with imitation being the highest form of flattery, it was not long before the outboard motor manufacturing universe expanded with others offering their own versions.
One of the “commandments” of business theory is that competition is good; good for the consumer in more and better products, and lower prices; good for the seller by keeping them on their toes and innovating to be more effective competitors. But there is also only so much market to share, and sometimes the outcome is mergers, acquisitions or—less pleasant—bankruptcy.
Evinrude and the Johnson Motor Company merged in 1936 to become Outboard Marine Corporation, better known to the buying public as OMC. That combined enterprise, facing serious competition from domestic and foreign makers, filed for bankruptcy in 2000, after which Canadian Bombardier acquired their outboard lineup. The Johnson motor line was discontinued in 2007. Now its sister product, Evinrude, will pass into history, save for all the many used motors at resorts, marinas and in garages.
One boating writer compared Evinrude’s demise to Ford Motor Company discontinuing the manufacture of cars and trucks. Sturtevant, Wisconsin, a small town near Lake Michigan between Milwaukee and Chicago, will lose 650 jobs that for decades have been performed at the Evinrude factory there. Such jobs would be difficult to replace in the best of economic times, which of course these are not.
Evinrude is a part of my own outboard motor history. It began with a three-horsepower Evinrude Ducktwin, owned by a waterfowl hunting friend, who could not be persuaded to part with it no matter how rich the offer. This model was introduced in the 1950’s and offered into the 1960’s, in olive drab paint, with stylized Ducktwin lettering and a colorful mallard in flight on the motor’s decal. The perfect motor for a not-too-large duck boat; old and classic, like me!
The first Evinrude I actually had rights to was a 10-horse owned by my father-in-law. Matched to a 16-foot Fiberglass V-hull Crestliner fishing boat, it was not exactly a fire-breather when it came to speed. But it got the job done at a time when the average fisherman did not feel the need to set speed records en route from a landing to a favorite fishing spot.
Whether it was the marketing departments of the outboard motor manufacturers, or the tournament bass fishing pros that some fishermen model themselves after, more than a few anglers got it into their heads that a 90 or 110 horsepower outboard mounted on a boat able to handle Lake Superior is needed on Minnesota’s inland waters. They’d laugh at that 10-horse Evinrude. But at the risk of repetition, it got the job done.
Duck hunters seem to be the last bastion of the small outboard motor. But even there—especially with today’s mud motors, designed to run in water that would barely float a jon boat—the trend is bigger power. Being a holdout for old and time-proven things in so many ways, I still sometimes resort to a small Evinrude outboard when I use a very standard old 14-foot aluminum V-hull boat. It’s an Evinrude of just eight horsepower. Maybe the time it takes to get from a landing to a destination with this setup is a reminder of one of the reasons I fish and hunt. It’s to relax, and maybe catch some fish or shoot a duck or two, not be a Type-A outdoorsman.
I’ve also been “unlucky in love” with an outboard or two. One was a six-horsepower Evinrude I purchased used from a local resort owner who no longer used it for his cabin fleet. Vacation guests, too, expect bigger things these days.
I bought it for duck hunting, painted it cattail brown, and over several seasons came to feel like Charlie Brown; Charlie Brown the Peanuts comic strip character, who year in and year out makes the mistake of believing Lucy’s promise that she won’t jerk the football away when he tries to kick it.
In my case, believing I could count on it to start and run well in the sub-freezing temperatures likely to be encountered during the duck season. Before a hunt it would start on the second or third pull, run smoothly and give every indication that it would perform when needed. But more than once in late October or early November, after reaching a distant duck blind under power, it might leave you in the lurch when it was time to pick up the decoys and hurry numb-fingered back to the boat landing.
On one occasion I had to row for more than a half mile, my hunting partner periodically playing a flashlight beam on the wild rice beds to help me steer through them in full darkness. I’ve had this motor “tuned up” and “gone over” more than once, each time given a clean bill of health by a small engine mechanic. I haven’t quite given up on the mechanic, but I’ve given up on the motor.
Maybe I would do better if I bought fewer used outboards that I thought might still have life in them, and bought more outboards brand new. The latest outboard I’ve acquired, a substantially larger motor for a bigger boat, was purchased that way. It never fails to start and run well, which I guess is the lesson. By way of confession, it was made by a manufacturer whose home offices are on the far side of the Pacific Ocean, a maker that made its reputation in the U.S. selling motorcycles.
Forgive me, Ole Evinrude!