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Innovators in Boating - Ole & Ralph Evinrude

By: Richard Crowder

The pleasure boat industry is chock full (no pun intended) of the most interesting of people, hard working totally dedicated individuals and families who have often put their life’s savings and full-time energies to fulfilling their dreams of creating the boats we know and love. These then are their stories. Many of them I have met and personally chatted with and to a person, they are focused and driven and totally confident in their realities and in their dreams.

Part 7- Ole & Ralph Evinrude

In Part 7 of this series, we explore Ole and Ralph Evinrude. Ole the father (1877–1934) is credited with developing the first commercially viable outboard motor he named Evinrude. His son Ralph (1907-1986) is credited with expanding that humble beginning into the worldwide giant Outboard Marine Corporation.

At five years old, Ole emigrated with his farming family from Norway to a farm near Cambridge, Wisconsin where the family name was changed to Evinrude, an English derivation of the Norwegian name of their farm. Ole’s favourite recollection of the trip across the Atlantic was his time spent in the ship’s engine room. His aptitude, appreciation, and focus on mechanical devices and engines had been born.

Farming was not his bent and by his mid-teens he left school. For five years pursued various mechanically-oriented jobs in Madison, Pittsburgh, and Chicago, excelling as a machinist, tool maker, and pattern maker while studying mechanical engineering in his spare time. In 1900 at age twenty-three, he opened a pattern-making shop in Milwaukee to produce small parts for several internal combustion engine-makers in the region.

In his spare time, Ole became fascinated with the new-fad horseless carriage so he designed and built his own, including the fabrication of his own engines. He needed financial assistance and took on a partner to produce engines and parts, becoming Clemiek & Evinrude in the process. The shop was a rented shed and a young neighbour, Bess Cary, a business student by day, became company secretary in the evening. The motors proved successful and gained a reputation, earning them an order for fifty portable motors from the US government.

Legend has it that Ole and Bess slowly developed a liking for each other, became engaged, and on one hot Sunday afternoon in August, 1906, they were picnicking at a nearby lake when Bess expressed that she would love some ice cream. Ole the gentleman rowed a boat across the lake to get the ice cream and on the way back with the ice cream melting, wondered to himself how the internal combustion engine could be utilized to power a boat.

Bess and Ole married and son Ralph was born in 1907. Meanwhile, Ole had parted with Clemiek and was building and selling motors on his own, tinkering with automobiles along while adapting one of his motors to power a boat. By 1909 he had a viable 1.5 horsepower unit he refined and eventually patented. It was not the first outboard motor by any means, but it is claimed to be the first commercially viable motor that would start and run reliably.

Bess saw the potential in Ole’s motor and began marketing it while Ole built them in a small shop. Word of mouth coupled with Bess’s advertising brought a flood of orders. Capital was desperately needed, and so a friend, C.J. Meyer invested and became a full partner. Bess and Ole worked day and night as the orders piled in and the business expanded. Dozens of employees were hired and a move to a larger factory location took a toll on the health of both, especially Bess.

In 1913 they sold out to partner C.J. Meyer and, along with young son Ralph, headed on a five-year holiday around North America. Ole had a five-year non-compete clause with Meyer but he kept his inventive mind active, and when they returned to Milwaukee, Ole showed Meyer his revolutionary new invention: a twin-cylinder, 3-horsepower outboard composed primarily of aluminum that weighed a fraction of his previous iron and steel designs.

Meyer declined, and the five-year clause had expired, but Evinrude could still not legally use his name for his new outboard. As a result, he named it Elto (Evinrude Light Twin Outboard) and formed the Elto Outboard Motor Company. The company set up in Milwaukee to produce motors in direct competition with Meyer’s Evinrude motors, and eventually also competed with Johnson Motors who gradually outsold both Evinrude and Elto.

In 1926, Ole and Bess introduced their new Super Elto Twin engine, but it didn’t take the market by storm as Johnson had recently introduced bigger motors with greater horsepower and more speed. Meanwhile, Meyer’s Evinrude company had fallen by the wayside through different ownerships and in 1929, Evinrude merged with Elto and the Lockwood-Ash Motor Company, makers of both inboard and outboard motors, to form the Outboard Motors Corporation (OMC). Ole Evinrude would be President and Stephen Briggs (of Briggs and Stratton) would be CEO.

The depression of the 1930s was tough on leisure industry manufacturers but OMC held its own. In 1932 it started to diversify and created Lawn-Boy power lawnmowers. Evinrude also introduced the 40-horsepower “Big Four” along with innovations like the electric starter and the folding shaft outboard. But in 1933, Bess Evinrude died. Ole was crushed and died himself within a year at age 57.

Ralph Evinrude, who had left college to join the company in 1927, became President of Outboard Motors Corporation upon his father’s death. A year later in 1935 he oversaw the acquisition of the financially strapped Johnson Motors, changed the corporate name to Outboard Marine Corporation and created an in-house competitive atmosphere between brands, a policy concept from General Motors brands' that was popular at the time. OMC headquarters were established at the Johnson Motors facility in Waukegan, Illinois.

In 1936, Ralph Evinrude became President of OMC and Stephen Briggs took charge of the Johnson Motors division. The merging of outboard motor companies brought distribution of OMC brands to most of the world. In North America, the three brands accounted for the majority of outboard sales; Elto as the value leader, Evinrude for prestige, and Johnson the sport brand. Viking outboard motors were privately branded for Eaton’s and others. OMC also offered the Lawn-Boy line, plus pumps for all purposes including fire-fighting, generators, and even refrigerators.

The company prospered during the war years by providing engines for landing craft, firefighting apparatuses, and even aircraft engines. Following the war through to the 1950s, OMC expanded manufacturing capacity and added several companies to its portfolio including a rotary lawnmower maker, Cushman golf carts, three-wheeled mail carriers, motor scooters, Canada’s largest chainsaw maker Pioneer of Peterborough, Ontario, and Gale outboard motors.

In 1961, the conglomerate created the OMC Boat Division to provide transoms for its outboards and its newly created inboard-outboard motors. It also entered the tent camper market, the rapidly growing snowmobile market, and the floating air compressor market for divers. As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, many of these non-marine lines proved unprofitable and were spun off, including the first use of the Wankel rotary engine in snowmobiles. Highly profitable but toxic PCB’s were produced at the Waukegan facility for a number of years, and the leaking of these into Lake Michigan created an expensive environmental controversy for the company that lasted into the early 1990s.

While improvements were being introduced to the outboard motors, including the loop-charged outboards for racing and the infra-red sensor Optical Ignition System (OIS-2000), 1985 saw the introduction of the highly publicized OMC King Cobra sterndrive. This sterndrive later introduced the first available EFI (Electronic Fuel Injection) system, but sadly these outdrives proved not to be what they hoped. The Peterborough, Ontario facility was shut down in 1990.

By 1993, OMC had about twenty boat brands in its portfolio including names like Chris-Craft, Four Winns, Donzi, Seaswirl, Sunbird, Stratos, Hydra-Sports, Javelin, Princecraft, Springbok, Lowe, Suncruiser, Sea Nymph, Grumman and more. But mismanagement, compounded by the flawed internal competition between brands, stunted their progress against competitors and began bringing the company down. Along with a progressively diminished market share and costly technical failures like the highly touted Ficht direct injection system, the growing losses eventually caught up, and in 2000 OMC filed for bankruptcy.

But what became of Ralph Evinrude? He had been brought up as an avid boater and had explored Canada’s Thirty Thousand Islands of Georgian Bay with his parents, partly as a means to combat his hay fever allergy. In 1955, he married his third wife, the gorgeous Hollywood actress and singer Frances Langford, known widely as both a World War II pinup to inspire the troops and for her swooning version of, I’m in the Mood for Love.

They both loved the water and alternated between her Jensen Beach, Florida estate and extensive cruising on Georgian Bay aboard his 118-foot converted World War II Fairmile minesweeper, Chanticleer. They soon purchased two very small islets located east of Killarney, Ontario at the head of the long fjord, from Baie Fine at it becomes The Pool. Chanticleer was modified to allow part of its bridge to be lowered so it could pass through the Chicago Canal to get to the Mississippi River and eventually to Florida. For me personally, I was always amazed to turn the last corner into The Pool and see a huge yacht which appeared bigger than the islets and the cottage it was tied up to and knowing that the yacht was supplying power to the cottage.

Ralph Evinrude retired as Chairman of OMC in 1982 and died in 1986 at the age of 78. The OMC Test Center in Stuart, Florida was named after him. Shortly after his death Langford purchased a smaller 108-foot Burger, named it Chanticleer again and continued to visit their Georgian Bay cottage. She died in 2005. As of spring 2020, Bombardier Recreational Products, the company that rescued the brand out of the OMC breakup, announced that it would cease production of all Evinrude outboards. Thus brought to a sad conclusion the vision and mechanical genius of a young man in love who simply wanted to deliver ice cream to his sweetheart before it melted.

You can enjoy an incredible four part retelling of Ole Evinrude's life in the series below:

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1 Comment

The original Chanticleer was not a Fairmile, she was a DeFoe Cruisemaster built in Bay City Mi.

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