Ole Evinrude’s Outboard Engine is 100 Years Old

How Ole Evinrude Invented his “Detachable Rowboat Engine”

It has been 100 years since the first successful Evinrude machine took the boating world by storm. Ole Evinrude was born in 1877 in Christiania, Norway, and his idea was so revolutionary that it really did have a name for a while—more of a description. It was called a “Detachable Rowboat Engine” until someone grew tired of that mouthful and came up with the simple stylish term “outboard”….. and boating would never be the same again!

Whatever it was called, it was an idea whose time had arrived, and Evinrude’s wife Bess soon thought up a catchy slogan: “Don’t row—throw the oars way! Use an Evinrude motor!” Like me, many of you may find that a little too confident—but the boating public loved it. There might even be a few readers who, like me, think we lost something valuable when we “threw the oars away,” but who could have guessed that this self-taught Norwegian emigrant’s first 1.5 hp motor would in 100 years grow up to become the mighty 300 HP Evinrude E-Tec?

Ole’s first outboard motor embodied the same basic design that we use today and certainly qualifies as one of the most important boating inventions of all time. I would have to rank it with the bilge pump, PVC clothing, and synthetic fibers as something that has contributed immeasurably to the safety and pleasure of boating. On a more technical level, the outboard was the catalyst that drove all the early marine engine builders to reduce the weight of their products, for the earliest inboard engines were weighed in tons rather than pounds.

According to the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, Ole was actually christened Oleson Evinrudstuen and at the age of five emigrated with his family to the United States, settling in Cambridge, Wisconsin. He grew up in poverty on a small farm and abandoned grade school early — because it was too easy. He much preferred working with farm tools and machinery. Ole worked on his father’s farm during the summer, and in the winter he found employment as a sorter in a near-by tobacco warehouse. But his real career began when an uncle, a sailor, taught the boy about the different kinds of ships, models of which Ole carefully carved from wood.

When he was sixteen, he moved to Madison, where he found work as apprentice machinist in the farm-machinery shop of Fuller and Johnson and received a salary of fifty cents a day. Quickly mastering the skills, he moved on to Pittsburgh, where he worked in the great steel rolling mills. Next we find him in Chicago, gaining experience in a machine-tool works. For five years he jumped from job to job all over the Midwest, learning about steel at one plant, motors at another, designing at a third, testing at a fourth, until by experience and study he had become a first-rate machinist and engineer.

A tireless worker, Evinrude allowed himself only one indulgence: a subscription to a mechanics’ magazine. In the late 1890s, he first read about the internal combustion engine, already being used in Germany experimentally to power the “horseless carriage.” He was ambitious and by 1900, at the age of 23, he had become a skilled pattern maker and was ready to co-found the custom pattern-making and engine shop Clemick & Evinrude in .Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This shop produced internal-combustion engines to order and made parts and castings. This was a time when there was a huge public interest in the new internal-combustion engine. (I imagine it was even bigger than the clamor for new cellular or wi-fi devices today.) The venture proved successful, the tiny firm expanding its facilities to half a dozen shops within a few months. Included in its orders was one from the federal government for fifty portable motors.

The Harley-Davidson Connection….

Ole was always looking for ways to improve the primitive motors of that era. In his spare time, he built his own horseless carriages, which he road tested in town — much to the astonishment and dismay of his fellow citizens. Some of the stories about him sound like myths, but it does appear to be true that he had been a childhood friend with Art Davidson and Bill Harley when the boys would come to Cambridge to visit their grandmother.

When Ole finally had his own machine shop, mechanically-minded young men liked to stop by, including Art and Bill, who were now motorcycle-mad teens. Instead of attempting to improve what they already had, the boys dropped their crude motor-bicycle project cold and started fresh with Ole’s help. They found the bigger engine they wanted right there in the shop, and there are many design similarities between Evinrude’s engine of 1903 and Harley’s engine of 1905. Since 1914, Harley-Davidson has given credit to Evinrude for helping the boys get a start. The “official” histories handed out by the company credit Evinrude with helping with their carburetor.

Evinrude’s Horseless Carriage

It wasn’t long before Ole parted company with Clemick and entered into partnership with a retired furniture dealer and his son under the convoluted name of Motor Car Power Equipment Company. The aim was to manufacture a standardized motor that could be installed in any carriage. This firm was also successful until Ole proposed that it market a complete automobile that he had built. His partner was unwilling to spend the amount necessary for advertising; as a result Ole quit.

The following year, Evinrude built another car which he called the “Eclipse.” He secured the consent of two brothers to finance the new automobile. Difficulties arose again and the venture was dropped. Back on Milwaukee’s south side, he opened a little shop and returned to the trade of pattern making. He made engine patterns of all kinds on order from machine shops and he was a consultant to E. P. Allis Co. farm equipment makers. With five or six men working under him, he had plenty to occupy his time, and Bess, now the mother of Ole’s child, typed his letters in her kitchen while waiting for dinner to cook.

In 1905 Cameron Waterman filed a patent for a four-stroke “Boat-Propelling Device.” The Waterman Porto Motor had the cylinder parallel to the shaft and an unreliable spark mechanism, but it did beat Evinrude to the market—a fact that most biographers conveniently omit. The next episode they emphasize is the time-worn story of how Ole found the inspiration to develop the machine that would make him famous.

A Long Hot row for Ice Cream

It goes like this: Ole set off in a rowboat across Okauchee Lake on a hot day to get ice cream for his girlfriend, Bess. Before he could return, the ice cream had melted. The details vary with the telling, and it barely sounds convincing to me. But then neither does Archimedes running down the street naked shouting “Eureka!” The couple were married in 1906, and Evinrude soon began work on what would become the world’s first “practical and reliable outboard motor.”

It was a single-cylinder, 1.5 hp, built of steel and brass, with a crank on the flywheel to start the two-cycle engine. It employed a vertical crankshaft, horizontal flywheel, and set of bevel gears at the lower end, just like the motors we know today. Most important, was the dependable “sparker”, though it was still very primitive by modern standards. The production model weighed a hefty 62 pounds, but that didn’t slow sales down.

In 1908, in Terre Haute, Indiana, the Johnson brothers—Lou, Harry and Clarence—were building their first marine engine. Ole registered a company called Evinrude Motors in Milwaukee, then spent a long time finding a backer with the funds to set up a small factory. Chris Meyer, a tugboat owner, advanced five thousand dollars to become a partner and manufacturing of the first Evinrudes began in 1909.

But this was nothing like the production line that Henry Ford was perfecting in Detroit. Parts were ordered from the foundry in lots of 25, then cleaned and machined to tolerance and assembled by one man. Selling them was much easier: an employee took one of the first models for a spin on Pewaukee Lake and returned the next day with 10 orders.

By 1910, Ole had worked out many of the immediate problems and filed several patents for the “Detachable Row Boat Motor;” the business began to flourish. Word was getting around about this brilliant new device, and Mrs. Evinrude was quite capable as manager of the business. In 1911, she began a national advertising campaign, and Ole was soon forced to increase his shop force to a hundred men.

She even capitalized on her husband’s heritage, sending out letters to Scandinavian importers and purely by luck connecting with one Oluf Mikkelsen, who saw an Evinrude circular in his general manager’s wastebasket. He became Evinrude’s largest distributor by selling the motors to fishermen all over Scandinavia.

By the end of the third year in business, the Evinrude Company employed three hundred people, sold nearly 10,000 motors, and had a new factory building. And in 1912, Ole started a man named “Jump Spark” Miller working on what was to become the flywheel magneto! But the first chapter of the Evinrude saga was coming to a close. The relationship with Meyer was becoming strained, and Bess Evinrude’s health, never too good, was seriously undermined.

1914-20: A Brief Retirement

Ole sold his half interest to Meyer, for the fabulous sum of $137,500, and agreed not to re-enter the outboard motor business for five years. In 1917, Ole designs the “Bess Emily,” a 42-foot ship powered by a V-8 outboard. Ole, Bess and Ralph set out on the Great Lakes to spend time as a family and get Bess well. Ole’s inventive mind never stopped, however, and during his “retirement,” he devised a much-improved, twin-cylinder, 3-hp, 48-pound, aluminum outboard motor. His new design weighed one third less than the Evinrude Motor Co.’s best selling (single cylinder) model and produced 50% more power.

Ole Returns With the ELTO

With Bess in better health, the Evinrudes get back into the outboard business and form ELTO (Evinrude Light Twin Outboard) Outboard Motor Company in 1920. 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.

The Elto is started by opening the fuel valve, setting the timer to “Stop” and holding the poppets up while rocking the flywheel a few times – this primes the motor. Set the timer to “Start” and rock the flywheel in the opposite direction to its travel (you rotate it anti-clockwise, it starts and runs cockwise). More often than not the motor will start! An Elto Ruddertwin in good tune is remarkably easy to start and incredibly reliable. A plus is that the Ruddertwin also has reverse – while the motor is running simply advance the timer to “Reverse” and press the stop button. As the motor winds down release the stop button and 60% of the time you are in reverse. (If not timed correctly you will now be running full throttle forward!)

The motor that built Evinrude’s second outboard career is the silvery Elto that has become known as the “Ruddertwin.” The notable feature is that the motor is stationary, and the boat is turned by using a rudder attached to the back of the shaft. Cooling was by water forced in the rudder and up to the powerhead. This first Elto motor revolutionized the outboard motor business by using aluminum instead of heavier metals, and Elto quickly sold 3,500 motors annually.

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—speed mania! The Johnson Motor Company of South Bend, Indiana, in 1926 came out with a motor that caused a sensation in the boating world.

The Roaring Twenties Go Speed Crazy

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 that added streamlining to trains and planes.

The public was suddenly demanding speed 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 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. Meanwhile, Chris Meyer began developing the new design for an aluminum Evinrude motor which did not sell well. In 1925, Meyer decided to sell to Walter Zinn. With staggering losses in the first year, Zinn, then sold the company to August Petrie, in 1926.

Evinrude Starts to Think Big….

1928: Ralph Evinrude convinces his father to build a machine that was more than a fishing motor. The result is America’s first four cylinder two-cycle outboard motor, the Super Elto Quad, unveiled at the New York boat show. It can power a runabout at speeds over 35 mph. ELTO overtakes Johnson Motor Company as the speed king of outboard motors.

1929: Ole designs the Fold Light 4-horsepower folding motor and begins selling it with the slogan “Folds like a jackknife.” Meanwhile, the Evinrude Motor Co. floundered, and in 1929, Stephen Foster Briggs, co-founder of its new owner, Briggs & Stratton Corporation; proposed a merger between the Evinrude Motor Co., the Elto Outdoor Motor Co., and the Lockwood Motor Co. of Jackson, Michigan.

Eager to regain his namesake company, Evinrude agreed to the deal and became president of the new Outboard Motors Corporation (OMC), headquartered in Milwaukee. Initially, each of the three companies marketed a complete line of motors, but as the Great Depression eroded sales, a new strategy was called for. “Evinrude” became the premium brand, while “Elto” was positioned as the company’s economy line. This streamlining helped the company survive the worst years.

1930: Evinrude features the first electric start, the first rotary valve in the crankshaft and the first the 40-horsepower “Big Four.” These firsts help sustain the company during the Great Depression. In 1933, Bess, Ole’s wife and business partner, dies. Her husband is crushed by the loss.

1934: Ole’s final contribution to the company lays the foundation for sleek, quieter outboards with two models that are “hooded” to provide full protection to engine parts and reduce noise. On July 12, 1934, Ole dies at the age of 57. Twenty-seven-year-old Ralph Evinrude takes the reins as the new president of OMC.

1935: He oversaw OMC’s acquisition of Johnson Motors, and restructured the corporation based on the “consolidated competition” of its divisions (just as Chevrolet, Buick and Oldsmobile competed in GM). The 1.5-horsepower, single-cylinder Evinrude Sportsman rolls off the line. This debut pushes sales to 17,432 motors, nearly twice as many as in 1934.

1936: the Elto name is dropped from advertisements and begins to be phased out.

The ELTO Cub—World’s Smallest Outboard
Produced for only two years, the ELTO Cub is an unique experiment in the 100 years of outboard evolution. Weighing only 8.5 pounds, this baby 1/2 horsepower motor was advertised as the “world’s lightest outboard” when introduced in 1938. Its price of $29.50 appealed to Depression-stretched pocketbooks. The Cub was suitable only for the lightest duty use because of its light weight.

1939: The outboard motor is still only 30 years old as the world prepares for total war. Unlike many marine manufacturers, Evinrude products do not play a major part in the war effort, although the company delivers small motors–Zephyrs and Lightfours–to power emergency rubber rafts. The war-era work helps forge new ground in precision die-casting for the company.

1946: As postwar material shortages ease and soldiers return home, Evinrude enjoys record sales. By 1947, 262,000 engines are being produced, equaling the combined production of the 14 other outboard makers in the United States.

1954: Aquasonic silencing is introduced in the 1954 motors, reducing noise by 50 percent. Construction begins on a $3 million, 213,000-square-foot plant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dubbed the most modern and efficient of its kind, the new plant produces 800 Evinrude motors during a two-day shift.

1956: 153,105 motors are sold, with an average of 15 hp per motor, compared to an average of 4 horsepower produced in 1940.


1958: the Starflite, a V-type four cylinder engine is developed 

1960: Hu Entrops sets a new world record for unlimited class outboards by hydroplaning 114.65 mph with the Evinrude Starflite II In September, the Starflite II breaks its own record by hitting a speed of 122.97 mph.

1962: Just like the cars of the time, push-button shifting is unveiled on the 1962 Evinrudes. The forward, reverse and neutral buttons are located directly behind the throttle lever.


1973: the James Bond film “Live and Let Die” features an Evinrude 135-horsepower Starflite-powered runabout that sets a Guinness World Record when 007 jumps it 100 feet during a chase sequence. I

1976: the first 200-horsepower V-6 is developed. It weighs only half as much per horsepower and delivers almost twice as much thrust per cubic inch as the first V-4 introduced 18 years earlier.

1980: at 235-horsepower, the Evinrude 90-degree V-6 becomes the largest outboard ever made, meeting the demands of the big-water boater.

1982: the Economixer oil injection system uses microcomputer technology to vary the amount of oil being fed to the engine.

1983: after nearly 50 years at the helm, Ralph Evinrude steps down as chairman of the OMC Board of Directors.He dies in 1986,

1986: OMC breaks the billion-dollar mark and sets a new earnings record.

1995: Ficht ram injection and direct fuel injection technology is introduced and outfitted in all the V-6 products.

1998: OMC tries to comply with increased EPA standards for new engines, as well as decreased sales, .

2000: OMC files for bankruptcy on December 21, 2000.

2001: seeing an amazing opportunity to acquire a great global brand, Bombardier moves quickly to acquire the Evinrude assets.

2003: Bombardier launches its Evinrude E-TEC technology at the Miami International Boat Show.

2004: the Evinrude E-TEC big block V-6 is unveiled to media at the Ralph Evinrude Test Center in Stuart, Florida. The motor comes in 200- 250-hp range

2005: the Evinrude E-TEC 115-horsepower debuts at the Miami International Boat Show. It’s the first midrange four-cylinder E-TEC engine. The EPA awards it the Clean Air Excellence Award.

2009: the 300-horsepower Evinrude E-TEC engine is debuted. This amazing two-stoke meets all the emission standards, thanks to its superior design and direct injection technology., explained Greg Van Sickle of Channel Marine Services in Scappoose, Oregon. “An E-Tec will idle at 500 rpm and make 1 hp, and run 6,000 rpm and make 300 hp,” he told me.


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