BRP’s outboard brand celebrates 100 years on the water — born of Ole Evinrude’s conclusion that oars aren’t the most efficient way to move a boat
A century ago, a Norwegian immigrant named Ole Evinrude rowed five miles in the Wisconsin summer heat to get ice cream for his future bride. During this trip, he realized there had to be an easier way.
It was that fateful rowboat trip in 1906 that ultimately gave birth to the Evinrude engine.
By the following summer, Evinrude was field testing a 1.5-horsepower, 62-pound iron engine.
One hundred years later, Evinrude outboard motors can be found on boats throughout the world. New engines bearing its name were announced as late as May, with the introduction of 25- and 30-hp Evinrude E-TEC outboard engines featuring an anniversary-year graphic.
“We’re obviously very proud, very excited that this brand is part of our portfolio,” said Roch Lambert, vice president/general manager, BRP US, Outboard Marine Engine Division.
“A lot of people would credit Evinrude for really inventing and creating the boating industry as we know it today. I think his legacy is something that had a very, very significant impact on a very large population of people that have enjoyed boating for a century,” he added.
Evinrude, now part of the BRP family, kicked off its 100th anniversary celebration at this year’s Miami International Boat Show. Evinrude began production of outboard engines in 1909 and the 2009 model year of the engine marks the official anniversary.
A mobile museum filled with displays of old engines and countless stories outlining the history of the company will be on tour at boat shows, tournaments and state fairs through next spring.
Promotional activities, including financial incentives for consumers, also are possible this year, said Richard Palmersheim, vice president of marketing and strategic planning, BRP US, Outboard Marine Engine Division.
Since the start of the anniversary, Palmersheim and other company executives have been hearing stories about how Evinrude has touched people’s lives, rekindling fond memories of their first boating and fishing days.
“We’re starting to accumulate a lot of that information and may look at trying to do something formal around that down the road,” said Palmersheim, who has witnessed some people crying because they would see images of the Old Envirude engines and remember those special times.
“Everybody connects emotionally with the brand from generations back, so we’re just trying to reconnect people with that brand,” added Lambert.
Following Ole Evinrude’s first engine model in 1907, he earned a patent and formed a business partnership to produce his engines in 1911. Three years later, he sold his interest in the business and promised not to work in the industry for five years, according to a biography of Evinrude by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he was featured as “Inventor of the Week,” in January 1999.
When that time was up, Evinrude developed a twin-cylinder, 3-hp, 48-pound aluminum outboard motor, which he sold through his newly formed company, Elto.
In 1929, Elto merged with two other companies to form Outboard Marine Corp., which acquired competitor Johnson Motors in 1935.
OMC, in its heyday, claimed a third of the boat and engine market in the U.S., according to published reports. In addition to its engines, OMC later acquired several boat lines, including Chris-Craft, Four Winns and Lowe.
In the mid- to late-1990s, OMC introduced Ficht engines, which proved to have technical problems and were a key factor in the company’s sudden demise. OMC filed for bankruptcy protection in December 2000, which resulted in damage, uncertainty and confusion to the marine industry. OMC dealers were stuck with showrooms full of inventory that had no manufacturer’s warranty. They also were faced with making floorplan interest payments that had been the boat and engine maker’s responsibility.
It was the following year when BRP acquired the outboard engine assets of OMC, while Genmar Holdings purchased the boat lines.
“We were quite convinced that there was good value in the two-stroke, clean technology that they had developed,” Lambert said in explaining why BRP wanted the engines. The value of the brand, the technology and the people were the three things that most attracted the company to OMC’s assets.
While the privately-held company does not reveal sales figures, Lambert estimates that since 2001 the market share has increased about fourfold.
“We still have a lot of momentum, and obviously we have a lot of room to grow. It’s taken us some years to overcome some of the damage done to the brand prior to the bankruptcy,” he said. “I think we’ve overcome that seven-and-a-half years later.”
He estimates Evinrude is third in the industry behind Mercury Marine and Yamaha.
In 2003, Evinrude’s E-TEC outboard engines were launched, marking what BRP calls “the beginning of a revolutionary new generation of cleaner, quieter, lighter and more fuel-efficient and powerful outboard engines.”
In 2004, it received a Clean Air Excellence Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the technology.
“Compared to a similar 2004 four-stroke engine, carbon monoxide emissions with Evinrude E-TEC are typically 30 to 50 percent lower and at idle are lower by a factor of 50 to 100 times,” the EPA said in announcing the award. “In addition, Evinrude E-TEC emits 30 to 40 percent less total particulate matter on a weight basis than a similar ultra-low emissions four-stroke outboard.
“There are no oil changes with this engine, as well as no belts and no valve or throttle linkage adjustments,” the EPA said. “This makes Evinrude E-TEC engines easier to own than comparable four-stroke engines.”
Lambert said BRP has launched seven platforms throughout a four-year period, including the two announced in May.
“It’s a huge amount,” he said, adding that if you look back at the engine’s history, it probably took about 12 to 15 years to develop the same number of platforms at any given time.
He said he has not noticed a significant shift in what consumers want in an engine, though he’s a bit surprised given the distressed economy. Consumers, he said, are still looking for boat and engine packages, rather than just updating the engines on their boats.
“It was a little bit contrary to what we expected given that people have less discretionary money to spend,” he said. “There has not been the shift that we had expected.”
Lambert noted the continual increase in international sales, but in the same breath, also pointed out that sales are starting to even out overseas.
When the U.S. is under pressure, there’s some lag time before the economic situation impacts the overseas market. “It takes some time, but at some point it catches up and I think we’re starting to feel that,” Lambert said.
The company, Lambert said, still is investing heavily in research and development and a few months ago announced its plans to build a manufacturing plant in Asia where they will assemble the new small engine platform that was launched.
That will be available later this year.
“Innovation was in large part what drove the brand to live as long as it did, and that is probably BRP’s No. 1 strength,” he said.
“The one thing we know for sure is BRP will continue to innovate. We believe the past results are a guarantee of the fact that when you innovate … it continues to attract people to the brand.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue.