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A Covid Casualty You May Not Have Heard Of

R.I.P. Evinrude Outboard Motors 1907-2020

February 27, 2024

An estimated 40% of American small businesses closed due to the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike certain finicky electronic products, it turns out the economy cannot simply be unplugged, and plugged back in. Hundreds of thousands of businesses are gone for good, and an untold number of American workers have been forced to look for new work as an unintended consequence of state overreach.

Everyone can point to a favorite local bar or diner or boutique shop that died an untimely death at the hands of politicians and bureaucrats drunk on their unquenchable lust for control, but what if I told you that lockdowns also killed a giant of American manufacturing and innovation, a company known and appreciated by tens of millions of Americans going back generations, and a brand as American as apple pie or taking the kids out on the lake on a hot summer afternoon?

In 1907 Ole Evinrude, born Ole Andreassen Aaslundeie, an immigrant from Gjovik, Norway invented the first gasoline powered internal combustion two-stroke outboard engine practical enough for commercial production, and two years later, an icon was born. Evinrude Outboard Motors produced boat engines continuously for over 11 decades in their factory in Sturtevant, Wisconsin, just outside of Milwaukee, becoming a favorite of fishermen and watersports enthusiasts across North America and beyond. In 1935, Evinrude merged with competitor Johnson Outboards to form Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC.) OMC became a multi-billion dollar publicly traded fortune 500 company and dominated the outboard market for the better part of the 20th century. When OMC filed for bankruptcy in 2000, they still maintained one third of the outboard market despite the rise of the American giant Mercury Marine and foreign brands like Yamaha, Honda, and Tohatsu. In 2001, OMC’s Evinrude and Johnson brands were purchased by the Canadian company Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP.)

New EPA regulations on emissions in the 90s and early 2000s nearly ended the production of two-stroke outboard motors entirely. Evinrude and Johnson attempted to modify existing technology in order to comply with the new regulations leading to mechanical problems and ultimately contributing to OMC’s demise, however despite BRP discontinuing the Johnson brand in 2007, Evinrude endured. New four-stroke outboards built by Evinrude’s competitors, while heavier and slightly less powerful, were very reliable and produced fewer emissions than the older two-stroke technology. However, in 2004, the engineers at Evinrude created their new E-TEC outboards that were much cleaner, even becoming the first outboard technology to win the EPA’s U.S. Clean Air Excellence Awards, which recognizes low emission levels. E-TEC engines typically emit 30-50% less carbon monoxide than comparable four-stroke outboards.

Evinrude and their two-stroke engines continued to cede market share to their four-stroke competitors over the following years, although the E-TECs, and Evinrude’s new E-TEC G2 motors maintained a loyal customer base until the spring of 2020 when parent company BRP was forced to pull the plug for good. “Our outboard engines business has been greatly impacted by COVID-19, obliging us to discontinue production of our outboard motors immediately. This business segment had already been facing some challenges and the impact from the current context has forced our hand,” said José Boisjoli, President and CEO of BRP. “We will concentrate our efforts on new and innovative technologies and on the development of our boat companies, where we continue to see a lot of potential to transform the on-water experience for consumers.”

Just like that 300 workers at Evinrude’s Wisconsin factory were out of a job and a company that had survived The Great Depression, two world wars, and bankruptcy was gone. Governor Tom Evers (D-WI), the man who deemed Evinrude’s workers “non-essential” won re-election in 2022 and Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) who made it illegal to use a boat with an outboard motor when she locked down her state, won re-election in a landslide. Even former President Trump has refused to accept any blame for the destruction caused by the lockdowns and his empowerment of Dr. Anthony Fauci, and will almost certainly be the GOP’s nominee for president again this year.

Innovators at Evinrude, starting with Ole Evinrude himself, created the first marketable outboard, made them lighter and more practical, and 100 years later created engines that were more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly than their four-stroke competitors. There is no telling what potential innovations across the American economy, not only by this one company, are now impossible, or at the very least delayed, due to the calamitous economic conditions created artificially by the state.

Voters seem more than willing to forget what their governments did to them in the spring of 2020 and beyond. As Herman Melville said “then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago,” our oceans, lakes, and rivers will surely forget old Ol Evinrude and his trusty outboards, but American boaters and anglers will remember all of the times Evinrudes got our families back to the boat launch in one piece, and something tells me those old engines will continue to do so for decades to come.

Brady Leonard is a musician, political strategist, and podcaster based in Toledo, Ohio. The No Gimmicks Podcast airs Mondays and Wednesdays at 1pm EST, wherever podcasts are found.
Catalyst articles by Brady Leonard