Manitoulin’s connection to a famous brand

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Part I of a series: BRP mothballs Evinrude outboard motor models

MONTREAL – Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP) recently announced it would be discontinuing the current offerings of Evinrude outboard motors in its ETEC and ETEC G2 models, ending a continual run of a marine-industry staple that evolved from the century-old Evinrude model that was the first commercially viable outboard motor in the world, as well as a family name that has close ties to the District of Manitoulin and north Georgian Bay.

“This was a difficult decision to make considering Evinrude’s rich legacy in the marine business and the strong relationship we have built with our Evinrude network and customers for more than a century,” BRP spokesperson Elaine Arsenault told The Expositor in an emailed statement last Friday.

“After more than 100 years on waterways around the world, Evinrude is a proud chapter of our marine history. It is with much gratitude that we recognize the many achievements of this team, which has been driven by passion and ingenuity over the years,” she added.

Stan Ferguson, the former owner of Harbor Vue Marina whose family history in Little Current marine services also includes his parents’ Ferguson Marine operation, said he was saddened to hear the news. The Ferguson family has long been a major Evinrude dealer in the area.

“It was a well-known brand, especially in the ‘50s through the ‘70s, when they were ‘the’ engine. Everyone grew up with parents or grandparents who had Evinrudes. To see the name’s exit from those two engines is disappointing, no question,” said Mr. Ferguson.

Evinrude is a lofty name in the world of outboard motors—in 1906, first-generation American Ole Andreassen Aaslundeie (who used the last name Evinrude, an homage to the Evenrud farm on which his mother grew up) got the idea to create an outboard motor for small vessels.

By 1909, the Norwegian-American had created a 1.5 horsepower model that sold out its limited production run in very little time. His life partner Bess was also his business partner and came up with the attention-grabbing slogan, ‘Don’t row! Throw the oars away! Use an Evinrude motor.’

Two years later, the Wisconsin-based Evinrude Motor Company received a 1,000-motor order. The following year, sales neared 5,000 and the company upsized its facilities.

The two would later sell their company and take a break for a few years due to health concerns, but they kept casually working on their designs. They returned to the commercial world in 1920 by founding the ELTO Motor Company, short for Evinrude Light Twin (cylinder) Outboards.

Around the time of their hiatus (perhaps in 1916 or 1917, recalls a long-time friend of the family), Mr. and Ms. Evinrude began to explore the Great Lakes in a 42-foot cruiser named Bess Emily with their young son Ralph. Their trips (in that cruiser as well as its successors Bess Emily II and III) took them to the North Channel and particularly Little Current, a cruiser’s paradise that captured their hearts.

Old 16mm home movie footage preserved online by Little Current resident Greg Wright shows some of the family’s annual stops at the Port of Little Current, as well as Gore Bay, Killarney and The Pool in Baie Fine.

The latter location enchanted the family so much that they elected it as their official seasonal getaway, building a modest camp on what is commonly called ‘Evinrude Island.’ Mr. and Ms. Evinrude would often visit with locals at the Little Current docks and their son Ralph Sydney Evinrude also became enthralled with his summer home.

One of the people that formed a strong connection with the Evinrudes was Grant Turner, grandfather to Jib Turner.

Grant Turner ran the only telecommunications service in the area at that time, the Manitoulin North Shore Telephone and Telegraph Company. When the Evinrudes arrived in town, they would check in with their industrial offices in Milwaukee.

“(Grant Turner) would have been the first guy they’d meet when they came into town to use the phone service,” recalls Jib Turner. The upstairs of the present-day Turner’s store in Little Current was the telephone and telegraph service office.

Manitoulin and Georgian Bay were not simply getaways, however, as the old home footage reveals: Ole (and later Ralph) would pack up a dozen in-development motors or the new models coming out that year and would put them through extensive testing and retooling in these waters. The geography also offered an attractive backdrop to work on publicity initiatives.

“During the early ‘50s my father was the Evinrude dealer, and he was involved in a lot of marketing,” said Jib Turner. “They would drive the boats through the treacherous terrain in McGregor Bay and they’d have their marketing people here and film and photograph stuff.”

As Mr. and Ms. Evinrude’s new ELTO Motor Company grew in stature, it merged with Lockwood-Ash Motor Company and the original Evinrude Company. It would adopt the Johnson brand some years later.

The new conglomerate was named Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC), with Mr. Evinrude serving as president and Stephen Foster Briggs (of Briggs and Stratton) serving as chair of the board.

Mr. Evinrude’s son Ralph took over as president and director of the company following his father’s death in 1934. He served in that role for 55 years, retiring as chair in 1982.

OMC applied for bankruptcy protection in late 2000 and BRP won the rights to the Johnson and Evinrude brands two months later. 

BRP discontinued the Johnson brand in 2007 and on May 27, 2020, it announced it would be leaving the outboard motor business altogether.

The company continues to hold the trademarks for Evinrude and said it has no intention of letting those go at the current time. It is developing ‘Project Ghost’ and ‘Project M,’ but spokesperson Ms. Arsenault said assigning a brand name to those products would come later in the process.

In a future edition, The Expositor will explore in greater depth the Evinrude family’s connections to Manitoulin and the waters of northern Lake Huron.