Requiem For A Heavyweight

Lead Line — March 2001

By Richard Thiel

Requiem For A Heavyweight
Reorganizations and cash were too late.
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It is late on December 22, the last working day before Christmas, and everyone has gone home. I’m about to leave when I receive an alert on my computer from a news service. I consider ignoring it, but for some reason I don’t. When I open it I am met with news of the passing of a giant within the boating business: Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC) has announced it has filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, will permanently furlough some 4,000 workers, and will sell “some or all” of its engine and boat companies. Thus the terse obituary for the company that virtually created powerboating.

The story of OMC is the story of the Industrial Age in microcosm. It started in 1907 when Ole Evinrude invented the vertical-crankshaft outboard motor. Two years later he formed the Evinrude Motor Company, then sold the company in 1914. In 1921 Ole started the ELTO (Evinrude Light Twin Outboard) Motor Company. Eight years later the Johnson brothers introduced the Johnson Sea Horse, as Evinrude, ELTO, and Lockwood-Ash Motor Companies merged to form Outboard Motor Company (OMC). In 1936 Johnson merged with OMC to form the Outboard Marine and Manufacturing Company and in 1956 the company changed its name to Outboard Marine Company.

OMC always excelled at engineering. It built the first production V-4 outboard (1958), the first loop-charged outboard (1968), the first production V-6 (1976), and the first and only production V-8 (1985). But it was also rooted in the Iron Age, something I observed firsthand in 1985 when I toured OMC’s manufacturing facility in Waukegan, Illinois. It was Vulcan’s Forge come to life, with muscular men in sleeveless shirts toiling in near-darkness amid unimaginable cacophony and the smell and heat of the foundry. Many of its industrial contemporaries were already modernizing, but OMC seemed fixed in the past. Many believe this left it with a burden from which it never recovered.

As its name implies, OMC was always focused on outboards. In the ‘70s it challenged the successful MerCruiser stern drive with an iconoclastic unit whose primary allure seemed to be avoiding the use of patented features. It seemed like OMC believed the outboard would eventually supplant the stern drive, and when it became clear it wouldn’t (and after a number of key patents had expired), OMC introduced the Cobra. But MerCruiser already owned 80 percent of the stern drive market and never relinquished that lead.

In 1986 OMC began purchasing boat companies, largely to keep pace with Mercury Marine, which had been purchased by Brunswick Corporation, and when the smoke cleared, some analysts believed Brunswick got the stronger companies. True or not, from April 1996 to May 1997, Brunswick stock went from about 22 to about 33, while OMC dropped from about 23 to slightly more than 15.

Then in 1997 came OMC’s FICHT direct-injection outboard, which was designed to meet new, more stringent emissions regulations and compete head-on with Mercury Marine’s OptiMax. OMC, which had lost outboard market share, was counting on FICHT to help it rebound, but the motors were plagued by operational difficulties, and as a result sales—and the company’s image—suffered a devastating blow. A series of reorganizations and cash infusions followed, but it was too late.

It is unknown who will eventually end up owning what parts of OMC; Harley-Davidson, Volvo Penta, and Yamaha have all been mentioned as buyers of the engine division. In any case, why should we mourn the passing of another outdated industrial giant, for the passing of OMC is proof that capitalism works. Yet I’m deeply saddened that 4,000 men and women had to lose their jobs, and I find it equally depressing that a company once so grand may soon be gone with barely a trace. It’s like watching a proud ship finally sink beneath the waves.

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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