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
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.