History Of Johnson Outboard Motors

The Johnson Brothers

The outboard motor industry saw more than just the rise of Elto in the early 1920s.  Other players had also entered the marketplace.  The newly formed Johnson Motors Company burst
onto the scene with a twin-cylinder motor, quickly taking leadership away from Evinrude Motors. Much like Evinrude Motors though, Johnson Motors Company begun as a family owned and operated business.  In 1908, with just the bare basics for parts, the brothers Johnson crafted their first marine engine in a barn in Terre Haute, IN.

Lou Johnson was the oldest of seven children born to Soren and Bertha Johnson.  Lou was described as a natural leader and an innovator.  Like Ole Evinrude, Lou Johnson conceived of the idea for a motor one hot day in 1903 when he had to row his 18-foot boat, the Arrow, ten miles upstream to harvest walnuts.  Lou’s first engine was a single-cylinder, two-cycle, 3-hp monster, weighing in at 150 pounds.  By 1905, the Johnson brothers, Lou, Harry and Clarence, had perfected their creation to a single-cylinder, 3-hp engine weighing only 65 pounds.  With an interest in speed, the brothers expanded to both two and four-cylinder inline models and tested them in the Black Demon, a 26-foot displacement boat.  The Black Demon raced down the Wabash River at speeds of up to 18 mph.

While marine engines were the main focus of the Johnson brothers, they also developed an aircraft motor.  The lightweight V-4, two-cycle motor produced 60-hp.  Since the Johnsons had no aircraft on which to test the motor, they decided to build one.  In 1910, seven years after the flight of Orville and Wilbur Wright, the Johnson brothers built the first American monoplane to actually take flight.  The plane weighed 750 pounds, had a 36-foot wingspan and measured 34 feet from propeller to tail.  The monoplane quickly gave the brothers celebrity status, drawing invitations to attend county fairs and carnivals throughout the state.  Visitors paid 25 cents to take a look at the machine.  In addition, Lou piloted the plane in contests; once winning $1000.

The Johnson brothers continued to handcraft airplane and seaplane motors while building and selling marine motors and racing motorboats.  Business was good, with the brothers selling
products just as fast as they could make them.  Then on Easter Sunday of 1913 tragedy struck in the form of a tornado that ripped the Johnson factory from its foundation, destroying everything within. Because the family had no insurance, rebuilding was out of the question.  Instead the brothers conceived of a new invention – a motor to propel a bicycle.  With this new idea, the Johnson Motor Wheel Company was founded.  Because the motor wheel was very hard on magnetos, burning them out as quickly as they could be replaced, the Johnsons began to discuss possible solutions with Warren Ripple, owner of the Quick-Action Ignition Company in South Bend, IN.  Ripple took a special interest in the manufacture of the motors and helped facilitate a move of the Johnson Motor Wheel Company to South Bend in March 1918.  The motor wheel was very successful, selling more than 17,000 units during the years it was manufactured.  However, the Johnson Motor Wheel Company went out of business in 1921 with the onset of the recession.

Coming off of this recent disappointment, the Johnson brothers began to look again at the marine industry. The first prototype outboard motor was tested in the spring of 1921 in a
lightweight boat built by Warren Conover.  The test was successful and the Johnson Motor Company was incorporated one month later in South Bend, IN.  Warren Ripple was named as the company’s first president.  The first Johnson outboard motor was produced on December 19, 1921.  The 2-hp twin engine was made largely of aluminum alloys, weighed only 35 pounds and featured a full-pivot reverse.

In 1922, the Johnson brothers purchased a license from the Hult brothers of the Pentaverken company in Skovde, Sweden to use one of their patented inventions fro outboard motors on the Johnson outboards.

I that same year, Johnson introduced the Light Twin and the Waterbug.  Both designs won recognition in the National Motor Boat Show that year and the company received orders for
3,429 units.  Each unit sold for $140.  The following year, orders reached 7,000 units.  As Johnson Motor Company began to win acclaim and market share, other companies such as Evinrude began to feel the pressure.  In 1922 Chris Meyer sold Evinrude Motors to a group of investors led by Walter Zinn.   Zinn introduced the 4-hp Big Twin in 1924.  However, sales still did not rise for
Evinrude Motors and the company was again sold to another group of investors led by August Petrie.

In 1935 Johnson merged with Evinrude to form Outboard Motors Corporation,  Then later in the 1960s it was renamed to Outboard Marine Corporation.  Ralph Evinrude oversaw this new company, OMC, and restructured the corporation based on the "consolidated competition" of its divisions.

This article is a composite put together from internet information.


For a bit of more information on old Johnson motors, click here  http://www.yankeeaomci.org/johnsonat85.htm


Back to Ramblings