Johnson Outboard Motors History

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Johnson Outboards has been making propulsion systems for boats (Johnson Outboard Motors) since the early 20th century. Founded by four brothers from Indiana, Johnson Outboards has had quite a rocky existence despite its successes, and is now a division of a Canadian corporation.

Origins and Achievements

  • A group of four brothers from Terre Haute, Indiana--Lou, Harry, Julius and Clarence Johnson--started making motors in the early 1900s when they built a tiny marine engine for their rowboat in order to ride up the Wabash River to buy some walnuts. They soon founded Johnson Bros. Motor Company and began to mass-produce inboard and outboard engines.

Achievements

  • Within the next two decades, the Johnson company prospered. The brothers were responsible for the United States' first monoplane flight due to making a 2-cycle airplane engine--a device they even tried on bikes. In 1921, Lou Johnson teamed up with a college student to design and produce the Johnson model A. As a result, 7,000 of these motors were sold in 1923.

    In 1926, Johnson was the first to introduce the heavy outboard engine, which defied expectations of what such a device could do for airplanes. By this time, they were also selling quick motors. By the close of the 1920s, the Johnson brothers had built an elaborate outboard manufacturing facility close to Lake Michigan.

Misfortune

  • However, the Johnson company was not without its misfortunes. At first, it withstood them: A 1913 storm destroyed the monoplane and the shop it was built in. Then the 2-cycle engines saw success limited by the popularity of Henry Ford's Model T cars. That did not stop the Johnson business from growing during the 1920s.
    Then, of course, the stock market crash of 1929 happened. Inventories of boats and motors were stockpiled. By 1932, Johnson had declared bankruptcy.

Outboard Marine Corporation

  • When Steve Briggs and Ralph Evinrude purchased the Johnson company in 1935, the business was in dire straits. A deal to provide Sears-Roebuck with engines failed to materialize. By then the company had even entered the refrigerator compression business. With the purchase, though, Johnson found some respite. A year later, the Outboard Marine and Manufacturing Corporation (OMC) was formed, which put Johnson alongside another company (Evinrude) as a boat motor maker.

Bombardier Recreational Products

  • In 2001, Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP)--a company that still specializes in motorized recreational vehicles and powersports engines--bought OMC. Thus the Johnson company is currently under the Bombardier umbrella.

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