The end could be near for the Johnson outboard brand.
On the scene since the Johnson Light Twin outboard was introduced at the 1922 New York Motor Boat Show, Johnson was once the best-selling outboard brand in the world. But the outboard famous for its Sea Horse icon has been diminished by current owner BRP, which has focused its marketing on the Evinrude brand. Now BRP dealers say that the remaining inventory of Johnson outboards has dwindled to "less than 100 units" of many models and some are sold out. And when they are gone, apparently, that may well be the end of Johnson. BRP is also promising dealers that new, portable Evinrude E-Tec models are on the way to replace the Johnson kickers.
"The Johnson brand has been associated up to now with what we consider to be the traditional technologies; the carbureted two-stroke and the four-stroke engines," said BRP public relations manager Julie Johnson. "Our plan at this point is to keep our marketing emphasis on Evinrude E-TEC to focus the network on the best technology available today. The long-term orientation for those technologies is not yet finalized though it is fair to assume that the carbureted two-stroke will be eliminated in the near future.
"The Johnson brand is a very valuable asset," added Johnson, "and we are evaluating many opportunities to continue to use it in the future, beyond what the current application is."
BRP, a privately-held company based in Quebec, Canada, was created in 2003 when the Canadian firm Bombardier Inc., sold the Evinrude and Johnson assets it acquired after the bankruptcy of OMC in 2001. Almost immediately after acquiring Evinrude and Johnson, BRP decided to pin its future on the direct-injected (DI) two-stroke technology it inherited from OMC. Sold exclusively under the Evinrude brand, BRP has been flogging the advantages of its E-Tec DI system while bashing the weight, performance and emissions of four-stroke outboards, most famously in a series in "infomercials" shown on cable television.
It was OMC that made Johnson a "four-stroke brand," in a last-gasp effort to stay relevant in a market that was shifting to four-strokes, helped along by the dismal performance if the OMC Ficht direct-injection technology. With all of its engineering eggs in the Ficht basket, OMC was caught short when consumers turned to reliable four-stroke Honda, Suzuki, Mercury and Yamaha motors in the late 1990s. OMC struck a deal with Suzuki to supply it with four-stroke models to fill out its line. The Suzuki motors were painted and badged as Johnsons and gave OMC dealers four-strokes to sell alongside the two-stroke Evinrude models. Just before the bankruptcy, an OMC dealer quipped to me that "those Suzuki Johnsons are the best motors OMC is selling right now."
This is the scenario Bombardier inherited, and as it preached the E-Tec gospel, the Johnson line was pushed aside. In 2004 BRP cut back the deal with Suzuki, and the supply agreement ceased entirely at the end of the 2005 model year. In 2006 BRP still offered Johnson four-strokes at 25, 15, 9.9, 6, 5, 4 and 2.5 horsepower, plus a 9.9/15-hp two-stroke kicker. The 2007 Johnson line includes just the 25-, 15- and 9.9-hp four-strokes and the 9.9/15 two-strokes. But a memo from BRP shown me by a dealer last week indicates the BRP inventory of the 25-hp four-strokes and all but a few of the two-strokes are gone, and that fewer than 100 examples of most of the rest of line remain in the BRP warehouse. This dealer orders four-stroke Johnson kickers to rig as trolling motors on boats with Evinrude primary power, and was warned by BRP that those kicker motors would shortly not be available. In fact, the 20-inch 15-hp with electric start is already sold out.
This puts dedicated BRP dealers in a bind, because the Evinrude E-Tec line only goes down to 40 hp. Relief, apparently, is on the way, in the form of new, small E-Tec motors, though the memo from BRP states that there has been no date set for delivery of those motors to dealers.
It's my guess—and this is only my personal hunch—that BRP will moth-ball the Johnson brand, at least in North America. The BRP website indicates that Johnson motors from 25 to 2.5 hp are still offered in Europe and South America. But right now in North America, BRP has no interest in selling a four-stroke, and doesn't need a second brand. Evinrude market share is less than 15 percent as it battles Suzuki and Honda for a distant third-place in sales behind Mercury and Yamaha. Hard to believe a brand with the history and equity of Johnson could just whither away. Of course, that's what they said about Oldsmobile.
New Marine Spark Plug from Autolite
A new line of premium, small-engine spark plugs from Autolite feature an iridium-enhanced 0.6mm finewire design and anti-fouling technology, according to the company. The company says Autolite Xtreme Sport plugs offer a more focused ignition than standard plugs, and an iridium-enhanced, 0.6mm finewire design for improved ignitability, resulting in easier starting, fewer misfires, improved emissions and power and less fouling. Sounds like they might be just the ticket to replace those oily, black plugs in your old two-stroke kicker.
Xtreme Sport plugs are available at mass merchandisers, hardware stores and auto retailers nationwide, with applications for many outboard and personal watercraft models now available or on the way. Go to www.autolite.com for more information.
Editor's Note: Charles Plueddeman is the editor for Boating, the nation's largest boating magazine.