Last week's column on the likely demise of Johnson outboards got me thinking about my experience with the company. I got my start in the marine industry in 1983 working in corporate communications at OMC in Waukegan, Ill. Our offices were located in a small brick building that stood outside the entrance to the "Johnson building," the ancient office-and-manufacturing facility that was built to house Johnson in the 1920s, before it became part of OMC. When I worked there, OMC still maintained a separate (and very competitive) sales and marketing staff for its outboard brands, with Johnson in Waukegan and Evinrude in Milwaukee. We worked on projects that involved both brands, including racing, parts and accessories, and corporate issues.
At the time, OMC engineering was located near the docks on the back of the Johnson building, and the V6 outboards clanked along a dark assembly line within the plant. In the office lobby on flat, white tires stood an antique Johnson motorized bicycle that was my introduction to the history of the company. Why a bicycle? Read on.
Boats, Airplanes and Bikes
The story of Johnson outboards begins on the Wabash River in Indiana. In 1908, 18-year-old Lou Johnson and his younger brothers, Clarence and Harry, built a small inboard marine engine to power their rowboat up the mighty Wabash from their home near Terre Haute. The sons of a railroad blacksmith, the boys made their own patterns and castings, and the engine worked.
The boat was fun, but it was powered flight that really captured the fancy of the Johnson boys. They next designed a two-stroke V-twin aircraft engine and the plane to go with it, and in 1911 Lou made the first successful monoplane flight in America. Banking on this success, the Johnsons opened an aviation school, which was destroyed in 1913 by a tornado.
Recovering from that disaster, the Johnsons next designed a small engine to power bicycles. An investor moved the company to South Bend, and it was successful until the low-cost Ford Model T automobile put the bicycle business into decline and the Johnson Motor Wheel Company into receivership in 1921.
The motor-bike engine design was next adapted for marine use, and the Johnson Light Twin outboard was introduced at the 1922 New York Motor Boat Show. The aluminum, opposed-twin Light Twin made 2 hp and weighed just 35 pounds when other motors weighed 60 pounds. The Light Twin could be tilted for beaching and swiveled 360 degrees on its bracket. It was also reliable and easy to start. By 1923 Johnson sold 7,000 motors. An even lighter, 27-pound model was introduced for 1925.
Johnson built its business on performance. Its 1926 P-30 Big Twin made 6 hp and could push a light boat to 23 mph, an astounding speed at the time. Johnson moved from South Bend to a new waterfront plant on Lake Michigan in Waukegan, Ill., in 1928, and in 1929 an ad agency coined the name Johnson Sea Horse. In 1935, Ralph Evinrude and Steve Briggs bought the company and made it the third leg, with Elto and Evinrude, of Outboard Marine and Manufacturing Company. By 1937 Johnson sales exceeded those of Evinrude and Elto, and the 1 millionth Johnson outboard was produced in 1952.
When OMC went bankrupt in 2001, its corporate headquarters was still located near the site of the Johnson offices and manufacturing plants on Lake Michigan in Waukegan, and many of those original buildings were still in use. When it acquired the outboard assets of OMC, Bombardier Inc. moved most of the operation to a new office and manufacturing facility in Sturtevant, Wis. Last December I stopped to visit the former OMC site in Waukegan, and sadly found that vandals had littered the lawn in front of the former corporate headquarters with office furniture that apparently had been tossed through shattered windows of the second story, an ignoble end for a once-proud company.
New Oil Filters for Mercury Verados
A new oil filter for Mercury Verado outboards provides better filtration and costs less than the filter it replaces, according to Mercury (www.mercurymarine.com). The new spin-on filters will be original equipment on new Verado models, and replace the previous filter design as a service item available through dealers. Specific filters are offered for four-cylinder and six-cylinder Verado motors. The new four-cylinder filter (Part Number 877767K01) and six-cylinder filter (Part Number 877769K01) are priced at $9.48, less than half the price of the Verado filters they replace. Because the shape of the filter case is changed, Mercury also offers a new cap-style wrench ($2.75) that can be used to removed either filter.
Editor's Note: Charles Plueddeman is the editor at large for Boating, the nation's largest boating magazine.