Manitoulin’s connection to a famous brand: Part II

Ralph Evinrude on the cover of The Shoal Magazine.

Part II of a series: Evinrude family, Island friends react to discontinuation news

LITTLE CURRENT – The discontinuation of the Evinrude brand of outboard motors was disheartening news for the Evinrude family and their friends alike, though the inventor’s great-grandson said the product quality was still top-notch despite his opinion that the brand’s new owner, Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP), had moved away from his forefathers’ values.

“I was a shocked as can be when I heard the news. It didn’t sit well with me and I immediately called up some of the guys who got laid off,” said Chris (Slater) Evinrude, great-grandson of outboard motor pioneer Ole Evinrude. The Expositor spoke with Chris Evinrude over the phone from his Florida home a couple of weeks after the announcement.

BRP has faced criticism for the way it told its employees that they would be laid off due to the Evinrude discontinuation and other company restructuring that ultimately ended some 650 jobs. Reports from people who received the notice said they were only told a few minutes before the public announcement by a recorded phone message.

BRP spokesperson Elaine Arsenault said the company would have preferred and normally elected to tell its employees this news in person, but with pandemic plant closures the company opted for a solution to inform the workforce at the same time. She acknowledged the phone call was not ideal and thanked the workers for their understanding.

Little Current’s Jib Turner, a long-time friend of the Evinrude family, said he and Chris Evinrude spoke after the news broke and agreed that Ole Evinrude “would be rolling over in his grave.”

Evinrude aficionados, however, have moved quickly to purchase the remaining inventory. Chris Evinrude himself placed an order for a new ETEC G2 outboard earlier this year.

“People are jumping on trying to get the last inventory because they can’t get it anymore and (BRP is) going to still honour the warranty. I’ve got seven years on this one and motors bought last March have 10-year warranties. That’s nuts,” said Chris Evinrude. Industry standard outboard warranties last about three years.

His recent purchase neatly bookends the family story—Chris Evinrude owns one of his family’s earliest-produced outboards and he now owns one of the last units in the century-old lineup.

BRP listed COVID-19 as a lead factor in the discontinuation but Mr. Turner argued other brands are facing the same issues. 

Both Mr. Turner and Chris Evinrude cited market changes and departures from the original spirit of the Evinrudes as factors leading to the brand’s demise. Chris Evinrude ended his 14-year career with Evinrude in 1989 after his grandfather Ralph Evinrude died and he disagreed with the new direction of the company.

Chris Evinrude was involved in the testing centre in Florida and said there were about 65 employees, including 20 boat drivers, working in two shifts there to develop new products. By the time the brand was mothballed, he estimates there were only 10 people left there.

“That’s kind of been the way it was. When Bombardier took over from OMC right before Christmas (2000) they just told people to pack up their stuff that day. They didn’t have a lot of tact when dealing with employees, just ‘see you later,’ even if they had been working there for 30 years,” said Chris Evinrude, adding that the Florida testing facility is now for sale.

Regardless of its internal policies, Evinrude was known worldwide for making a well-built, long-lasting outboard motor, including after the BRP takeover. Ralph Evinrude used to say that the mark of a true craftsman was being able to put one’s own name on a product. 

“The ETEC line BRP came up with is an extremely good product; it’s a reliable and very efficient two-stroke,” he said.

In Mr. Turner’s view, Evinrude lost a lot of exposure after leaving the race circuit. He also believed the company had focused on an already-saturated horsepower range in its motors that did not reflect the future trends of the industry, and that the ETECs were perhaps not marketed as well as they should have been. 

The Evinrude name still carried prestige, however, as it had for more than a century. The company was known for having a strong dealer support network, friendly and knowledgeable technicians and one of the best parts distribution systems among competitors.

“Ralph said to me one time that you could get parts for his outboards in the desert. As well, the fact was that it was a very good, reliable product because they did concentrate most of their efforts on endurance whereas other big players like Mercury were more focused on racing,” said Mr. Turner. 

“There’s millions of tools and parts sitting there in the development centre, I don’t see why someone couldn’t take over and keep manufacturing the current motors,” said Chris Evinrude, adding that he hoped another manufacturer would continue the Evinrude name. 

BRP has previously stated it intends to hold onto the Evinrude trademark.

The faith in the Evinrude brand and his personal relationship with the family led Mr. Turner’s father to become the official Evinrude dealer in Little Current. That lasted until 1972 when the Ferguson family took over that title.

Stan Ferguson, retired owner of Harbor Vue Marina in Little Current (an official Evinrude dealer for decades) said the brand was sought-after in the Manitoulin area both because of the family connection as well as the product itself.

“It sold well because it was a good motor, but it didn’t hurt that they were up here. Mr. (Ralph) Evinrude was very social and hands-on, so no doubt his presence certainly helped,” said Mr. Ferguson.

The similar reactions to the discontinuation from the Evinrude family to their friends on Manitoulin Island are a testament to the strong connections the family has formed with locals during their summer visits northward over four generations.

In the next edition of this series, The Expositor will explore some of the personal connections between the family and the Manitoulin area.