Despite the struggling economy, the 1930s saw many new innovations in outboard motors. The 5 ½-hp Lightwin Imperial and the 9.2-hp Lightfour Imperial were “hooded” with a protective aluminum covering over the powerhead to protect the engine from elements. These engines were also the first to have the powerhead encased in rubber. In 1935, OMC launched the Sportsman, a revolutionary 25 pound 1 ½-hp motor that sold for only $55. This was also the first outboard motor to utilize reed valves.
The acquisition of Johnson gave OMC a total of three manufacturing plants – Milwaukee, Waukegan, and Peterborough – and 11.5 acres for future expansion. The plants employed 855 Americans and 85 Canadians. Within the plants there existed a policy of “consolidated competition” which allowed the brands of Evinrude-Elto and Johnson to compete with each other for market share, as if there was no parent company involved. This internal rivalry worked well with one exception – engineering. Chief Engineer Irgens of Evinrude and Chief Engineer Rayniak of Johnson would meet with each other weekly to discuss their work but for the most part each man tried only to find innovations for their particular line of products. This led to a slowdown in production for both lines and brought thoughts of standardization to the minds of OMC management. However, this solution was not immediately implemented due to the onset of World War II.
The war made manufacturers once again think of diversifying their product lines and OMC began to actively investigate the refrigeration business that they had inherited with the acquisition of Johnson. In 1937, twenty-five Johnson employees moved to Galesburg, IL to assemble refrigerators. Within a year, the facility was also producing air-conditioning units. A new 70,000 square foot factory was built in 1939 and the entire Waukegan-based component production moved to Galesburg to form a new operation called Gale Products.
Gale manufactured its own line of refrigeration products as well as private label products for Johnson, Speed Queen, Mayflower, and Briggs. While sales were good, profits were small. This led Gale to begin producing private label Sea King outboard motors for Montgomery Ward. This revenue stream took Gale out of the red and management made the decision to sell the refrigerator business to Stewart-Warner and manufacture another private label outboard, Wizard, for Western Auto Stores.
Low pricing was the buzzword in the late 1930s with smaller and cheaper outboards being introduced by each division at OMC. The 1.1-hp Scout, later renamed the Ranger, was introduced in 1938 by Evinrude. The ½-hp Mate came along less than a year later with a price point of $34.50. Elto countered in 1938 with the 1.1-hp Pal, selling for $37.50, and the Elto Cub in 1939. The Elto Cub weighed only 8 pounds and sold for a remarkably low $29.50. Johnson contributed the Midget Single in 1938, the smallest and lightest Sea Horse model ever manufactured.
As early as 1939, two years before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, OMC began subcontracting with the US government to produce aircraft parts. This put OMC in a good position when the US government issued Limitation Order 80 (L-80) on March 27, 1942. L-80 prohibited the use of aluminum to manufacture leisure products. Under this order, the War Production Board placed the Evinrude factory on reserve to manufacture outboard motors if needed. When orders did not immediately come in, the War Production Board agreed to allow Evinrude to build airplane superchargers for Bendix and direction finders for the Army Signal Corps. However, soon after converting the lines over to produce these specialized parts, OMC began received orders from Washington to manufacture outboard motors for the Army and Navy. This was a tough time for OMC but its ability to meet the government’s demands helped pave the way for an easy transition back to peacetime manufacturing at the end of the war.
OMC ultimately produced 50,000 Bendix starters, 700,000 Autosyn fuel pressure indicators, 25,000 Magnesyn compass transmitters and indicators, 550,000 high-altitude regulators, and 45,000 Handy Billy firefighting pumps, along with countless outboard motors for the armed services. In addition, 921 OMC employees joined the service during World War II. At the end of the war, the US government awarded Johnson Motors the Minute Man flag and the “E” Flag with Star for their efforts.
In the years following the war, OMC boasted record sales. In 1946, OMC produced and sold 125,000 motors. By 1947, Gale had outperformed both Evinrude and Johnson in production and sales with almost 100,000 private label motors sold to Montgomery Ward, Goodyear, Gamble-Skogmo, and Esso. Total production in 1947 for OMC was a stunning 262,091 motors. This bested the fourteen other outboard motor manufacturers’ efforts combined.
The late 1940s and 1950s were considered the “age of innovation” for the marine industry. Many of the technologies that we are familiar with today – high powered engines, separate fuel tanks, electric starters, and gear shifts – were first invented during this time frame. The first product in this modern showcase was the Johnson QD. This 10-hp outboard motor featured a 5 ½ gallon remote fuel tank and a gear shift control. In prior models the fuel tank had been part of engine and was capable of holding only 2 to 2 ½ gallons of gasoline. This configuration was awkward to fill. The new remote fuel tank was attached to the engine with a 12 foot flexible hose. The hose, in and of itself, was a remarkable innovation. The connector had three holes in it so that it would plug in to three prongs on the motor. The first prong was a guide pin, the second the fuel line, and the third was an air-pressure line. This design remains largely unchanged even in today’s outboard motors. The second unique feature of the QD was its gear shift control which allowed operators to select forward, reverse or neutral. The QD was so successful that it took four years of continual production to meet consumer demand for the product.