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What Really Killed Evinrude

At its essence, capitalism is unapologetically Darwinian. There are exceptions, of course, but most small and large businesses thrive or wither on their own merits. Success isn’t owed, much less guaranteed. You have to earn it.

Or perish.

Still, like many industry observers I was saddened to hear that Bombardier Recreational Products is scuttling its Evinrude E-Tec and E-Tec G2 outboard engine lines. Headquartered in Valcourt, Quebec, the company announced its decision last Wednesday in a press release.

The COVID-19 crisis was the final straw for the struggling brand, according José Boisjoli, the president and chief executive officer of BRP.

Evinrude E-Tec and E-Tec G2 outboard engines are history.

“This business segment had already been facing some challenges and the impact from the current context has forced our hand,” he said in the release.

With that announcement, more than 350 employees in Sturtevant, Wis., the home of the Evinrude production facility suddenly found themselves out of work. That the plant will be “repurposed for new projects to pursue our plan to provide consumers with an unparalleled experience on the water,” according to the release, offers zero immediate consolation to the newly unemployed. Another 300 employees around the world “will be impacted,” the release stated, which is a polite way of saying most, if not all, will need to find new jobs.

That doesn’t seem like a big number given that more than 40 million Americans are currently unemployed—unless you happen to be one of the former Evinrude employees joining them. Then it means the world. Then it becomes real and terrifying.

But the loss of the Evinrude line itself is equally unfortunate—it is a 118-year-old brand. And though it barely moved the needle in the high-performance marine market in recent years, Evinrude gave consumers another option. Even if you don’t exercise them, options are great to have. More important, options spur competition. And competition spurs innovation.

But there is much more to the story of the demise of Evinrude than COVID-19 economics. For decades, the brand struggled to find its footing with its two-stroke offerings, Meanwhile, Mercury Marine and Mercury Racing in Fond du Lac, Wis., were releasing game-changing four-stroke products, most recently a V-8 outboard line that has become the primary platform for new releases. Yamaha isn’t going anywhere, either, thanks to a stable of great four-stroke products and a massive loyal following of saltwater fishermen. (As for Seven Marine, which was purchased by Volvo Penta in 2017, who knows?)

To provide perspective far more credible and better-informed than my own, I reached out to Fred Kiekhaefer, the former president of Mercury Racing. If anyone knows the history of marine propulsion on the technical and economic sides, it is Kiekhaefer.

“I’m am sorry to hear Evinrude’s gone,” he said. “Back in the 1980s, my company machined gearcases for OMC (Outboard Marine Corporation) and their big Evinrudes—that work kept my company alive during earlier, difficult times before we were acquired by Brunswick. Today, the dealers and employees are the ones who will suffer the Evinrude brand’s demise. Sadly, it is not of their doing. Rather, it is the ultimate result of choices made by OMC and BRP leadership, and our government regulators, going back a long way.

“When outboards became regulated for emissions, all brands in the marine propulsion world were challenged,” he continued. “Mercury, Johnson and Evinrude— in particular—struggled with the engineering and economics of compliance. Mercury moved to first OptiMax direct-injection two-strokes, then briefly Yamaha-sourced four-strokes. Next came Verado and finally the current generation of four-strokes. OMC committed to Ficht direct-injection, then to E-Tec—and both were two-strokes. OptiMax had issues. Ficht was a disaster.”

Kiekhaefer and his fellow decision-makers saw the future, and the future was four-stroke outboards.

“Internally at Mercury, I argued that only four-stroke technology could win with long-term emissions compliance,” he said. “Fortunately, Mercury pursued four-strokes and executed brilliantly. BRP stuck with two-strokes. That difference in choices is—in my opinion—what killed the Johnson brand a while back and hurt Evinrude irreparably today. COVID-19 is just the final nail.”

Related story: Ongoing COVID-19-Related Coverage