Though born more than a century ago, Ole Evinrude shared at least one passion with many of today’s Minnesotans: He loved to move atop water effortlessly in a boat powered by an outboard motor.
A native of Norway, Evinrude grew up near Milwaukee, and is widely credited in 1907 with developing the first commercially successful outboard.
Next week at the Minneapolis Boat Show, which opens Thursday at the Convention Center, the latest versions of Evinrude’s brainstorm will be unveiled in one of the largest metropolitan outboard motor markets in the world, in a state with more registered watercraft per capita than any other.
Shiny new outboards will be available for review not only from Evinrude’s namesake manufacturer, but from Yamaha, Mercury, Suzuki and other builders that today construct marine engines that are more powerful and reliable, cleaner burning and weigh less than any boat motors in history.
Sparked in the early 1980s by Honda’s introduction of its first four-stroke powerhead, the transformation of modern-day outboards from smelly to environmentally friendly, noisy to whisper-quiet, clunky to reliable, is a tale of technology unleashed among highly capable competitors.
“When four strokes first hit the marine market in the 1980s, everything changed,” said Dan Chesky Jr., owner of Dan’s Southside Marine in Bloomington. “And the consumer has benefited.”
So reliable are most of today’s outboards that Mark Hansen, owner of Twin City Outboard in Shakopee, perhaps the world’s largest repository of used outboards and outboard parts, sees very few recently manufactured boat motors come to his shop for repair.
Hansen specializes in the sale and restoration of used marine motors, and regularly ships hard-to-find carburetors, coils, skegs, flywheels and other parts to destinations as far away as Australia.
His shop boasts enough used and vintage outboards to outfit every lake in Minnesota with at least one.
“We just don’t get many of the newer motors offered to us for sale as salvage due to poor performance,” Hansen said. “Nowadays, if a recently built outboard comes in, it’s not because it doesn’t work. It’s usually because it’s been involved in a fire or accident. Mechanically, there just aren’t that many things that can go wrong with today’s engines.”
Visitors next week to the Boat Show will find still more technologically advanced outboards awaiting their inspection.
As a result, prospective marine buyers will face evermore complex decision-making processes while shopping for new boat motors.
One reason among many: Four-stroke outboards on the market today barely resemble the initial models widely introduced some 35 years ago.
The application of variable camshaft timing, 16-valve double-overhead cam powerheads and high compression ratios are just a few reasons why.
Additionally, most four-strokes in the midrange 115- to 200-horsepower class are now slimmed-down in-line four cylinders, rather than V-4s or V-6s, as they were previously.
They’re also fuel-injected, rendering in most cases to boating history the messy practice of pumping gas-line bulbs or choking an outboard before turning the key.
Manufacturers also are using higher quality parts today than in the past. As a result, today’s four-strokes weigh less while providing more power.
And because four-strokes fire on straight gas, mixing oil with gas on a dock for many outboard owners is now a bygone practice.
Yet four-stroke outboards haven’t won everyone over, in large part because the new, direct-injected high-performance E-Tec two-strokes manufactured by Evinrude provide better low-end torque than many four-strokes, and therefore pop boats more quickly onto plane.
The new two strokes also are faster than most four-strokes, and lighter.
Heft is no small matter. Many boats rigged with early generation four-strokes in the 200- to 300-horse class sat low astern while at idle.
“You can only put so much weight in a boat,” said Frankie Dusenka of Frankie’s Marine in Chisago City. “And if a lot of it is in the motor, it’s got to come from somewhere else.”
Evinrude, owned by Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP) of Canada, this spring doubled down on its E-Tec two-strokes by introducing a line of totally redesigned and re-engineered G2 E-Tecs the company says were five years in the making.
The new two-strokes are built with customizable outside panels so engine colors can complement boat colors. The engines also produce high-performance torque and speed, and what BRP says are the lowest emissions of any outboards.
The new E-Tecs also are delivered with computer-operated engine trimming, improving ride, the company says, and increasing fuel efficiency.
Need for speed
“What’s driving developments in our outboards, and our competitors’ outboards,” said Kevin Kerkvliet, Evinrude district sales manager stationed in the Twin Cities, “are customers. They want more and more from their boat motors.”
Many pontoon owners, for example, no longer are content to putter slowly around a lake while sipping cocktails at sunset, Kerkvliet said. Instead they want their pontoons to run 55 miles an hour “perhaps to get to a restaurant across the lake, or to pull tubers or skiers. And they want to do it while their outboards are operating quietly, with minimal fuel and no smell.”
Mercury, with its Optimax and Pro XS direct-injected models in the 115- to 250-horse class, never did fully abandon two strokes, and typically outfits these high-performers on bass boats and other fishing craft.
Similarly, Yamaha’s VMAX SHO models in 200- 225- and 250-horsepower, while four-strokes, are relatively lightweight, high-performing, fuel-efficient motors that also target the performance boat market.
And Mercury has supercharged its big-horsepower four-stroke Verado engines to improve hole shots and top-end speeds.
The upshot: “There really are no bad outboards made anymore,’’ Dusenka said.
Or simple ones.
Hansen, the owner of Twin City Outboard, said motors like the old Evinrude 4425, built in the late 1940s, will never again be brought to market. The 4425 could be completely disassembled with a single screwdriver.
“And a lot of owners didn’t know it, but inside the handle of that motor was a screwdriver. For that engine, it was the only tool you ever needed.’’