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In 1905 a Detroit inventor named Cameron Beach Waterman invented a gasoline engine that could be attached to a boat. Mr. Waterman got his motor into production, but it was a humble and nervous start. The best slogan he could think of was: Don't be afraid of it.
Today nobody is. Out of Mr. Waterman's tiny shop has grown an industry that does a gross annual business of $130 million in the sale of engines and caters to more than 4 million owners of outboard motors. From coast to coast there are 18,000 outboard dealers, of whom at least 10,000 are adequately equipped to provide additional parts and service. In addition some 6,000 general marine supply dealers are doing a thriving business in outboard parts replacement. This year it is estimated that outboarders will spend $68 million for fuel. Boat makers expect to sell 270,000 units—which does not include a lively business still being done in kits roughly assembled for home finishing. Total business for everybody: $285 million and more to come.
This general state of well-being dates from the end of World War II and can be attributed to a variety of factors, the most important having no surface connection with outboard motors. First of all, there has been a tremendous increase in both purchasing power and spare time for the lower-and middle-class American. During the thirties, both were scarce. Outboard sales averaged 100,000 or less annually over the 10-year period, and close to 80% were bought by fishermen who wanted something in the three-horsepower area that cost about $100.
Today, with the two-day weekend and minimum wage, the head of the family has both the time and the money to get out on the water. 55% of outboard buyers are still fishermen. However, the addition of the pure leisure buyer who wants something swankier than a putt-putt to push his rowboat has not only increased volume purchasing to 450,000 but raised the average unit horsepower to 10 and the average price to $240.
Another boost for the industry came from the man-made lakes that have backed up behind power and irrigation dams in the Midwest and West. Lake of the Ozarks, Lake Texoma, Lake Mead, to name just a few, have made boating a popular sport in regions where a bucketful of water used to be a precious commodity. Two years ago a survey showed western states like Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Kansas buying 20% of all outboards sold in the U.S., while New England, the traditional birthplace of American boating, bought only 6.55%.
A third factor, gratefully observed by the industry but hardly caused by it, is the overcrowding of the nation's highways. People are literally being pushed off the roads and onto the water during their vacations.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the United States has ceased to be a nation of watchers and has become a nation of doers. Attendance at some spectator sports has fallen off 25% since 1947.
Beyond these vital points, the remainder of the outboard boom is directly attributable to the vast improvement of the product and to the zeal with which the product has been promoted. The biggest of the builders is Outboard Marine and Manufacturing Co., whose corporate entity embraces Evinrude, Johnson, Gale, the Outboard Motor and Marine Manufacturing Co., Ltd. of Canada and the RPM Manufacturing Company, which makes lawnmowers.
Outboard Marine makes half the motors bought in the United States. Each of its major divisions—Johnson and Evinrude—puts out engines in four different horsepower ratings. Evinrude has a 3, a 7�, a 15, and a 25. Johnson makes them in 3, 5�, 10, and 25. Gale, less publicized and lower priced, has a line that includes 3, 5, 12, and 22 hp motors.
Obviously, Outboard Marine has the field well covered. However, company officials, who are careful not to let the company become an antitrust target, say there is very little contact among the divisions. To a degree this is true, and although Johnson can hardly be described as locked in a death struggle with Evinrude, still there is a measure of lively intramural competition.