Technical Tidbits: The Detatchable Rowboat Motors – The Early Evinrude Outboards

Ole Evinrude did not invent the outboard motor nor was he the first to produce one. Versions of portable propulsion systems, both gasoline and battery powered, had been around since the late 1800’s. An attorney named Cameron Waterman began manufacturing his Porto-Motor several years before Evinrude built his first prototype. It was an associate of Waterman who first used the term “outboard motor.”




Being skilled as a machinist, Ole Evinrude designed and patented  a “marine propulsion mechanism” and formed the Evinrude Motor Co. over 100 years ago. With his wife Bess who possessed a talent for business management, they were a perfect pair for creating a successful company. Now a division of Bombardier Recreational Products, Evinrude Motors is the world’s oldest outboard motor company with products recognized and respected worldwide.


Evinrude’s prototype was a 1-1/2 hp single cylinder engine that idled at 300 rpm and achieved 800 rpm at full throttle. The ignition system to fire the sparkplug consisted of dry-cell batteries and a coil-box located inside of the boat.


Bess Evinrude called it a “coffee grinder” when she first laid eyes on the flywheel with a wooden grab-handle for starting. Early boat operators called them “knuckle busters” among other choice words because of that spinning knob and the pain it would inflict if one were careless.




Bess managed the advertising and created the slogans “Don’t row! Throw your oars away! Use an Evinrude Motor!” and “Turn Your Rowboat to a Motorboat.” It was she who basically oversaw and grew the business side while Ole worked day and night in the shop.


Ole Evinrude was a perfectionist and his motors were reliable compared to others available at the time. Former president Theodore Roosevelt used an Evinrude for his 1913-14 explorations in Brazil and commented on its reliability under extreme conditions.


Improvements to the original 1909 model were incorporated each year. Power output increased to 2hp and a 3.5hp version followed in 1914. Designated  the “Standard Rowboat Motor” these engines looked almost identical through 1928 with their forward facing cylinder and exposed sparkplug. Woe to the inattentive boat operator who carelessly brushed against the sparkplug while the engine was running.


For a few years Evinrude even manufactured boats specifically built for his outboard. The company also produced an engine model that was designed to bolt to the bottom of a canoe. The powerhead fastened to an oval plate inside the canoe with a gearcase bolted underneath.


Over the years, the one-cylinder outboard powered a number of different items. The propeller could be removed and a pulley installed in its place. A V-belt from the pulley could be attached to something like a table-saw or a washing machine as very few rural areas had electricity. One version featured the outboard motor attached to a pump mounted below the engine.




Operating these early engines required a bit of skill and finesse. They used a 20:1 fuel-oil mixture and there was no automatic choke or a recoil starter. After assembling the motor and clamping it to the transom the operator placed a dry-cell battery and coil box into the boat then connected three wires to the engine. Because the motor was continually in-gear, the boat had to be pushed off and pointed away from the shore before starting up.  Later Evinrude offered options such as 360° reverse steering. and magneto ignitions that eliminated the external battery and coil.


The starting ritual was complex and time consuming by today’s standards. First the fuel shut-off valve was opened, the mixture needle set, and the spark-advance lever positioned correctly. A valve beneath the carburetor was pressed until gasoline dribbled overboard. Priming the motor was accomplished by grasping the wooden knob and rocking the flywheel back and forth rapidly between the 9 o’clock and the 2 o’clock positions to pull the fuel charge into the crankcase.




The instruction book stated:


“QUICKLY and FORCIBLY pull the flywheel over the compression point in the direction indicated by the arrow embossed on the gas tank. This will fire the charge and the motor will operate. If it should not fire, then try again, but not over 20 times, instead look for a faulty adjustment.”


If everything went well, you clattered off in a cloud of blue smoke.


Today we are blessed with turn-key or one-pull starts on our Evinrude E-TEC outboards which are also smoke-free, super quiet, and cleaner for the environment. We should be grateful for the 100+ years of outboard evolution combined with the genius and hard work of Ole Evinrude and other industry pioneers. Think back and imagine what our grandparents or great-grandparents had to go through to pursue fish or to just enjoy a day on the water. As my grandmother would often say, “The good old days weren’t always that good.”


— Bill Grannis




To continue the conversation on the history of Evinrude engines, visit the E-NATION message boards.


Videos of Antique Evinrude Detachable Rowboat Motors:


Starting and running a 1915 Evinrude:


Test running and boating with a 1913 Evinrude:


Chris S. and his Triple Evinrude Rowboat Motors — YouTube


For more information on early Evinrude engines:


Antique Outboard Motor Club


Jack Craibs Rowboat Motor Website


The Old Outboard Book by Peter Hunn