Laid-back speed wizard
Outboard boating magnate Ralph Evinrude with the legendary Chanticleer docked at the Outrigger Marina. ELLIOTT MUSEUM COLLECTION
Boating innovator enjoyed the slow lifestyle on the Treasure Coast
BY DONNA CRARY
Mention the name Evinrude, the famous outboard motor, and you imagine the thrill of speeding in a Boston Whaler, intoxicated by the wind blowing through your hair, the cooling mist of the sea spray, as you skim across sparkling, turquoise waters.
To locals along the Treasure Coast, the name Evinrude conjures up memories of the yacht Chanticleer, the Outboard Marine testing center and singer/entertainer Frances Langford. While much attention has been given to his wife, Frances, we know little about her husband, Ralph Evinrude, the boating titan, who preferred to live away from the public eye. He lived quietly in his laid-back way, relocating his business, boating in local waters and ruling a boating empire on the shores of the Indian River.
With Ralph as the driving force, Outboard Marine Corp. (OMC) opened the door to a new age of boating, became a Fortune 500 company and made its motor a household name. In his 55-year career, Ralph revolutionized boat engine design and built a business that employed more than 9,000 people worldwide.
A LOVE-LY IDEA
It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention. Add love, romance and mechanical ingenuity and you have the beginnings of OMC. Ole Evinrude, Ralph’s father, was picnicking on an island near Milwaukee, Wisc., with his fiancée Bess Cary on a blistering hot August day. Bess mentioned that it would be nice to have some ice cream even though the ice cream parlor was miles away. Ole, wanting to please, didn’t hesitate.
“Well, he loved her — he was a shy Norwegian, just like my dad — a very shy Norwegian,” Ralph’s son, Tom Evinrude, recalls. “Ole said, ‘No problem,’ and he took the rowboat and rowed 2 1/2 miles back to the mainland. Got the ice cream, and on the way back — it’s 90 degrees — the ice cream melted. So when he got back to the island, they had cookies and soup.”
Ole realized there had to be a better way to move a boat besides rowing or sailing. Using his brilliant engineering mind, he eventually developed the one-cylinder outboard motor. It looked like a coffee grinder that basically was a gasoline motor connected to a propeller that sat on the back of a rowboat. In April 1909, he decided to test his new invention on the Kinnickinnic River in Milwaukee.
“People were lined up down below hearing this motor with no muffler on it going whack, whack, whack, whack, whack, reverberating off the buildings on the river,” Tom says. “They were astounded at the rowboat going up and down the river. Ole’s cousin, Russ, was helping him in the boat and was taken aback by this motor that was running. Russ said, ‘Listen, I can get you orders for 10 more,’ and he did. Those 10 went to 20, then 30. He had orders coming in for 1,000 within a year.”
Ralph was a year old when his father’s invention revolutionized the boating world. Ole produced the first 10 motors by hand — each weighed 62 pounds and cost $62. Ralph’s parents set up a mom-and-pop operation to meet soaring demand. Bess was the bookkeeper and marketing manager while Ole worked in the back room assembling motors. Boaters were eager to throw away their oars for a modern Evinrude engine. By 1913, the company had expanded its operations, selling 9,413 motors in one year.
CHOSE FACTORY WORK
Ralph was a natural in the outboard business. Like Ole, he loved to tinker with motors. He attended the University of Wisconsin for two years and later dropped out to work for his father testing engines. “All I wanted to learn was outside the campus in the world of business, in my father’s factory,” he said in a 1973 interview.
He soon turned heads in the boating world by convincing Ole to design a faster engine. Together they developed the Super Elto Quad, the first four-cylinder motor that could propel a boat with speeds of more than 35 mph. The Elto made a big hit at the 1928 National Boat Fair in New York and the Evinrude name quickly became the speed king of the outboard industry.
Ralph became company president following Ole’s death in 1934 and a new era for the company was born. Ralph’s leadership style focused on the big picture. He was skilled at recruiting the best minds to put together the best team. He was quiet and reserved, and when he made a decision, he never wavered.
In spite of the Great Depression, sales held steady soon after Ralph took over the helm. He purchased Johnson Motors in 1936 and his company merged with Johnson to form OMC.
The World War II effort also kept OMC afloat with government subcontracts to build engines and parts for the military. Ralph was passionate in his war effort. He donated his 37-foot luxury yacht — the Sally Lou — named after his daughter, Sally, so the Coast Guard could patrol the Florida coastline. He also was a Coast Guard volunteer, but really wanted to serve with a patrol torpedo squad in the South Pacific.
“Dad wanted so bad to be a commander of a PT boat and torpedo those damn Japs,” Tom recalls. “It didn’t work. The government said, ‘You’re too important — stay here — why waste a good brain?’ ”
LOOKING FOR LOVE
The post-war years brought peace and prosperity, and judging by appearances, the American dream for Ralph. OMC was expanding worldwide and becoming a Fortune 500 company. But his personal life was a different story. He was heartbroken and lonely. After two unsuccessful marriages, he longed for someone special with whom to share his life and success. Perhaps, he was looking for the perfect partnership that he witnessed in his parents’ lives, years before.
One evening in the early 1950s, Ralph, who had been stood up by a date, went to Fazio’s Supper Club in Milwaukee where Frances Langford, a glamorous blonde singer, was performing. Known for her sultry voice, she had captured the hearts of soldiers during the war while crooning I’m In The Mood For Love during Bob Hope’s USO tours.
After hearing her sing, Ralph fell in love, too. He was so smitten that he arranged for the owner to introduce him as the son of the man who created the first outboard motor. When Frances expressed her preference for Johnson motors over the Evinrude, he smoothly responded with a smile, “That’s all right. We make Johnson motors, too.”
Their mutual attraction was instantaneous. They shared similar likes and soon discovered they were meant for each other. “I didn’t want to ever marry again, but he was such a sweet man, a kind man — different from people in Hollywood,” Frances later told The Palm Beach Post. “And because of my own background in Lakeland, we had things in common — boats, the outdoor life. He was crazy about music. And he liked my singing. That was important.”
Ralph followed Frances every weekend in a DC-3 airplane, until she completed her singing contract. In 1955, the couple wed on the Chanticleer. Afterward, they moved to Frances’ Jensen Beach estate.
BREAKING THE RULES
Testing and perfecting outboard engines ran in the Evinrude blood. Like Ole, Ralph loved to find what was wrong with the motor, so he could make a better product. After moving to Jensen Beach, he soon relocated Outboard Marine’s testing center from Naples to Stuart, so he could keep an eye on his operation.
The center thoroughly tested outboard motors before they were sold to the public. As part of its screening, OMC would employ boat drivers to push an engine to its limits. A typical eight-hour day for drivers would begin with gathering boat gear, selecting a boat by the luck of the draw and heading out to the open waters. Many of their trips included runs to Vero, Jupiter, Lake Okeechobee and the Crossroads at Sandsprit Park in Stuart.
The testing center had one clear, yet tempting rule: no jumping over a sandbar. If a driver ran a boat at full throttle, the boat would leap in the air over the sandbar and land back in the water. Larry Crary, a former test driver when he was 18, remembers one of those occasions.
“You know it’s not good for the engine, not good for the mounts and you’re not supposed to do it,” he recalls. “But you know what — you’re a teenager and here’s a sandbar — and here’s a fast boat — and you’ve got to find out what’s going to happen.”
So while cruising the waters near Jupiter Island one day, the drivers decided to have some fun. They were jumping sandbars like flying fish. However, a Jupiter Island resident photographed the scene with a telephoto lens and mailed the pictures to the boss at Outboard.
“All of us drivers were called on the carpet,” he says. “That was not a good day.”
Ralph reminded locals and tourists that it is always best not to judge a book by its cover. In spite of his local celebrity status, he didn’t put on airs. Locals around town would typically find him dressed in a tropical flowered shirt, Bermuda shorts and a well-worn hat, as if he had just stepped off the beach.
His frequent hangout was at the former downtown Holiday Inn, where he met regularly to chat and have coffee with community businessmen. One day while sitting alone in the lobby, some hotel guests spotted Ralph and not realizing who he was, reported him to the hotel’s front desk.
“They complained to the girls there, ‘Do you know that man? Is he supposed to be here?’ ” Shirley Corley recalls the incident. “The girls at the front desk explained who Mr. Evinrude was and the guests were shocked out of their minds, because everyone knew the Evinrude name.”
“Ralph was down to earth,” his dentist Dale Hipson remembers. “He wasn’t opinionated about who he was, what he did and what he had. He was an old shoe. He didn’t dress like an owner of a yacht. He was Ralph — a real person.”
Anyone who lived in the area during the 1950s to 1970s remembers the Chanticleer, the 118-foot-long yacht docked at the Outrigger Marina. This legendary boat was one of Ralph’s most prized possessions. He had his eye on it long before he purchased it.
“Dad had the Chanticleer in his mind since 1948,” his son recalls. “He saw that boat owned by Mr. Carpenter from New York and he did his homework. It looked like a miniature destroyer — very sleek in design. It was just what he wanted. Carpenter didn’t want to sell it until close to 1954. So, he bought the boat.”
The Chanticleer was built in 1947 by the DeFoe Shipbuilding Co. in Bay City, Mich. The company modeled the yacht’s hull from a WWII Navy torpedo chaser craft that was made of thick COR-TEN steel.
The ship was the perfect blending of size and luxury: it was 18.5 feet wide and had quarters for eight crew members. It also had four double staterooms, each with a shower and bathroom. Upstairs, there was a large main salon, a bar salon, a dining room and an after-deck dining area.
The Evinrudes owned the pleasure boat during the Mad Men years and they knew how to throw a cocktail party. Ralph relished his martinis and the spacious bar areas reflected their love for entertaining. With Frances’ ties to Hollywood, they partied with many celebrities including Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, Ginger Rogers, John Forsythe and President Richard Nixon.
Yet, for all of Hollywood’s glitz and glamour, the couple’s real passion was boating. They loved nothing more than to sail away to the wide open waters and escape from it all. Frances loved to fish and Ralph enjoyed baiting her hook. Frances would spend entire days on deck, ready to catch the big one. And sometimes she did. Ralph enjoyed telling stories of how she landed a 750-pound bluefin tuna after an hour’s fight, or the story of the big fish she partially caught — just the head — and it weighed 419 pounds.
The Chanticleer also took the Evinrudes and their close friends to faraway places. They traveled to Europe and back — stopping everywhere along the Mediterranean, to Mexico, the Bahamas, and the Dry Tortugas. Probably their favorite and most frequent getaway was to their summer home in Ontario’s Georgian Bay. Then in September they would journey back to Jensen Beach, the place they called home and where Ralph died in 1986 at the age of 78. Frances lived there another 19 years, dying at the age of 92 in 2005.
It’s been a hundred years since that picnic outing, when Ole rowed — determined to buy ice cream for Bess. If they were boating to that island today, we can only imagine their amazement with the faster, more powerful Evinrude engines that their only child designed. Bess would phone in her ice cream order, Ole would deliver it at record speed, and she would have her ice cream and eat it unmelted, too.
“With an outboard speeding at 50 mph, Ole could get to the mainland and back in no time,” Tom says. “He would have the ice cream in an insulated bag with lots of fudge and sprinkles on top. And, it wouldn’t turn into soup.”