Thanks for the memories

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The Johnson brothers loved walnuts, and the Terre Haute, Ind., natives knew where to go to get them. No, it wasn’t the local supermarket. These were the first decades of the 1900s, and they went “nutting” at their favorite grove on the banks of the Wabash River.

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But that meant a long pull in the family rowboat, against the steady current of the muddy stream. So Lou, Harry, Julius and Clarence did what many inventive young men did back then: They called on the newly emerging internal combustion engine for help.

The brothers put together a primitive boat engine in imitation of Ole Evinrude, who was just making a name for himself with his pioneering outboards. And they drove up the river, gathered their walnuts, and drove home — easy as can be. They also brought back more than a snack; they had a vision of the future. By 1922, the Johnson brothers had the most advanced outboard on the market, a 100-pound machine that could drive a runabout at the incredible, unbelievable speed of 16 mph. They were even outselling the master, Evinrude, and his famous ELTO engine.

Fast forward to 1959, the year this advertisement was published. Owned by Outboard Marine Corp., Johnson has built 2 million outboards. The engines are everywhere: on rowboats and runabouts, on fishing boats and family cruisers, on lakes and rivers and bays. The Johnson outboard has even insinuated itself into the American Dream; what teenager didn’t aspire to own a 13-foot Boston Whaler with a 35-hp Sea Horse on the back?

The ’59 lineup included six models, all bearing that distinctive Sea Horse name, starting with a “3-and-a-half” (cost: $160) that was popular with dinghy owners. The queen of the fleet was the V50 Super Sea Horse, at 50-hp Johnson’s biggest engine. The price ran to $850, including electric start and forward-neutral-reverse gearing.

But that was then, this is now. In response to a highly competitive market, Johnson’s parent company, Bomardier Recreational Products, has announced it will discontinue the line in 2009 to focus on its Evinrude 4-strokes. And the Johnson outboard follows other American icons — the Studebaker, Trans World Airlines, the Brooklyn Dodgers — into the history books, leaving behind a host of memories and old engines.

— Steve Knauth