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This Evinrude Authorized Sales & Service porcelain flange sign achieved $28,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Matthews Auctions, LLC and LiveAuctioneers.

Evinrude outboard motors memorabilia still revs up collectors

NEW YORK – The story of how Evinrude revolutionized the boating industry in the early 1900s owes everything to geography and a hankering for ice cream.

Ole Evinrude, who moved to Wisconsin as a child when his family immigrated from Norway, grew up fascinated with mechanics. He began building small internal combustion engines for land vehicles after being apprenticed to a machinist at age 16.

Evinrude was picnicking one day in the summer of 1906 with his fiancée, Bessie Cary, on Wisconsin’s Okauchee Lake when she had a craving for ice cream. He rowed back to shore – reportedly a two-and-a-half-mile trip – but by the time he returned with the sweet treat, it had melted. The adventure inspired him to build a gasoline-powered engine that could be used on boats to replace the oars.

An Evinrude Detachable Rowboat & Canoe Motors poster took $3,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Matthews Auctions, LLC and LiveAuctioneers.
An Evinrude Detachable Rowboat & Canoe Motor poster took $3,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Matthews Auctions, LLC and LiveAuctioneers.

He married Bessie in 1907, the same year in which he founded Evinrude Motors in Milwaukee. His new wife became his business partner, handling the books and coming up with advertising taglines such as ‘Don’t row. Throw your oars away. Use an Evinrude motor.’ Within two years, Ole had developed his first outboard motor: a single-cylinder 1.5 HP engine that was almost instantly successful. With thousands of lakes in Wisconsin, there was ample demand for Evinrude’s machines from fishermen as well as pleasure boaters.

Ole and Bessie ran Evinrude until 1913, when they sold the company owing to her health issues. According to a non-compete clause, he was supposed to stay out of the outboard motor industry for five years. He technically did so, but in his down time, he kept tinkering and came up with a two-cylinder outboard engine.

In 1921, he and his wife launched the ELTO Outboard Motor Company, and its new engine was also a hit. Ultimately, the two Evinrude companies merged in 1929, and its outboard motors only became faster and more powerful and faster as time passed. It entered another realm of pop culture when Disney animators, in the 1977 film The Rescuers, included a dragonfly character called Evinrude who owned the fastest boat in the swamp where key scenes are set. Evinrude was the name in outboard motors until the brand was retired in 2020 by its then-owner.

Detail of an Evinrude Authorized Sales & Service porcelain flange sign that achieved $28,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Matthews Auctions, LLC and LiveAuctioneers.
Detail of an Evinrude Authorized Sales & Service porcelain flange sign that achieved $28,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Matthews Auctions, LLC and LiveAuctioneers.

Antique and vintage Evinrude signs are cherished by collectors, especially those who live in lakes regions, said petroliana expert Daniel K. ‘Dan’ Matthews, founder of Matthews Auctions LLC in Nokomis, Illinois. One of the best Evinrude signs he has sold was a double-sided Evinrude Authorized Sales & Service porcelain flange sign that went for $28,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Stating that buyers look first for condition, then graphics and rarity, Matthews said this sign was rated 8.5, and explained: “On a porcelain sign, you can go down to an 8 condition with some chips, and as long as it has good color and gloss, it will still bring a good price.”

Looking at LiveAuctioneers’ sales results, it becomes obvious that the Evinrude memorabilia market has exploded in the last few years. A nearly identical double-sided version of this sign, rated 8.9 and 9C for color, went for $45,000 in September 2023 at Richmond Auctions. Matthews said that the process of making these colorful porcelain signs was done in layers, with each color representing a different firing step in the furnace: “The more colors you have, the more expensive the sign was originally.”

“The thing you’ve got to think about is that outboard motors weren’t that much money, like motorcycles were, and they didn’t have a big budget for advertising,” he said. “So when you find something like a porcelain or neon sign, they were pretty expensive, and there weren’t that many of them out there.”

An Evinrude First in Outboards metal sign sold for $5,750 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Matthews Auctions, LLC and LiveAuctioneers.
An Evinrude First in Outboards metal sign sold for $5,750 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Matthews Auctions, LLC and LiveAuctioneers.

A more commonly found vintage Evinrude sign is a metal First in Outboards advertisement sporting the company’s logo, one of which sold for $5,750 plus the buyer’s premium at Matthews Auction LLC in April 2022. The sign is distinguished by its graphic of buoy markers on its left side instead of a graphic of an outboard motor that appeared on many Evinrude signs. The sign was obviously made for one of Evinrude’s dealers in Pennsylvania, located near the 27-acre Cloe Lake, noted for its bass and trout fishing.

This Evinrude Outboard Motors porcelain neon sign with a boat graphic easily surpassed its $10,000-$20,000 estimate when it realized $26,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2023. Image courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
This Evinrude Outboard Motors porcelain neon sign with a boat graphic easily surpassed its $10,000-$20,000 estimate when it realized $26,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2023. Image courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Evinrude brand collectors will typically want a sign in every form, from painted tin to porcelain and especially neon. Particularly fine ones from the 1940s and 1950s often bring good money. A hybrid porcelain-neon Evinrude Outboard Motors sign with a boat graphic performed well above its $10,000-$20,000 estimate, settling at $26,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2023 at Morphy Auctions. The circa-1940s sign retained bright green and white neon on each side and mostly had bright color and gloss on its porcelain.

A circa-1950 Evinrude Outboard Motors neon dealer’s sign made $4,200 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2020. Image courtesy of Soulis Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
A circa-1950 Evinrude Outboard Motors neon dealer’s sign made $4,200 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2020. Image courtesy of Soulis Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Another Evinrude sign made a decade later was a bit more affordable for beginning collectors. A circa-1950 example with red neon lettering, depicting fisherman in a V-hull board powered by an Evinrude motor, made $4,200 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2020 at Soulis Auctions.

This Evinrude & Elto Outboard Motors Authorized Agency metal sign earned $9,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Matthews Auctions, LLC and LiveAuctioneers.
This Evinrude and Elto Outboard Motors Authorized Agency metal sign earned $9,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Matthews Auctions, LLC and LiveAuctioneers.

Some collectors gravitate toward the earliest Evinrude signs they can find, such as an Evinrude & Elto Outboard Motors Authorized Agency metal sign that realized $9,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022 at Matthews Auction LLC. This older example had an orange background instead of the blue-and-white color scheme.

Matthews credits the enduring appeal of Evinrude to the fact that the company always had a good product and was around for a long time. “They were one of the mainstays,” he said. “They were probably the biggest sellers of outboard motors. When people think of outboard motors, they think of Evinrude.”