History Of The JOHNSON MOTOR COMPANY

Duane M. Reynolds
December/January 1989
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Johnson Utilimotor No. U 15899, owned by Jennie Reynolds. Brass cover is over the Wico type 'F' mag. Flywheel is cast iron. Earlier Utilimotors used the same Johnson 'Quick Action' mag and aluminum flywheel as sold to and used by Mayta
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In 1987 I set out to learn as much I could about an engine I acquired that summer. The person selling it said he thought it was a Maytag.

The engine was mounted on a lawn mower and was covered with a heavy layer of everything that had filtered down upon it from the caved-in barn under which it had rested since about 1950.

After scraping away much of this crud, I found a brass tag which proudly proclaimed that this engine was a Utilimotor No. U15899 built by the Johnson Motor Company of Waukegan, Illinois.

The mower was an F & M with the year 1935 stamped on it. It was probably a 'kit' on which the purchaser mounted the motor of his choice.

I had the same questions running through my head that most of us engine nuts have at the time we have a new 'find': what year was it built, what color was it, and how many were made?

In the time that has passed since then, all I have found out about it for sure is that it was dark green, and that it was built between 1927 and 1934.

What I did learn about though was the company that had built it.

I have noticed a number of times that people have asked GEM's Reflector about Johnson Motor Company and the answer has been the same- nothing. Let me share with you what I have found.

There were four Johnson brothers whose interest turned to the internal combustion engine. They were: Julius (born in 1886), who was a machinist; Louis (1881), the designer; Harry (1884), the thinker and planner; and Clarence (1895), the mechanic.

In 1903 Louis and Harry built their first engine in a shed behind the family home in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Since they lived right next to the Wabash River it was a marine engine of 2-cycle design that developed about 3 HP at 350 rpm.

In 1904 they built their second engine, also with a single cylinder and 2-cycle, with a 5 inch bore and 5 inch stroke.

1905 was the big year for the Johnsons. They were ready to offer their engines for sale. All were 2-cycle inline engines.

Engines with a 3 inch bore and 3 inch stroke were built with 1, 2, and 4 cylinders.

Engines with a 4 inch bore and 3 inch stroke were also offered with 1, 2, and 4 cylinders.

The line shaft in their little shop was powered by their original 1903 motor which had been converted to hit and miss governing.

By 1908, in need of more space, they moved to a brick factory building at 1602 Hulman Street in Terre Haute, where they immediately roared into production of their massive 'V' engines designed for aircraft and racing boats. These engines were 2-cycle, water cooled with a 5 inch bore and 4 inch stroke, and very light. It came in four sizes: V-4, V-6, V-8 and V-12.

In 1910 they built America's first single wing airplane and powered it with a V-4.

In 1911 they built their second airplane with a tricycle landing gear (the first had been a tail dragger). The frame of the machine was the radiator. It was called the Johnson Aerial Motor. A model of this craft is in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

In 1912 the company was named the Johnson Brothers Motor Company.

Among the most famous racing boats to be powered by the Johnson 'V' engine was the 'Black Demon III.' It was never beaten in a race and set many speed records. It was powered by TWO V-12's!

On Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913 disaster struck! A storm that brought about tornadoes and flooding destroyed the south side of Terre Haute with the loss of many lives. The Johnson factory was in the center of the devastated area. Nothing was saved.

The Johnsons were out of business. They never again built the big engines.

During the winter of 1914-15 Clarence Johnson, working at home, built a lightweight, air cooled, opposed twin engine that fired simultaneously. Two-cycle, of course, with a 2 inch bore and 1? inch stroke.

Sounds a lot like an engine that another company built in 1936, doesn't it?

To test this engine, Harry and Louis helped Clarence mount it on a bicycle. It worked great and the Johnsons were back in business!

The only problem they had to overcome was that the magneto wouldn't hold up at speed. They needed something different.

They were approached by a young man named Dick Oglesby. Dick was an inventor, a magneto inventor.

He had assigned his patents to the Quick Action Ignition Company of South Bend, Indiana and he was out to sell his magnetos. He offered the Johnsons four magnetos to try on their engines.

A representative of Quick Action then went to Terre Haute to see how things were going. He was very impressed by the demonstration he was given of the motor bike and asked the Johnsons to move to South Bend.

Quick Action Ignition Company was a successor to the older companies of Knobloch-Heideman and Miller-Knobloch.

Mr. Knobloch was the builder of the magneto for the Wright Brothers Kittyhawk aircraft. It was then headed by Mr. Warren Ripple.

The Johnsons did move to South Bend and opened the Johnson Motor Wheel Company. In January 1918 Johnson Motor Wheel and Quick Action merged, with Warren Ripple named as president of both operations. Quick Action patents became Johnson patents as well.

The magneto that was first built for the Motor Wheel engine also had a new customer. Maytag started using it on the 'fruit jar' and continued to use it or license built copies until the last Maytag was built.

I don't know how many times I have read in reply to a query that the Johnson Utilimotor was a 'cheap imitation of a Maytag.' How can this be if the Maytag was half Johnson anyway? Before you Maytag folks yell too loud, send for Patent Nos. 1,279,750, 1,300,637 and 1,390,376. Facts is facts!

By 1921 the Johnson Motor Wheel Company of South Bend, Indiana had built over 17,000 units and had set racing records of up to 58 MPH on a half-mile dirt track, but sales were falling off.

Henry Ford was selling his model 'T' for only $370.00 and the Motor Wheel was no longer profitable.

The air cooling fins on the Motor Wheel twin were replaced with a water jacket and a lower unit was built for it. The Johnsons were ready to get back into the water with outboard motors.

The Motor Wheel was sold to Edwards and Krist of Chicago, who in turn sold it to a British company, where it became the 'Economic.'

At Johnson, magneto manufacture continued for Maytag and Fairbanks Morse.

The name of the Johnson Motor Wheel Company was changed to Johnson Motor Company. Julius Johnson left the company in 1918 and was replaced by Warren Con-over, his brother-in-law. Johnson's new outboard motor was named the model 'A' and was offered for sale in 1922.

Throughout history, the sellers of merchandise found that one of the best ways to show off their wares was by entering their products in nose to nose public contests. The winner of each contest always got the sales. The loser either went out of business or went home and improved on his product for the next contest.

From the time that humans found ways to get from one place to another without the use of their own feet there have been races. Tractors have had their trials, so too have boats and motorcycles. These competitions caused the rapid development of these products and quickly blew away the chaff. This, then, is why racing was never far from the Johnsons.

In 1922 a high performance carburetor was designed and patented. The competition at that time was still using simple mixers.

In 1923 the Model 'J' was built. It was exactly one half of the model 'A' and, therefore, one half of the old motor wheel engines. This engine would one day become the Utilimotor.

It is not known when the first Utilimotor was built, and until I hear of one with a South Bend nameplate on it we cannot go earlier than 1927. The model 'J' was the first outboard to have Johnson's new patented anti-cavitation plate cast into the lower unit. No outboard motor today is without this plate.

In 1925 the P-30 was built. A real race winner!

By 1927 sales had exploded to the point that the South Bend plant could no longer hold the Johnson Motor Company. Warren Ripple's family owned property in Waukegan, Illinois and a new factory was built there. The K-35 was introduced. It was now The Johnson Motor Company of Waukegan.

In 1928 a new factory was opened in Canada. The K-40, P-40, and TR-40 were brought on the market.

At Waukegan, work on the Utilimotor continued. As I said before, this little engine was an adaptation of the model 'J' power head. From what I have seen, it would seem that Johnson was never satisfied with the Utilimotor. I have never seen two that were exactly alike. It never really progressed out of the developmental stage. The early ones used the same Quick Action magneto and flywheel as Maytag.

One of the first big changes was the use of an iron flywheel with the use of a Wico type 'F' magneto. This magneto is interesting in itself in that it was built using both Wico patents AND Johnson patents. It was a joint venture, and the only place I know of where both the Wico patent numbers and Quick Action patent numbers share the same space is on the Johnson Utilimotor equipped with the type 'F.' The type 'F' was used heavily by Briggs and Stratton. Utili-motors were built in two models after the introduction of the type 'F' magnetos. They were the U-11 foot start and the U-13 hand start.

Changes continued on the Utilimotor in the area of carburetion. Simple mixers were first used and finally progressed to the use of the Johnson patented carburetor.

Choke systems went from a slide gate to an automatic choke that consisted of a spring and rod connecting the foot start pedal to the slide gate. Each time the pedal was depressed the choke would close. Since the Utilimotor did not have an anti-flood valve, as did the Maytag, I have never seen one of these engines with this feature intact. The final move was to an automatic style butterfly choke operated by cable.

The last Utilimotor was built in 1934 when it was replaced by the 'Iron Horse.'

The tooling for the Utilimotor was sold to the Jacobson Company of Racine, Wisconsin. In 1928 the Johnson Motor Company was 'riding a wave.' They were the largest manufacturers of outboard motors in the world.

It was decided that they would also start building their own boats and sell them as matched units with their motors. The world's first inboard-outboard stern drive was also being prepared for these boats. Timberland and manufacturing facilities were purchased and then the bottom fell out. The Stock Market crashed and sent the world spinning into depression. Johnson Motor Company was over-extended and had to cut back immediately. The boats would have to go and so would the outdrive unit. Only four of these units are known to exist today. Three are in museums.

As the depression deepened, Johnson Motor Company slid closer and closer to receivership but was saved from that fate by being bought by Outboard Motor Company, headed by Evinrude, in 1936.

The new company was named Outboard Marine Corporation (O.M.C.) which is a thriving business today.

Johnson Motor Company continued as a division of O.M.C. under the leadership of Clay Conover, the Johnsons' nephew, until his retirement in the 1950's.

The 'Iron Horse' continued to be built by O.M.C. until 1949. Some of these engines were fitted with Evinrude nameplates and put on the first production Lawn Boy lawn mowers. The 'Iron Horse' was the only 4-cycle engine ever built by Johnson.

The three Johnson brothers who were still with the company in 1935, Louis, Harry and Clarence, all slipped quietly into retirement before the merger was finalized.

Louis passed away in 1963, Harry in 1967 and Clarence in 1976. Julius passed away in 1974.


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