Johnson Outboard Motors was in existence from 1922 to 2007, when their parent company shut down the line.
Despite ceasing production two decades ago, there are still many Johnson outboards on the water and the market.
So, if you are looking at buying one, you need to know: Are these outboards (still) any good?
Here’s how good Johnson Outboard Motors are:
At various points of their existence, Johnson Outboards were some of the best marine engines in the world. Before their discontinuation, they were labeled a brand of lower-powered engines, usually of 25 horsepower or less, and made by Suzuki; but these models are still viewed as quality motors.
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A Brief History of Johnson Outboard Motors
The Johnson Brothers Motor Company was started by four brothers, Lawrence, Julius, Louis, and Harry.
Within 10 years, they were building both marine and aircraft engines. In 1922, they started the Johnson Outboard Motors company.
In 1949, Johnson introduced its revolutionary Sea Horse motor, which incorporated many features that are standard on outboards today.
In 1952, Johnson sold its 1,000,000th outboard, but half a century later, OMC filed for bankruptcy in 2000. A year later, the company was purchased by the Canada-based Bombardier Recreational Products.
Some of the Johnsons made in the late 1990s and early 2000s were actually made under contract by Suzuki and branded as Johnson. These 4-stroke engines became known as “Johnzukis.”
BRP tried to position Johnson as their lower-horsepowered brand and Evinrude as the more powerful option in the early 2000s. Still, the Johnson brand had been diminished by then, as BRP focused on marketing Evinrude, and sales were low.
In 2007, Johnson Outboard Motors was discontinued. In 2020, Evinrude Outboard Motors was shut down, and OMC folded.
How Durable Are Johnson Outboard Motors?
Johnson Outboards was at one time the biggest-selling outboard in the world.
The basis of the reputation is the reliability and durability of the motor. Most of them did not have problems.
Most boating forums are filled with satisfied Johnson owners who have no complaints about how their engine performed or required upkeep.
It is common to see testimonials such as this one:
“My vote would be for my 1990 90hp Johnson. Purchased new, used hard 11 years, never a problem…if it were possible, I would buy a new, 90s vintage Johnson carb. outboard for my boat.”
One point many owners have emphasized is the relatively low maintenance that Johnsons require.
It is easy to find claims by owners of leaving the engine sitting over the winter and starting on the first pull of the spring.
Johnson Outboards have a reputation for drinking gas and using oil at a high rate, though. This is the one consistent negative that continually comes up when researching forums.
One other problem that some Johnson motors had in the late 1990s was with the Ficht fuel-injection system. This design attempted to fall into line with new environmental regulations but was inadequately tested before it was implemented.
This system was on more Evinrude motors at the time, but a few Johnsons in the 100-150 horsepower range had this system.
It is notorious for failing and other problems, right up until 2001 when BRP redesigned the system, and this is cited as one of the main factors in driving OMC into bankruptcy.
How Long Do Johnson Outboard Engines Typically Last?
The general feeling in the marine industry is that an outboard engine will last for about 1,500 hours of operation.
Given about 200 hours of use a year, this would be about 7 or 8 years, but Johnson outboard motors can achieve regular oil changes (say every 50 hours) and maintenance and a rebuild or two, 10, 15, or even 20 years.
Johnson outboards are historically right in this range, perhaps a little more to the longevity side.
That would mean that by this time, almost all of the Johnson motors are technically reaching the end of their life since the last one was manufactured in 2007.
But there are Johnson outboards made in the 1970s that are still in operation today, which speaks to the brand’s longevity.
It is important to keep in mind that this is continuous use; not every owner puts 200 hours a year on their engine, and some will go for an entire season (or more) without using it.
Some parts used in the manufacturing of Johnsons are still being made. Bombardier Recreational Products still maintains an Evinrude website, and they have parts catalogs available on it for Johnson Outboards from the final year of 2007, stretching all the way back to 1968.
Having this information readily available can assist in maintenance, repairs, and rebuilds, significantly extending the life of an old Johnson. In fact, you can routinely find Johnson owners that kept their engines going for decades.
For instance, one owner wrote in 2010:
“The Johnsons were by far the most reliable of all of the engines that we owned. They always started well, never, and I do mean never needed anything beyond routine maintenance…the 1976 70 hp Johnson I owned till last year, and it never gave problems.”
Has Johnson made Any Recalls?
There were several recalls of Johnson motors in the company’s existence.
- In 2008, Johnson and Evinrude motors had a major recall due to the faulty side-mounted control boxes.
- 20,420 engines were affected.
- In 2005, 700 Johnson outboards were recalled for a problem with the ECM unit.
- In 2002, several 25 and 30 horsepower units were recalled due to improperly adjusted shift gear linkage.
- This was for less than 1,000 engines.
- In 1999, nearly 3500 outboards were recalled, a mixture of Suzukis and Johnsons, due to a flaw in the gear change linkage.
- In 1998, 1746 motors 25- and 35-horsepower motors from 1995-1996 were recalled due to tilt lock nut torque.
There is no information on any recalls being found on the U.S. Coast Guard’s database before this last date.
What Are the Most Popular Johnson Outboards?
Johnson made some of the most iconic outboards in the history of the marine industry.
The Light Twin was introduced at the New York Boat Show in 1922. This was their lightweight outboard, mostly made from aluminum. The industry was changed almost overnight, and Johnson outboards became ubiquitous over America and the world in the next few years.
The Sea Horse QD was introduced in 1949, setting a new standard for outboard engines. Its features included a neutral and reverse gear, a recoil starter, a removable engine cowl, and a remote gas tank.
Johnson introduced the first V4 outboard, a 50 HP model, in 1958, and in 1976 they introduced the first V6 outboard, a 200 HP model.
Their 4-stroke models, actually made by Suzuki, were popular for their price and reliability. These were lower-horsepower units.
According to most forums, their 2-stroke carburetor engines made from the 1970s up to the mid-1990s seem to be highly regarded, regardless of horsepower.
The most powerful Johnson motors made were the 235-horsepower models made in 1978 and 1979.
Where Are Outboard Johnson Engines Manufactured?
Johnson Outboard Motors shut down in 2007; they are no longer being manufactured.
Johnson Outboard Motors made their motors in South Bend until 1927, when they opened their Waukegan factory. This remained their primary plant, and OMC’s headquarters, right up until 2000 when OMC filed for bankruptcy.
In 1960, however, some Johnson and Evinrudes were manufactured in Australia. These were mostly low horsepower motors of 25 HP or less.
The 4-stroke Johnsons made at the end of their existence were manufactured under contract by Suzuki, so these were made in Japan.
The OMC plant #2 in Waukegan, where many of the Johnson and Evinrude outboards were made, is now a Superfund Cleanup Site.
How Is the Warranty On Johnson Outboards?
At this point, all Johnson outboards are out of warranty. Some Evinrudes are still under warranty and are serviced by the Bombardier Recreational Products group.
They maintain an Evinrude website, which also contains information on Johnson outboards.
The warranty changed over the years on Johnsons, as marine standards and the demands of the public changed. By the end of their existence, most Johnsons came with a 3 year/300-hour warranty or a blanket 5-year warranty on some smaller models.
Which Brands Produce Engines Similar to Johnson?
In their last decade of existence, Johnson competed for third place in outboard engine sales with Honda and Suzuki; Mercury and Yamaha were the top dogs on the market.
The brands most similar to Johnson, then, would be Suzuki and Honda.
Evinrude Outboards were also competitors, despite being owned by Outboard Motor Corporation (later Outboard Marine Corporation). Still, there was a general separation of the models between the two brands so that they did not usually directly compete for the same customer.
This was especially the case in the 2000s when they were delineated by horsepower.
When they were in existence, the British Seagull outboard was seen to be similar and a competitor of Johnson, particularly in the 1970s. While Seagulls were very loud, their reliability was similar to Johnson’s.
The word “revolutionary” has been used several times in this article about Johnson outboards, and the company was indeed that.
From their first lightweight models, which dominated the industry until the Great Depression, to the Sea Horse QD, which changed the design of outboards forever, Johnson was a remarkable company that still inspires loyalty and confidence, even two decades after their doors have shut.