Flambeau: The little engine that couldn’t

Flambeau Motors factory

This brick building at 245 E. Keefe Ave., formerly housed Flambeau Motors, a maker of outboard engines. The company lasted about 10 years and made interesting, if quirky, lightweight aluminum motors that are today collector items. Carl Swanson photo

Wisconsin has led the outboard motor industry ever since Ole Evinrude fired up his prototype engine on the Kinnickinnic River in 1909. In the years following World War II, Wisconsin outboard makers manufactured half the motors sold in the United States.

With the easing of wartime manufacturing restrictions in 1945, a new company on Milwaukee′s near north side was ready to earn a place in a market dominated by established brands. Metal Products Corp., 245 E. Keefe Ave., was late to the game but confident its lightweight and innovative Flambeau outboard motor would be a hit as the country turned its attention from war to recreation.

flambeau locator map

The former outboard factory still stands at 245 E. Keefe Ave., four blocks west of Holton Street.

Leading the company as president and treasurer was George L. Kuehn. A former boat racer (he won championships every year from 1932 to 1941). Kuehn understood marine engines and had ideas for making them better. With support from his father, former Milcor Steel president Louis Kuehn, George partnered with engine builder Edward Engelhorn and established Metal Products Corp. in 1941.

The outbreak of World War II put its planned line of outboards on hold as the company turned to military production. Leo Kincannon, who had designed outboard motors for two other companies, joined the new firm in 1943.

Flambeau newspaper advertisement

Flambeau newspaper advertisement

Finally, in late 1945, the company announced production of its first two models. Sold under the Flambeau brand name, the die-cast aluminum motors were available in 2½ horsepower and 5 horsepower models. The motors were lightweight (the 5 h.p. model weighed just 32 pounds), and had interesting features, including built-in carry handles, an improved carburetor, and a new way of protecting the propeller from underwater damage.

The company had a product, an eager public – and no end of trouble getting production under way. It spent most of 1946 struggling to keep any semblance of manufacturing going at a time when raw materials were scarce.

Matters improved considerably in 1947. When a reporter from the Milwaukee Sentinel visited in April of that year, the company had already made 2,000 motors. However, the newspaper reported, a shortage of parts meant the production line – capable of making 200 motors a day – was turning out just 75.

“If it isn’t cartons, its grey iron castings,” Kuehn told the Milwaukee Sentinel. “And now and then we’re short of magnetos, too.”

In the same article he announced plans for a 10 h.p. engine. It was never made. In fact, when production ceased 10 years later, around 1957, Flambeau was still making its two original models. A entirely new motor, in the 1950s, could cost $1.5 million in development and tooling expenses. Metal Products Corp. likely never had the sales volume necessary to support a new engine program.

Flambeau outboards have an unusual design. They are made from two large aluminum castings sandwiched together with the cylinders, pistons, and other moving parts contained inside. This clamshell design, Kuehn told the Sentinel, means his engine is light, easy to produce, and simple to service.

In retrospect, one of the three attributes he cited is true: Flambeau engines are light. The aluminum castings, on the other hand, had to be extremely precise and must have been difficult to mass produce. Additionally, the quirky design turned otherwise simple repairs into an ordeal.

Oddjob Motors, a website for small engine enthusiasts, reports “Based on the number of (now antique) Flambeaus that have turned up with internal sealing problems, there can be no doubt the motors had reliability issues.”

On a happier note, the same website notes the 2½ horsepower Flambeau it tested was “amazingly powerful … closer to 3.5 or 4 h.p. It is also reasonably smooth and quiet. It is a bizarre design and very tough to work on, but it sure runs great!”

Flambeau_ad_2Another factor in Flambeau’s downfall may have been Outboard Marine Corp.’s marketing practices. OMC, the maker of Evinrude and Johnson outboards, was then selling more in dollar terms than its 10 largest competitors combined.

In 1951, the Federal Trade Commission looked into OMC’s practices, and found the company used its marketing leverage to unfair advantage. An Evinrude or Johnson dealer could carry only that one brand and no other. A retailer wishing to sell Johnson outboards could not also sell, for example, Flambeau motors. OMC’s sales people visited each franchise dealer in their territory once a year. In addition to answering service questions and explaining the features of new models, the company representatives made sure no other brand was being sold.

The FTC cited several memos from OMC salesmen reporting various dealers found in violation of this policy. In a typical – and rather ominous – memo, an Evinrude sales manager wrote to a company field representative to report the outcome of a conversation with one dealer, “[The dealer] has agreed to go along with us and knows what will happen if he figures otherwise.”

OMC defended the practice. Dealers, it noted, generally prefer to sell one brand. It simplifies parts stocking and makes life easier for their service technicians. Additionally, both Evinrude and Johnson offered a full line of engines. Most competitors, including Flambeau, offered only low horsepower outboards.

The FTC ruled, “Respondent [OMC] argues … the dealer is free to buy where he pleases. Legally and technically this is partially correct. Realistically, it is not. Respondent, as one of its witnesses put it, is the General Motors of the outboard industry; the oldest and best according to its proof. Its motors are prestige products, the most widely advertised and sought-after. Its dealerships are apparently avidly sought after and its products find a ready and profitable market. The commercial balance … is so lopsided that rarely does a dealer cancel.”

At the same time the outboard market expanded rapidly, the FTC noted, non-OMC companies registered significant sales declines. Scott-Atwater Co. reported fewer dealers in 1951 that it had had when it entered the market in 1946 – despite considerable investment and expansion in its line of outboard motors.

The hearings must have been contentious. The vice president of sales of Martin Motors, an OMC competitor, testified his company’s decline in sales was entirely caused by OMC’s dealer agreements. In response, OMC’s attorney called the Martin vice president “a peddler of pots and pans” – Martin Motors being a division of National Pressure Cooker.

In 1956, the government ordered OMC to change its business practices. The ruling came too late to help Flambeau.

Hampered by its unusual design and an inability to access to the national market, Flambeau outboards are now only a footnote in Milwaukee’s industrial heritage.

Thanks to Milwaukee Notebook reader Dan Soiney for suggesting this story.
Carl_sig

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2 comments

  1. I love the name, Flambeau. It sounds like a flaming French dessert. It also reminds me of the former C&NW Ry train, Flambeau 400 (which DID pass thru Milwaukee on its way to the North Woods). OK, I seem to have strayed off topic here. Anyway. Cool aluminum outboard motors! Great story and thank you Carl! Excuse me while I go peddle some pots and pans…..

    Like

  2. I saw the vid of the engine being used on a boat, it exists on Youtube, and it seemed pretty powerful AND quiet. I wonder if this isn’t just a case of great, simple design out-stripping the technology! Seems like a lot of the vintage engine websites list the full engine sealant (it had to go around the whole engines two halves), being broken and that would have to be repaired, and who knows how long it was leaking and how rough the parts were running. Modern technology metallurgy, with CNC machining on the most wear-prone parts, and modern liquid sealant/gaskets, with the two edges of the engine sides refaced perfectly flat, might turn this engine into a real light-weight/high power, dependable item!

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