Elco is the motorboat designer and builder known for first introducing the electric motor to boating in the 1800s. Although Elco was originally incorporated on December 31, 1892, the story of the Electric Launch and Navigation Company, later known as Electric Launch Company (“Elco”), may be said to have begun just past 12 noon on May 1, 1893, when the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago opened.
There, more than a million passengers rode the waterways on 55 electric launches. These exquisitely crafted boats were a resounding success and established Elco as a premiere company.
The Golden Years of Elco PT Boat
According to noted Elco historian William C. Swanson, the “operational genius” behind Elco’s success was Henry R. Sutphen, who joined Elco in 1892 and may be considered the visionary of the company. Sutphen ran Elco from 1895 to 1949 and, according to Swanson, helped build the pleasure power boat industry as we know it today.
Just as the list of Elco owners during that period reads like a social register, the list of designers Elco employed to design its launches and yachts reads like a Who’s Who. Notable Elco designers include Charles D. Mosher, partner of designer William Gardner, Alfred “Bill” Luders, Irwin Chase, and Glenville Sinclair Tremaine. The team of Sutphen, Chase, and Tremaine together grew Elco into the preeminent builders of cruising pleasure boats and classic motor yachts.
From 1892 through two World Wars and up to the time of its closing in 1949, Elco designed and built more than 5,000 boats ranging in size from an 18 foot gig or yacht tender to cruising power boats up to 127 feet in length. It also built craft for the government of the United States and other countries, including lifeboats for the U.S. Coast Guard, launches and tenders for various navies, anti-submarine motor launches in World War I, and PT boats in World War II including PT 109 captained by Lt. John F. Kennedy.
Post-War Challenges for Elco
After the war, Elco struggled. In its woodworking facilities, Elco augmented yacht-building with other work, including manufacturing baseball bats tested by the Chicago Cubs during spring training one year, building bowling pins and wood lanes for bowling alleys, and crafting the wood work for the old “Woodies” a special edition Plymouth station wagon. By this time Elco was just a small branch of the much larger Electric Boat conglomeration, an empire later known as General Dynamics Corporation.
Lacking proper support from what became General Dynamics’s upper management Elco was not given a chance to transition through the immediate post-war economy and materials shortages, according to Swanson. Elco was closed down in 1949.
A New Era for Elco Classic Motor Yacht
After a hiatus of 38 years, Elco was back in business in 1987 under the leadership of Joseph W. Fleming, whose stepfather was a woodworker at the old Elco shop. Under Fleming, Elco began producing electric motorboats once again.
Today, the Elco legacy continues with all the strength and passion that Henry Sutphen once brought to it.
With a sound reinvestment in energy and enthusiasm, along with a focus on advancing the electric drive, our company’s namesake, Elco continues to make history in American yachting. Elco motors, boats, and yachts today are built to the highest standards just as they were from the beginning. And just as it has always been, the Elco name today stands for quiet beauty and sound innovation.