Most of us think of electric boats as comparatively new technology. But in the US, the Elco Boat Company builds electric launches with a 129-year heritage of innovation, having introduced its first electric boats back in 1893.
“The company was essentially founded out of a contract to build electric boats for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the Columbia Exposition,” says Elco CEO, Steve Lamando. “The fair site included this big lagoon off Lake Michigan, and they had to shuttle people across it, and the organisers were adamant didn’t want to deal with any smoke or steam. So Elco built 50 of these elegant launches with Surrey tops, fully electric boats with no emissions and utterly silent underway. They went on to transport more than 1.2 million people over the run of the World’s Fair, and it all went off without a hitch.
“These boats ran continuously, day after day for six months, which is amazing when you think about it. They would charge extra batteries separately, so the boat would only be taken out of service for a few minutes while they pulled the old batteries out and put fresh ones in. Five minutes later it was back on the water. These boats were way ahead of their time and people were blown away by them.”
The Elco boats made such an impact that they quickly became the must-have toys of America’s elite, with buyers including the Astor family, the Morgan family, Henry Ford and even Thomas Edison, who owned at least three different Elcos, according to company records which include the original sales invoices.
Elco subsequently expanded its business to the manufacture of diesel-powered yachts, completing its first – the Idealia – in 1912 to claim the title of launching the first diesel-powered yacht in the US. By 1920, Elco was second only to Chris-Craft as the largest production boat builder in the US.
During the second world war Elco was called upon to build military products, and went on to build hundreds of 80ft, diesel-powered motor torpedo boats used by the US Navy – including the vessel registered as PT-109 and captained by future US president John F Kennedy.
Elco’s electric propulsion expertise was also highly valued by the Navy’s submarine program, and Elco – now under the ownership of General Dynamics – remained focused on military product until the 1980s.
Lamando acquired Elco in 2009, and immediately refocused the heritage brand on building premium electric launches for leisure buyers, offering four models in its current lineup. The company also restores original Elco launches to like-new condition.
“The launches are completely faithful to the original Elcos except they now use a fibreglass hull for ease of maintenance,” says Lamando. “Otherwise the interior, all the mahogany, brass, all the oak, is still the same as the originals, all hand-made and fitted by true craftsmen. So they’re not inexpensive boats, but there is definitely a market.”
Moving forward, Lamando hopes to grow the Elco brand with a mounting focus on the company’s electric propulsion systems. Elco currently offers six models of outboard motors from 5hp-50hp-equivalent output, as well as seven inboards with outputs ranging from 6hp- 250hp, which are designed to power vessels to about 85ft. All come pre-wired to allow easy, plug-and-play installation on the production line.
“That’s the future of the business,” says Lamando. “The market for the launches is limited because they are expensive boats, but the propulsion systems segment is growing like wild. Elco invented the electric boat, and it has a role to play in taking electric boating into the mainstream.”