Inside Angle: The Last Bayliner Meme

Inside Angle: The Last Bayliner Meme

Boaters like to poke fun at Bayliners, but the company’s founder got the last laugh.

Bayliner. Everyone on the docks has heard a Bayliner joke over the years. And in the age of social media the jokes about these entry-level boats from the 1970s, 80s and beyond have morphed into seemingly endless memes mocking the brand and, by extension, Bayliner owners.

If you waste enough time on social media, you know your memes. If not, allow me to get you up to speed. Merriam-Webster defines a meme as “an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture) that is spread widely online especially through social media.”

So, fine, we mock Bayliners for all the reasons that the 12-year-old inside each of us that still laughs at bathroom jokes. But a little history reveals that it was Bayliner’s founder, Orin Edson, who had the last laugh—the kind of laugh that billionaires laugh.

J. Orin Edson built his first boat as a kid near Seattle. The boating bug had bit him, and coupled with his ambition, it led him to start a small company in his garage after serving in the Army during the Korean War. This sounds like the typical baby steps of a lot of American success stories, right? That company would become Apple Hewlett-Packard Bayliner Marine Corp.

During this inauspicious start, Orin sold off equipment from his boat-racing hobby. He bought unfinished plywood boats from a supplier and painted them to order. Realizing that he might be able to turn this weekend venture into a real business, he dropped out of college and jumped in head first.

Without a retail footprint or an established boat line to sell, Edson could make up his own rules as he went along. Since all the competing dealerships were closed on Sundays, Orin opened his shop to give customers all weekend to buy boats- from him.

Edson took the Henry Ford approach and applied it to hand-built boats. He eschewed the high costs of offering multiple colors and engine options. Bayliner devised its signature product; the affordable boat, motor and trailer package sold as a single inexpensive unit for everyman.

This simple, genius accomplishment catapulted his company to new heights. Bayliner became the largest company in the marine industry. In fact, as many as a thousand boats per week were built in 24 plants across the United States, and eventually abroad. At the high-water mark the company’s products were represented by over 700 dealers in 60 countries.

As a result, Edson became understandably wealthy. And famous. Bayliner was acquired by Brunswick from Edson in 1986 for $425 million, equivalent to $1.1 billion in today’s Monopoly money. Forbes magazine once pinned his estimated net worth at north of $1.3 billion. Remember that laugh that billionaires laugh? He’s the only guy to ever personally amass that kind of wealth in the boat business. So far. I’m working on it.

In just 29 years, Mr. Edson went from painting plywood boats in a garage to being a modern day billionaire. And you know what billionaires like? Superyachts. Mr. Edson liked superyachts, too, it turns out.

In 1992, he bought a majority stake in Westport Yachts and applied his thinking to building more value into the superyacht sector. His 164-foot Westport, Evviva, on which he cruised extensively while looking down at Bayliners jumping his wake, was perhaps the biggest thumb in the eye of all ye Bayliner haters.

In 1993, Edson was inducted into the National Marine Manufacturers Association Hall of Fame.

Need more to mock? Since 2003, Edson and his wife Charlene have given more than $65 million to Arizona State University. One $5.4 million gift “formed an endowment that gives ASU students the opportunity to pursue their creative and business goals by providing seed money to help them along in their entrepreneurial quests.” Through the J. Orin Edson Foundation, Orin and Charlene have supported the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Mayo Clinic.

So while we poke fun at the lowly Bayliner, we should also respect the great American success story that was Orin Edson and the Bayliners that paid for his superyacht—and a lot of higher -education.

J. Orin Edson passed away in 2019. Respectfully, I’d guess he was still laughing all the way to the bank.

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This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.


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