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Obsession Number 3: Antique stationary motors

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1917 Fairbanks Morse Z 1½ horsepower. Photos by author.

Editor’s Note: This piece comes to us from Hemmings Daily reader Matt Cuddy.

Being stuck in a wheelchair is no fun, but I still get my kicks making drive-shaft cannons, and lately, restoring old engines from the turn of the last century. It’s become one of my obsessions.

These engines powered everything from washing machines to hay bailers, potato mashers, grinders, and crushers. When electric power was in its infancy, the internal combustion engine drove almost everything.

The first utility engines were mounted on carts, and were moved around to the machine you wanted to power. An operator would hook up a giant, 18-foot leather belt to the machine’s pulley, and whammo, hay got bailed, corn got crushed, and cows got milked. And for next to nothing, as one of these overbuilt wonders would run all day on a couple gallons of kerosene, and not even whimper.

These motors had to be immensely strong and reliable; a 1917 1½ -horsepower Fairbanks Morse, for instance, had a 700-cc piston, and a 12-inch stroke. The (exposed) cast-iron crankshaft and flywheels weighed about 200 pounds, and were lubricated with grease and oil cups.

Open crankshaft and grease cups.

To start the beast, one grabs the flywheel and spins it with all his might, after first priming the combustion chamber by putting a hand over the inlet of the “mixer” and holding the intake valve open at the same time with a thumb. The other hand then spins the flywheel counter-clockwise to suck gas out of the mixer and straight into the engine.

Gas/kerosene “mixer.” 

After a few hard spins, the motor pops and wheezes to life before settling down to a 500-rpm mechanical symphony. For optimal fuel economy, the main needle valve is then set to the leanest position possible. The piston and cylinder are lubricated by a drip-oiler, that drips 20-weight oil at eight drips a minute; though I run mine at 12 drips, just to keep things nice and slippery.

Cylinder drip-oiler.

The engine runs on anything flammable, including kerosene and coal oil. It’s started up on gasoline, but after it’s warmed up, the gas is shut off—slowly—as the needle valve that connects to the main fuel supply (alcohol, perfume, booze, diesel fuel, etc.) is opened.

Oh, and the 1917 Fairbanks Morse 1½-hp Z motor weighs about 600 pounds. Strong like… err… a meteorite.

Then you have the little motors, precursors to the lawnmower engines of today. In the early 1900s, things were done a little differently, and equipment that could have been made cheaply and flimsy were built three times as strong as they had to be. Cast iron was the medium of choice, so one could count on a one-horsepower motor weighing in excess of 70 pounds. Back then, motors were still in the flywheel stage, and you can see by the design of this old 1919 Briggs & Stratton FH motor that the flywheel was king. Even though the motors were only putting out one horsepower, when those flywheels started spinning, you had some major grunt working for you.

1919 “slant-fin” FH Briggs & Stratton 1½ hp.

Getting all this stuff to operate properly after 80 years of being in a barn—or outside under a tarp—is a daunting and expensive task. So many of these damn things were produced that finding spare parts (except for the electrical stuff) is no problem. I just use modern electrics, which work fine.

It is amazing how fast the small-engine manufacturers evolved. In a few short years, exposed-crankshaft 800-pound monsters evolved into 80-pound atmospheric intake hit-or-miss engines, followed by the engines we are familiar with today. Around 1946 things changed, and we started producing items out of aluminum, which shaved off considerable weight and opened up a whole new world in design theory.

Big flywheel.

That is why I love these old dinosaurs. They’re heavy, they have exposed parts that make clanking noises, they smoke, parts steam, sizzle, and spit oil. Even getting one started is a major accomplishment.

I tell myself every time that I buy one, sight-unseen and disassembled in a big box from some guy in Kalamazoo, that I’ll fix it up and sell it, but somehow never get around to it. After it’s restored, the motor simply gets put into the collection.

With respect to the old Fairbanks Morse that can run on anything, my obsession number two is homemade booze, so I have all the apparatus needed to brew up my own 180 proof fuel. And since I’m attaching a 32-kW generator to it, watch out Burbank Water & Power! Next time we have an earthquake or other catastrophe that shuts off the electricity for a few days, I’ll have no worries—just crank up the Fairbanks Morse and 32 kilowatts of juice get hammered into the fuse box. I can’t forget to throw the master breaker to “off,” though, since I don’t want to power the whole street.

That’s the way things go I guess: You get smashed by an SUV, and what was once an obsession with motorcycles becomes an obsession with anything that burns gasoline and smokes. It’s kind of the same thing, only you can’t jump on one and ride it down the street.

But I’m rethinking that scenario, and might find an old Fiat 500 or Renault Dauphine to stick one of these motors in. That might be cool: A one-cylinder, belt-driven Fiat, running on perfume. Ah, smells like victory.