THE CAREER OF JOSEPH VAN BLERCK

MARINE ENGINE DESIGNER AND MANUFACTURER
Max F. Homfeld
September/October 1993
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The Van Blerck lubrication system.
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Joseph Van Blerck was a talented designer of marine engines and an active business man. He deserves to be better-known by collectors of antique engines.

Van Blerck was born in Holland on August 16, 1876. He came to Monroe, Michigan in 1904, where he set some early records in power boat racing. The only picture of Van Blerck that I have seen was published in a 1921 advertisement. He has the rotund well-to-do look of a Dutch burgher as suits his name. By his own statement, he had been in the marine engine field for 20 years, or since 1901.

An early and very small advertisement of the Van Blerck Motor Company of Detroit, Michigan appeared in September, 1909. These Van Blerck engines and all subsequent ones were always four-cycle. In March 1911, Van Blerck had a half-page ad showing two engine lines. One line, for pleasure and cruising craft, was built in 2, 4, and 6 cylinder versions. Bore was 5', stroke was 6'. He also offered engines for racing. Those engines appeared to be similar but had the bore increased to 5'.

In the 1913 Van Blerck catalog there were type B Medium Duty engines of 5' x 6' bore and stroke in 2, 4, and 6 cylinder versions and type C High Speed engines of 5' x 6' bore and stroke in 4, 6, and in-line 8 cylinder versions. The weight of type C engines was about 25% less that that of a type B engines and the rated speed was higher. The Van Blerck high speed engines had full-pressure lubrication with a dry sump system. There were two gear pumps, one to supply pressure to the bearings through a drilled crankshaft and the other a scavenging pump to return oil from the crankcase to the oil tank. The engines were of T-head design, requiring two camshafts, and with two valves per cylinder. Dual ignition was used with two spark plugs per cylinder. A Bosch magneto supplied one plug and a battery ignition system from the same manufacturer supplied the other. Prior to the First World War, Bosch would have been Robert Bosch, the German company. The catalog tells of racing successes and has a picture of eighteen trophies won by Van Blerck-powered boats. Most remarkable is a photo of the starboard side of an in-line 12 cylinder 300 HP high speed engine; 'particulars on application.' I calculated that it had a displacement of 2369 cu. in. The title page of the 1913 catalog says 'Van Blerck Motor Co., Detroit, Michigan.'

With the 1913 catalog is a booklet titled Review of the Racing Season of 1913. The address shown is Monroe, Michigan, which was the factory location. This is a beautifully-printed booklet. It includes a photo of the port side of the in-line twelve. The engine powered Kitty Hawk V, claimed to be the fastest boat in America.

In 1918 advertisements, the 5' bore and the two cylinder engines were not mentioned. The bore of racing engines that year was increased to 5'. 1918 ads were full-page and stressed racing. The company address was 50 East 42nd Street, New York City, rather than Detroit or Monroe. Van Blerck by now had a large, very attractive catalog in the style of the 1913 racing booklet. All engines were of 5' x 6' bore and stroke. 5' bore as in the ad was not shown in the catalog.

A 1920 catalog shows the Van Blerck address again to be Detroit and the company logo includes the words, 'The Standard High Speed Motor'.

A Van Blerck advertisement in a 1924 magazine offered five used engines for sale. In the list were type E and M engines which I had not seen listed elsewhere. The E had a 5 ' bore and the M had 5 both with the usual 6' stroke.

I have examined only one engine of the type just described. It is owned by Randy Nafe of Brodbecks, PA. That engine is a four cylinder model and was used to power a fire pump in a railway terminal in Baltimore. The nameplate is marked Van Blerck Motor Company, Monroe, Michigan, model L4, No. 1V30. Bore and stroke are 5 x 6'. The engine is a T-head design; the heads are not removable, but there are threaded access plugs over the valves. The model number indicates that it was a type L. It has a Winfield updraft carburetor, Leece-Neville 24-volt starter and generator, and triple ignition. One set of spark plugs is supplied by Atwater-Kent battery ignition, while the other two are fired by an unusual two-spark magneto, a Berling type D44 made by the Ericsson Mfg. Co., Buffalo, NY. The most surprising feature is that the engine has a bronze crankcase. The engine has a small pump which the owner believes is an air compressor.

I found a substantial connection of Van Blerck with fire-fighting equipment. In the November 21,1942 Monroe, Michigan Observer, there is a history of the Monroe Fire Department. Quoting the article, 'In 1914 and 1915 Monroe business men went out and got a new factory. It was the Van Blerck Motor Company, and Joe Van Blerck, its president, was a go-getter. A new plant was put up in jig-time and Van Blerck motors began rolling out. They powered race-winning speedboats, farm tractors and a launch that took President Wilson on an inspection tour through the Panama Canal. One was even put into a strange-looking contraption to sweep streets (but not Monroe's) and Joe landed a contract to furnish motors for fire trucks.' The article continues, telling that in January, 1915, the City of Monroe accepted a bid from the Watrous Company for a Van Blerck-powered fire truck. Until then, Monroe had relied on a horse-drawn steam pumper. The article has a lot to say about the unreliable cone clutch in the Watrous fire truck. In 1920, the truck was rebuilt. 'The prized Van Blerck motor, really a marine model, had never been any too dependable or trouble-free and was replaced by a modern power plant.'

Floyd Clymer's book, 100 Years of America's Fire Fighting Apparatus, contains a picture of a 1911 Waterous pumper and hose car used by the New York City Fire Department. Clymer's spelling of Waterous is correct; the spelling in the 1942 newspaper article was not correct.

Charles Black of the Chesapeake Fire Museum, Hebron, MD sent me a photocopy of a Waterous catalog of about 1915. A four cylinder engine is not identified by make, but the description indicates that is a four cylinder 5 x 6' Van Blerck. Waterous was using some large six cylinder engines in their trucks, one 71/4 x 8 and another 6 x 7. I doubt that Van Blerck built those large engines. Waterous Engine Works Co. was in St. Paul, MN. It still exists. They no longer build complete fire trucks, but they do manufacture pumps and accessories for fire trucks. The current catalog includes the picture of the 1911 New York truck that is in Clymer's book.

The years named by the 1942 newspaper article for the building of the Monroe factory are wrong; it existed by 1913.

Monroe, by the way, is on the western shore of Lake Erie, roughly half way between Detroit and Toledo, Ohio.

In the April 10, 1924 issue of Motor Boat Magazine is a fine article, 'Twenty Years of Speed Boat Development,' by George F. Crouch. He told a great deal about hull form development, but seldom mentioned the make of engine in a particular boat. However, he did say 'During the first eight years of the hydroplane [from 1909] our marine engine builders, particularly Sterling and Van Blerck, swept the field. After the close of the war, the Government sold many high-powered aviation motors for less than a tenth of their cost. With skillful rebuilding, many of them were converted for marine use.' Thus Van Blerck lost his market for his racing engines. In 1921 the Van Blerck factory in Monroe was offered for sale. Louis Schlessinger of New York City was the broker. In 1949, the buildings were occupied by the Detroit Stoker plant.

Weston Farmer in his book From My Old Boat Shop told the story of the JVB engine. Van Blerck was asked to design and produce an engine for army tanks when the US became involved in the First World War. The JVB tank engine had four cylinders 4' x 6' and was rated at 48 HP at 1000 rpm. It was a clean, modern OHV design with cylinders and crankcase cast en bloc. Farmer claimed that the Van Blerck factory was then in Algonac, Michigan. I believe that statement is in error.

I have seen a 1920 catalog sheet of the JVB Engine Company, Cleveland, OH, Joseph Van Blerck, president, announcing 'A New Marine Motor.' An ELCO folder with the JVB literature states that they are using it to power their boats. It is the tank engine, converted for marine use. A feature was a sliding gear reverse with an automotive type clutch, unusual in marine engines, which normally have planetary reverse gears applied by a band.

William Atwater, director of the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Ground, has searched their archives for information on the Van Blerck tank engine but has found nothing. He has asked for a similar search to be made at the Armor Museum at Fort Knox. I have not had a reply to that request.

The JVB Engine Company continued to be advertised in 1921, now in Akron, Ohio. The ad included a picture of Joseph Van Blerck and the JVB engine, as reproduced in this article. The cylinders remain at 4 x 6' but the rating had been increased to 60 hp at 1400 rpm. Features of the engine included replaceable cylinder sleeves and full pressure lubrication.

Farmer tells that the JVB engine was built by the Wellman-Seaver-Morgan Company for a time. Stan Grayson reported that company in New York City.

Joseph Van Blerck presented a paper before the Society of Automotive Engineers on the subject of converting truck and tractor engines to motor-boat use. It was SAE paper 200021 and is in SAE Transactions Vol. 15, No. 1 (1920), pp 507-515. Van Blerck was then in the Engine Div., Wellman-Seaver-Morgan Co. of Akron, Ohio. The April 10,1924 issue of Motor Boat, already mentioned, contained an advertisement of the WS-M engine which was the JVB design. The address of the factory was not stated, but the sole distributor was Wilbur H. Young with a Fifth Ave., New York City address. Both Farmer and Grayson stated that the ELCO engine was formerly the JVB. It appears that Van Blerck sold his new venture to ELCO via Wellman-Seaver-Morgan. Farmer wrote that the JVB in the 34-foot ELCO Cruisette was a fine engine. He wrote from experience, as he had owned one of these 34 footers.

Van Blerck's obituary contained this statement: 'It [the factory] was later moved east where Mr. Van Blerck designed and supervised the building of a series of interchangeable motors for the U. S. Navy.' I have learned nothing about a Navy contract. However, a very different Van Blerck marine engine, the model N, was advertised in 1923 and 1924. Perhaps 'N' stood for Navy. I have also examined a 1924 catalog of this engine. The maker was Van Blerck Engine Corp., Plainfield, NJ. The model N had Van Blerck's favorite cylinder size, 5 x 6' bore and stroke. They were built in low and medium speed ranges and in 2, 4, 6, and V12 cylinder versions, 16 to 275 hp. They had push-rod operated overhead valves and sliding-gear reverse. I have little doubt that these are the Navy engines.

They might be considered to be scaled-up JVB engines. 'Interchangeable' in the obituary probably meant that the models shared a lot of interchangeable parts.

The large 'annual issue' of Motor Boat Magazine was the December issue. I looked for Van Blerck in the list of advertisers in several annual issues after 1925 and found either the page number left blank or showing 'cover III.' Cover III may have been the mailing wrapper.

A 1928 catalog of Van Blerck Motors, Inc., Red Bank, NJ. shows marine conversions of Continental engines called 'Continental-Van Blerck'. The catalog contains the statement, 'Manufacturers of the Van Blerck Junior Portable Inboard Motors.' It was a lightweight four cylinder inboard engine that could be detached and carried home as one would an outboard. I once saw an advertisement for that engine showing Van Blerck's hefty son, Joseph Jr., lifting the engine. Now I cannot locate that ad. However, I have found an advertisement without Joe Junior in the May 1929 issue of Motor Boating. Weight of the 25 HP engine is only 100 pounds. In the August 1929 issue of the same magazine, Van Blerck's ad offers the Junior as a conventional inboard. With electric starter, generator, and reverse gear, the engine weighed 165 pounds. The large difference in weight indicates that the portable model did not have a reverse gear, but only a clutch.

The August ad suggests converting your outboard boat to an inboard. They also suggest that a new racing class be formed to suit this engine. Bore and stroke are 211/16 x 3 inches and the rating is 25 HP at 3000 rpm. A letter reproduced in one of the 1929 ads is signed by N. G. Rost, vice president. The letterhead says factory and sales offices - Fair Haven, NJ; post office -Red Bank, NJ. Across the bottom is, as expected, Continental Van Blerck.

A 1930 advertisement of Van Blerck Motors, Red Bank, NJ continues to show the Junior as a conventional inboard with a reverse gear. The ad states that the bore has been increased to 27/8 with 3 stroke and the engine is now rated 33 hp at 3000 rpm. Some years ago I examined one of these engines in Michigan while it was being rebuilt by a friend, Gerald A. White. Gerry now lives at Marco Island, FL and has given me a description of the engine. It was a 16-valve design. The cylinder block and upper crankcase were cast en block of aluminum with cast-in iron cylinder liners. All other castings were aluminum as well. The aluminum head had four valves per cylinder with a chain driven overhead camshaft. The cam followers were T-bars with lash adjusting screws at the ends. The guides for the T-bars were very badly worn and required major repair. The engine had a Zenith carburetor and Delco-Remy electrics.

Gerry Lombard of Bakersfield, California, told me that the T-bar cam followers were not exclusive to Van Blerck. They were used years earlier in the K-12 Curtiss aero engine designed by Kirkham.

Gerry Lombard sent me a photo of a midget racing car that had a Van Blerck engine. Bill Scarince, Jr., of St. Cloud, Minnesota now has the car and he runs it in antique race car events. The car was built many years ago by Bill Scarince, Sr., who now lives at Lake Shawnee, NJ. Gerry has corresponded with Bill Scarince Sr. and he gave me copies of Scarince's letters. He wrote of his experience running midget racing cars powered by Van Blerck during the 1937-1939 period. Van Blerck called these engines the Rocket and Rocket Junior and they were 91 and 81 Cu. In. respectively. These engines appear to be identical to the 16-valve marine engines. The stock Rocket was rated and warranted for 35 HP at 3500 rpm. For racing, he needed to run the engine at higher speeds. High speed resulted in the center main bearing studs pulling out of the crankcase. I found his attempts to solve the problem most interesting. He fabricated steel crankcases for two cars to fit Henderson motorcycle crankshafts with five main bearings. These two cars were quite successful. Another car used the standard crankcase with two additional mains bolted in, and with a five-bearing crank machined from a billet of SAE 4130 steel. Weight and friction limited that car, he reported.

Mr. Scarince wrote that during the 1937-38 period, Van Blerck had his engine factory in Red Bank and owned a boatyard in Freeport, Long Island.

Phil Brooke, Jr. of Spokane, WA sent me information on an opposed four cylinder 33 HP marine engine called the Midshipman. It was built by Gifford-Wood Company of Hudson, NY and advertised in 1934. He has evidence that it was designed and developed by Van Blerck.

There were advertisements during both 1934 and 1939 for Joseph Van Blerck Boat Engines, Inc., Long Island City, NY. He was rebuilding and converting used automobile engines and advertised five different models. It was a way to make a living during the Great Depression. He used the car clutch and transmission, modifying the gears to provide a 1:1 reverse similar to the JVB and model N. Quoting the ads: 'Rebuilt and converted under the personal supervision of Joseph Van Blerck, famous designer of marine engines for a quarter of a century. These remanufactured blocks with new marine conversion equipment represent maximum economy and quality.' I can find no Long Island City, New York listed on highway maps, though there is a Long Island City within Jersey City, New Jersey.

The obituary of Joseph Van Blerck in the Monroe Evening News states that he died on September 6, 1949 at his home in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. His wife had died five years earlier and he had recently remarried. He was survived by his second wife, two daughters, Mrs. Charles Hanna of Freeport, Long Island and Mrs. Joseph V. Breen of Pittsfield, MA and a son Joseph Van Blerck, Jr. Joseph Junior had managed the business since his father's retirement three years earlier. The funeral was in the family home in Freeport, Long Island.

The obituary stated that the Van Blerck factory was in Freeport. It also told that the Van Blerck factory was moved from Monroe to Akron in 1918.

Van Blerck certainly made a lot of address changes:
1909-11 Detroit
1918 New York City
1913-20 factory in Monroe, MI
1920 Detroit shown in advertisements
1920 JVB in Cleveland per ads
1921 JVB in Akron
1923-24 Plainfield. NJ
1926 New York City
1928 Red Bank, NJ
1934-39 Long Island City
1949 Ft. Lauderdale, FL. at time of death

Weston Farmer mentioned Algonac, Michigan as one location of Van Blerck's factory. I believe Farmer was mistaken; John L. Hacker of Detroit was the designer and builder of several Van Blerck-powered racing boats and Hacker's boat yard was in Algonac. Far better known was Chris Smith (Chris Craft), who designed and built many outstanding hydroplane racing boats in Algonac. Van Blerck may have spent some time in the Chris Craft yard.

All the advertisements I have reported were in Motor Boat Magazine except for the 1926, 1929, 1934, and 1939 ads which were in Motor Boating. These magazines are in the library of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, MD. The 1913 catalog and racing booklet are in the Jerry Dunn Collection at the same museum. The other catalogs are in the Patent Library of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers' Association in Detroit. I obtained the obituary and the fire department information from the Monroe County Historical Society. As already stated, I am grateful for the Waterous information from the Chesapeake Fire Museum.

More research on Van Blerck could be done. His incorporation papers might be found. Descendants might be located and interviewed. Wellman-Seaver-Morgan who took over manufacture of the JVB engine should be identified. City directories could be examined. There could be some data on the tank engines and the Navy engines in the National Archives or a military museum that I have not contacted.

I would like to hear from anyone who has information about Van Blerck that would fill in gaps and from anyone who owns an engine designed by Van Blerck. The article in the Monroe Observer mentioned Van Blerck engines in tractors. Does any reader know of one?


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Post a comment below.

 

Melanie
3/19/2014 4:26:31 PM
We have an early Van Blerck Engine, one of the earliest ever found. It is in running condition and viewable on youtube at the link provided below http://youtu.be/QqeuUMazVEU Anyone with information on his early work please contact me at email address provided below youtube video. Thanks again!

Dave
12/19/2013 11:13:07 AM
Long Island City is the borough of Queens, New York. Right across the East River from Manhattan. Citicorp HQ is located there for example.

Billy Joe
5/9/2011 11:23:42 PM
I bought a Van Belrck Junior at an Estate sale, and it is 100% complete. But Im not sure what year it was built. It has a serial # of 586-B. Could anyone help on this. Thanks: Billy Joe.








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