Coolspring Power Museum Expo 2015: Flame Ignition Engines

Event's 30th anniversary sees a record turnout of engines and gas engine enthusiasts at the Coolspring Power Museum.

1883 Schleicher-Schumm

1883 4 hp was one of four Schleicher, Schumm & Co. engines on hand.

Photo by Richard Backus

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What a difference a year makes – or in this case 20 years. In 1995, the Coolspring Power Museum, Coolspring, Pennsylvania, marked its 10th anniversary with a special Summer Expo celebrating flame ignition engines. Organized by John Rex and the late Nate Lillibridge, the event drew an estimated 1,000 old engine fans from across the country. It was a unique opportunity to witness a special gathering of flame ignition engines in operation, and as Coolspring founder Paul Harvey remembers, there were around five flame ignition engines on display, along with another 10 or so “very interesting pre-1895 engines. It was a well received and attended show,” Harvey recalls.

Interest in early internal combustion engines – specifically engines produced since the Otto and Langen of 1867, which used flame ignition to commence the combustion process – has continued to increase markedly, a fact reflected in the interest shown for this year’s 30th Anniversary Summer Expo, which for the second time in the museum’s history put the spotlight on flame ignition engines. Organized by well-known engine historian, restoration expert and scale model designer/builder Wayne Grenning, the 2015 event drew more than 4,000 visitors to witness the largest collection of flame ignition engines ever gathered in one place at one time in the U.S. – at least 60 in total, and that’s not counting the dozens of Paradox and other toy engines on display.

Behind the scenes

Planning for the event started in 2012 when Grenning, looking forward to the museum’s 30th anniversary, suggested to the museum board repeating 1995’s successful flame ignition theme. “The first thing the museum did was say, ‘OK, so you’re volunteering for this, right?’” Grenning recalls, adding, “And I said I guess I should.” In 2013 Grenning, along with his father and engine collector and Coolspring Museum volunteer Woody Sins, traveled to Nuenen, Netherlands, for the 25th annual Nuenen stationary engine rally. Slide-valve engines were a featured theme at Nuenen that year, with at least 15 displayed. Knowing this, Grenning printed up flyers announcing the planned Coolspring event and passed them out at Nuenen, hoping to inspire international interest in the Coolspring show.

That winter, Grenning sent out letters to every known owner of flame ignition engines in the U.S. and Canada, inviting the owners to display their engines at the planned Expo and promising proper care and recognition of their engines. As an added inducement, he pledged the museum would foot the bill for the expensive and hard to acquire hydrogen gas necessary to run flame ignition engines. Importantly, thanks to his job with fuel specialists Praxair, Grenning could secure hydrogen fuel at a discounted rate.

That early seeding paid off handsomely. The 2015 event attracted engine fans from around the world, with an estimated 100 engine collectors traveling to Coolspring from Europe and Australia to see the record collection of engines on display – more than 50 of them brought by owners from across the U.S. and Canada. Recognizing the importance of the event, Rough & Tumble Historical Association in Kinzers, Pennsylvania, made available the 1/2 hp 1867/1868 Otto and Langen engine in its collection, which holds the distinction of being the oldest internal combustion engine in North America and the third oldest running engine in the world.

The engines

“I really wanted the Otto and Langen to show up,” Grenning says. For Grenning, that engine’s importance extends beyond its place in history as the first practical internal combustion engine. It’s also important because it’s a direct, physical link to its inventor, Nikolaus Otto, father of the 4-stroke or Otto Cycle engine, the design that underpins internal combustion engines yet today. “It’s one of the things Otto himself touched and built,” Grenning marvels.

Although the engine is run occasionally at Rough & Tumble, for most engine fans attending the Expo it was the first time they’d ever seen a real Otto and Langen in person, let alone one running. And run it did, drawing an admiring crowd every time it was started during the event. It’s a surprising engine to watch, surprising for how quiet it actually is in operation and how seemingly effortless it is to start. Although it takes experience, to watch Grenning or one of the other volunteers it looks easy; turn on the hydrogen, light the burner, spin it over and hey, presto, it’s running. A noncompression atmospheric engine, it creates its power on the down stroke, when the difference in atmospheric pressure created in the cylinder (about 13psi, according to Grenning) pulls the piston down, the piston’s connecting rod, or rack, engaging a pinion to turn the flywheel. The Otto and Langen is a free piston engine, as the piston and its rack are disconnected from the crankshaft during ignition.

The Otto and Langen was one of three engines sourced from Rough & Tumble, the others being a 4 hp slide-valve, flame ignition 1888 Schleicher, Schumm & Co., plus one of the nine Crown Gas Pump pumping engines on display. Those nine Crown engines represented the single largest gathering of Crown engines in North America. Manufactured by the National Meter Co. of New York, New York, between 1881-1886, Crown engines were used to pump water into holding tanks on the roofs of tall buildings to supply adequate water pressure. Of noncompression design, they developed less than 1/2 hp.

It was a remarkable collection, even more so when you learn the nine Crown engines on display represent all of the known surviving Crown engines. Grenning and show chairman Sins made the best of the gathering, at one juncture working their way down the line firing up all nine engines, running them simultaneously to the great thrill of those observing. It really was something watching those nine engines spin under their own power, all of them at least 130 years old and most of them (one or two were a little hesitant to oblige the crowd) happily chuffing away as attendees snapped away with their cameras to record the occasion.

Including the Rough & Tumble engine (originally found by Nate Lillibridge, and restored by John Rex and John Wilcox) and the museum’s 2 hp 1883 engine, there were four Schleicher, Schumm & Co. engines on display, all of them running. Bill Grimley brought his fantastic 1883 10 hp Schleicher, Schumm, an engine we featured in the April/May 2014 issue of GEM. Found languishing in an old factory in the 1970s, it had been modified from slide-valve, flame ignition operation to hot tube, with regular poppet valves. It was restored back to its original condition in 2011.

A few feet away from Grimley’s engines was the Triebner family’s 1889 8 hp Schleicher, Schumm. Purchased by the University of Toronto when new, the engine was taken out of service about 1911 when city gas was no longer available. Like the Brimley engine, the Triebner’s had also been heavily modified. Jonathan Triebner became aware of the engine in 1999 as a student at the University of Toronto and kept track of it, eventually securing it in 2009. The other Schleicher, Schumm was a 2-1/2 hp inverted. Built in 1887 and one of two known survivors, the running engine still has factory markings on the flywheel.

There were also three Crossley “Piano Base” flame ignition engines. One of them, the 3-1/2 hp 1879 model on the cover, is in the museum’s permanent display, while the other two were brought by private owners including Jerry Toews of Kansas, who displayed his 1882 3-1/2 hp engine. Like many flame ignition engines, Toews’ Crossley had been converted to hot tube ignition with poppet valves. The engine is a work in progress, and Toews is close to having all the necessary casting work done to return the Crossley to its original condition.

Kenny Tharp, also from Kansas, owns the other “Piano Base” that was on display, an 1888 2 hp model that’s usually displayed in the Engine Building at the Wilson County Old Iron Club show grounds in Fredonia, Kansas. Tharp had the engine at Coolspring for the event, running it constantly throughout the weekend. Beautifully restored, Tharp’s Crossley ran easily and silently, a mild “chuff” accompanying every combustion cycle.

The Schleicher, Schumm and Crossley engines are perhaps the best known flame ignition engines, but there were many others, including a number of reproduction Bisschop engines plus some Deutz engines, among others. Collector Tommy Turner brought his latest acquisition, an exquisite 2 hp 1885 Hille from Germany, one of only two known. Rescued from a German scrap-yard, it was missing several parts when found. Miraculously, the original missing pieces were found and reunited with the engine, which is now running.

The majority of the flame ignition engines were displayed in Preston Foster Hall, a new expansion to the Susong building that effectively doubles its size. Built in honor of the late Preston Foster, the first president of the Coolspring Power Museum, the new addition was formally dedicated with a memorial service for Preston, who was also a director and curator of collections during his 35 years with the museum.

One visiting flame ignition engine not displayed in the Preston Foster Hall was the twin-cylinder 25 hp 1886 Fetu-Defize. Far too large to be rolled into the hall, the Fetu-Defize shared an outside pavilion with the museum’s 1939 Ingersoll-Rand XVG-4, a huge V-4 power unit. Built in Belgium to provide electric power in a girls school, the Fetu-Defize managed to escape being scrapped during World War II, but wasn’t rescued until 1995. One of two known, it ran perfectly, drawing a crowd every time it was started.

Out in the field beyond the flame ignition collection it was business as usual, with engine enthusiasts filling almost every inch of available space, showing and running their engines as they do every year at every Expo. Flatbed trailers filled with future projects and tables covered with oilers and other sought after parts peppered the grounds. Out in the field, it was just another perfect weekend at Coolspring as owners swapped information and stories. The usual suspects were all on hand, including ATIS stalwarts like Arnie Fero, Keith Kinney and Dave Rotigel, who had his Hercules drag saw working away cutting logs for most of the show.

An event of this magnitude is unlikely to happen again anytime soon. It takes years of planning and, importantly, the dedicated efforts of someone with a vision for what the show should be. For this Expo, that person was Wayne Grenning, but he’s quick to deflect attention to where he thinks it belongs, and that’s with the museum and its volunteers. “I’m just fortunate that I was part of the event,” Grenning says, adding, “the Coolspring organization and the volunteers actually made it happen. The logistical nightmare of unloading all those engines, it was a huge effort, a big team effort.”

Grenning and Harvey both say they’re looking forward to a slightly easier event next year, when the theme will be Odd and Unusual Engines. See you there.

The Coolspring Power Museum is at 179 Coolspring Rd., Coolspring, PA 15730. Phone: (814) 849-6883