History of Brown-Cochran Co.

A unique proposition in gas engine design

Brown-Cochran Co

The Brown-Cochran factory around 1905. The Johnson Co. foundry is the building in the background. Photo courtesy Mark Meincke.

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One hundred years ago, the future looked bright for Brown-Cochran Co. Newly formed through the merger of Brown Gas Engine Co., Columbus, Ohio, and Cochran Co., Lorain, Ohio, Brown-Cochran was rapidly expanding into new facilities in Lorain. The gas engine industry was booming, and Brown, with patents dating back to 1895, was already active as a manufacturer of gas engines, while Cochran had entered into the nascent field of refrigeration equipment. Beyond the advantages of shared technologies, the merger created the opportunity to draw fresh capital and similarly improve manufacturing facilites.

Brown-Cochran appears to have prospered for a time, evident by the impressive manufacturing facility the company erected after the merger of the two firms. Fortune was fleeting, however, and by 1908 Brown-Cochran's fortunes were waning. Surviving articles from Lorain-area newspapers document Brown-Cochran's slide into receivership, which appears to have occurred in October or November of 1908.

Contemporary newspaper accounts focused on the possibility of the company being revived by former company president J.O. Brown, who designed the Brown line of engines. Brown's bid to purchase the remains of the company ultimately failed, and Brown-Cochran became a part of Johnson Co., a steel mill that occupied a site next to the Brown-Cochran factory in Lorain and supplied Brown-Cochran with the cast iron for its engines. Johnson, Brown-Cochran's heaviest creditor, had a compelling interest in the company's potential survival.

An article covering negotiations for purchase of Brown-Cochran in the Dec. 12, 1908, edition of The Lorain Times-Herald noted Johnson as 'the father of the Brown-Cochran Company.' It's assumed Johnson gave Brown-Cochran heavy impetus to form, likely extending the company a generous line of credit for raw material and foundry work during Brown-Cochran's early years. Had Brown-Cochran been successful, Johnson clearly would have stood to profit from the company's growth.

By the spring of 1909, Johnson Co. secured its bid to absorb the Brown-Cochran facilities. A June 7, 1909, article in the Lorain Daily News cited Johnson's control of Brown-Cochran and also noted recent production of 100 engines by the company. Johnson had hopes to merge Brown-Cochran with another, unnamed manufacturer of farm implements, but those plans never materialized. Just when the last Brown-Cochran engine left the factory is a matter of some conjecture, but most likely it was late summer 1909. Brown-Cochran, manufacturer of high-quality gas and gasoline engines, became yet another casualty of increasing competition in the gas engine market.

A surviving 4 HP
Carl Mehr, Penn Valley, Calif., came across this 4 HP Brown-Cochran sideshaft gas engine, serial number 718, in 1997. In a disassembled state, it was missing its water and fuel pumps, igniter, mixer and linkage. It was, in fact, little more than a promise of an engine. A pessimist would have said it was beyond rescue, but an optimist would have seen it as a good beginning. It still had its critical components; the cylinder and head were intact, the connecting rod and piston were there, and the crankshaft and flywheels were in one piece. Carl, fortunately for the old iron community, is clearly an optimist.

Carl is the first to admit he didn't know what he was getting himself into when he bought the engine. "I didn't have much to work with when I first got the engine," Carl says. "No linkage, no igniter, and worst of all, not a clue." Even so, he forged ahead, determined to bring what was obviously a unique engine back to life. But even with his determination, it wasn't easy. "When I asked about the Brown-Cochran to other, more experienced engine collectors, the elders of the tribe, I drew blank stares," Carl says.

But then he saw that Mark Meincke had some information about Brown-Cochran in his book, The Complete Guide to Stationary Engines. Better yet, Mark lived in Ohio, where the Brown-Cochran was made. Carl contacted Mark, who not only located a mixer for Carl's engine but who also supplied Carl with literature and drawings to aide Carl in his restoration. It didn't hurt that Mark also had an 8 HP Brown-Cochran for reference.

Based in large measure upon his contact with Mark, Carl was off and running. He estimates he has around 1,000 hours of labor in the engine, and with the exception of piston and ring work, which was done by Sykes Rings, he did all the work himself. Rusted from years of neglect, the cylinder had to be bored .060-inch to bring it back true. The piston was then spray-welded, turned down to size and fitted with new rings.

Carl built the missing water and fuel pumps from scratch, and while not exact duplicates, they're close. "I used the pictures and drawings sent by Mark Meincke, then went to a metal supply business and obtained the stock I could work with and then examined every pump I could find," Carl says. The water pump works off an eccentric on the side shaft, while the fuel pump is cam actuated, also off the sideshaft. And that mixer he got turned out to be visually identical but physically larger than the original. The bolt pattern for the mixer was about an inch too wide, so Carl cut an inch out of the body of the mixer and welded it back together. You'd be hard pressed looking at the finished product to think it was anything other than original.

That drive to preserve the original nature of the engine defined this restoration.

Three valves, one port
A unique feature of the Brown-Cochran is its use of two poppet valves for the intake, one poppet valve for the exhaust and an exhaust port in the cylinder. On the intake side, an air valve controls the admission of air into the cylinder, while a second, smaller valve regulates the intake of fuel from the mixer. This fuel valve is carried on the air valve's stem, and a spring between the two ensures they both seat independently while a collar ensures they both rise simultaneously.

When Carl pulled the intake valve assembly it came out in pieces. He ended up fabricating a new cage and valves, and he says this was the hardest part of the restoration. The cage had been broken and repaired before, and when Carl got the engine the head and valve cage assembly were badly rusted from years of sitting in water.

On the exhaust side, the majority of a spent charge exits through a port in the cylinder wall as the piston reaches the bottom of its throw - the remainder exits by means of a traditional poppet valve. Brown-Cochran claimed this arrangement kept carbon deposits on the poppet valve to a minimum, thereby reducing wear on the valve seat and improving running reliability. An additional benefit claimed to this arrangement was the cooling effect it has on the engine. When the governor latches during over-run cycles, the exhaust valve is held open while the intake valve is held shut. This results in air circulating through the exhaust valve, cylinder and port, effectively cooling the combustion chamber.

The governor is a flyball design, and in addition to holding the exhaust open and the intake shut it also locks out the igniter, an effective spark saver to ensure long battery life. The igniter is in the head, and current passes only momentarily during the brief moment before the igniter breaks contact to produce spark. One non-stock item on Carl's engine is the rotary-drive Wizard magneto, driven off the face of the left flywheel. Originally equipped with a low-tension ignition system, the engine benefits from easier starting with the Wizard magneto, plus the system can easily be converted back to original specification.

It took Carl over three years to get the engine in the condition you see here, but the results were worth the work. Looking very much as it did when it left the factory some 100 years ago, Carl's 4 HP Brown-Cochran is another gem in the old iron collective.