1908 8 HP Christensen Opens Up Rusty Dispute

To restore or not to restore?


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1908 8 HP Christensen
Christensen Mfg. Co., Milwaukee, Wis.
Type: LC
Year: 1908
HP: 8
Serial number: 3165
RPM: 300 RPM
Bore: 7-inch
Stroke: 10-inch
Flywheel diameter: 42 inches

I have spent years looking for the "right engine" in my price range. The engine had to be as original as possible, but it also had to be relatively large with lots of visible "monkey motion." But above all, it had to be as unmolested as possible. I knew that the right engine would be expensive for a retired guy's budget and the engine would be hard to find; several years of searching proved that.

Jim Jorgensen of Hampton, Iowa, sold his wonderful engine collection in the fall of 2005. Jim had some great original engines that brought record prices. There was a 1908 8 HP Christensen engine on the auction and I bought it. Never did I pay so much money for a gas engine. My wife called five minutes after I bought the engine. Intuition? She wanted to know how things were going and I told her I had just bought an engine. She said, "Oh, how much did it cost?" Having no way to weasel out of answering and having no time to prepare a story to soften her up, I told her the price. I blurted the price to her in a voice as loud and forceful as I could muster. She chuckled and asked what I really paid for the engine. I repeated the performance and there was silence on the line for a long time. I was surprised because she didn't get angry. I think she was in shock.

Jim bought the engine off a farm near Des Moines, Iowa, from the original owners. Jim had a hard time getting the family to let the engine go. They wanted to be sure he wasn't buying the engine just to make a big profit. Even though he bought the engine several years before, Jim still paid them a premium price for the time. It turned out to be a good investment and Jim enjoyed the engine while he had it.

Christensen bought out the C.P. & J. Lauson Co. in 1908. This engine still has the Lauson features but is clearly marked as being manufactured by the Christensen Engineering Co. With serial no. 3165, it is portable and has the original factory truck with all the original wood boxes and components. The engine has the original dirt, grease, junk in the toolboxes and user modifications: just what I was looking for.

There are more rare engines in better original condition, but there are very few left that have not had the original patina at least cleaned or the finish coated with shiny foo foo. The Christensen was an agricultural archaeological site unto itself. Other than wear and repair, there was no significant damage done to the original fabric of the engine. Jim Jorgensen must have appreciated the significance of his find because he didn't molest the finish on the engine.

The Christensen retains about 40 percent of its original paint and pinstriping. It had no compression the day of the sale. The fuel tank was a recent replacement and there is a mount for a missing dyno sparker. The muffler is missing, but everything else is there. A nicely turned wooden pulley was crudely attached to the lay shaft side flywheel. The mains and rod bearings were good but the wrist pin bearing was loose. The engine had most of the factory electrical wiring, including a very thick spark plug wire. The original buzz coil was in the front coil box.

It took a day to get the engine running. The exhaust valve was not seating properly and the intake valve was stuck. The old wiring was intact but every connection had to be cleaned before electricity could be coaxed through it. Everything was put in order without hurting the finish on the engine. The loose wrist pin bearing was not repaired at this time. After lubing all the moving parts and replacing a missing wire to the timer, the engine started right up and ran quite well.

A careful study of the engine gives us a glimpse into the period of its use. Verbal history tells us that it was used for sawing and feed grinding. Careful examination of residue in the grease might confirm this. The condition of the engine indicates it was used over a long period of time and that it was fairly well maintained. The added wooden pulley would have driven a small flat belt to run some other equipment that didn't require a lot of horsepower. It was probably driving something at the same time it was running another piece of equipment off the main pulley.

The layer of pieces and parts in the toolboxes tells us that the spark plug was probably replaced first. Higher in the pile of junk were some wrist pin shims, which indicate there may have been a problem lubricating the small end of the rod. The wrist pin is lubricated through the rod by a brass oiler that seems to dispense 30-weight oil too fast. The oiler doesn't appear to be made for hard oil (grease). The toolboxes also contained the usual bits and pieces such as wire (electrical and fence type), belt lacing, pins, nuts and bolts, belt dressing, etc. The battery box still had an old telephone type battery in it. There was an old oilcan in the battery box, which had leaked and stained the lower third of the box. The original Badger logo is on the box and is still quite readable. The portion of the logo with the oil stain was actually better preserved than the letters higher on the box. The engine tells more in subtle ways but you can draw your conclusions from the photos.

The right engine
There is a serious debate among antique gas engine collectors regarding how to treat a barn fresh or unrestored gas engine. Some collectors believe that all but the best-preserved engines should be refinished. Others believe that only engines in the poorest condition should be restored. Still other collectors believe there is a happy medium. I believe that actual condition is only part of the picture. Before anything is done to an engine, its historical context should be evaluated.

Auction sale results tell us that an unmolested engine in original condition with at least some original finish brings a premium price. This has been true in other antique fields for a long time. So there are collectors who indicate the preference for an original unrestored engine by the use of their pocket books. What do these collectors see in these engines? I believe they are trying to preserve history.

Can a gas engine be classified as an archaeological site? Farlex's Free Internet Dictionary defines archaeology as "the systematic study of past human life and culture by the recovery and examination of remaining material evidence, such as graves, buildings, tools and pottery." We know that industrial archaeologist study material and sites within the time period of the manufacture of our gas engines. So, there should be no reason that a gas engine could not be studied in that historical context.

The question now is, what do I do with the Christensen? How far do I go to preserve it and how much, if any, patina do I remove? Some of my engine buddies have recommended everything from a thorough cleaning to outright restoration. Others tell me not to modify any of the finish. Up until now, I have put museum wax on the wooden parts and oiled and greased the functional mechanics. The wrist pin bearing will be repaired so the engine can be run at the shows without knocking. I have no formal archaeological training, so I could really use some preservation suggestions.

How do we approach our engines? Hopefully, we'll at least think about the consequences of our actions before we start tearing parts off of new acquisitions or fire up the sand blaster. There will always be engines that must be restored. The question is how to determine which engines fall into that category and how much information can we glean from the engines we do restore.

Contact Joe Maurer at 797 S. Silberman Road, Pearl City, IL 61062; (815) 443-2223; toadhill@aeroinc.net