Spark Plug of the Month

Gas Engine

Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390

Joe Fahnestock

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Harry Truman once said, 'If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.' But our Spark Plug can both stay in the kitchen and stand the heat -- and still 'keep his cool' sufficient to get in a six-hour lick at working on his old gas engines as part of the daily grind.

For Lotus Alexander of 1448 Franklin St., Columbus, Ind., rising at the crack o' dawn and working at restoring his antiques gas poppers from 5 a.m. to eight o'clock is just the kind of appetizer a fellow needs to make those breakfast eggs 'n bacon all the tastier. Following which Lotus and wife, Lucille, manage their 'Kitchen Store' -- designing and selling kitchen cabinetry to make things easier for modern living. And, after that, from seven 'til ten Lotus again returns to his two-car 'engine shop' garage to spend three more hours at assembling, restoring, painting and/or fondling his long and impressive line of once-lonely, but now bright and perking internal-combustion antiquers.

'I have always been an early riser,' says Lotus. 'Many people miss the beauty of the early morning.'

Though some natural ecologists might disagree that rising early and wiping rags over greasy old gas engines and breathing the fumes thereof for three hours prior to breakfasting on bacon might be other than beautiful, our Spark Plug seems convinced it's 'just the way to start the day'. Besides, who's to argue with one Lotus Alexander that even he may perchance hear the call of the morning meadow lark across the field between the banging and barkings of his 'one-lung brigade?' And/or the soft night warblings of the lonely screech owl on yonder limb while quietly applying paint on an old fly-wheel into the wee hours, prior to retiring?

L. to r.: Engine buddy, 'Edison' Dale Robertson helps Spark Plug Lotus Alexander start his pet pride the 2-1/2 HP Reeves hit-and-miss gas engine. Lotus once worked at the Reeves plant that made this engine and he searched far and wide before locating one near his home. Note the square conduit enclosure which protects the public from whirring flywheels, etc. Shown here at The Pioneer Engineers Club, Rushville, Indiana 1973.

L. to r. That's old engine buddy, 'Edison' Dale Robertson helping Spark Plug Lotus Alexander prime the thirsty gas tank on the Model 800 Delco Light Plant at the Rushville, Indiana Pioneer Engineers Club Show, 1973. Dale rewired the old Delco generator while Lotus reworked the gas engine side. Together the two 'boys' get 'lit up' with enough 32-volt bulbs to make like 'Moonshine'. Lotus says he's got to look out or his engine business will overtake his Kitchen Business.

There's surely something therapeutic about it sufficient to keep him 'bright as a ten o'clock scholar' throughout the rest of his work-a-day world. And, come summertime, he's always up 'n at 'em -- like the early bird that catches the worm -- along any Gasoline Alley Midway, we'd say.

'You bet your bottom dollar, I was raised on a farm,' says Lotus Alexander. 'And I'm very proud of my farm background.'

'My father had one team of mules, a Fordson Tractor and a little workshop powered by a gasoline engine belted to a lineshaft,' is the way Lotus remembers his earliest boyhood impressions that launched his career toward mechanical inclinations. 'I can remember the pump jack which was belted to a pulley on the line shaft, sticking out the end of the shed.'

Then there are the other memories he has of childhood. Such as pumping the bellows while his blacksmith grandfather sharpened plow-points by heating and hammering them out on the big anvil. And the 'thrashing' of wheat with the old steam rig during which he ran the water wagon to give drink to the thirsty, always thirsty engine which seemed never to get enough.

It was during the Depression years of '29 to '33 that the Alexanders lost the family farm. Moving from thence to a small town, 'My father took up school teaching,' says Lotus, 'And I worked on the farms around the town for $3.50 a week while finishing high school.'

'I was always pretty handy with my hands and could make about anything out of wood with hand tools,' says Alexander. 'I have always had a great love of wood, such as walnut and cherry, and have made many what-not shelves, as well as shelving and furniture.'

It was in 1941 that Lotus Alexander moved to Columbus, Indiana -- about twenty miles west of the old farm home -- and went to work in the factory.

'I worked at The Reeves Pulley Company, manufacturers of Variable Speed Transmissions, in the test lab and had access to many old blue prints, etc.,' explains Lotus. 'At one time they manufactured steam engines, wood-split pulleys, gasoline engines and motor carriages. But I was not interested in collecting at that time, only enough to live on.' (None of us thought of antiques in those days. True, Lotus?)

It was in 1952 that Lotus Alexander went to work in a small cabinet shop, where he learned to build many special pieces of furniture and cabinets along functional designs which helped the housewife's burdens in the kitchen. To him this loomed as a sort of mission in life -- helping people to live an easier life by modernizing their kitchens with new cabinets, refrigerators, ranges dishwashers and the like. And from this inspiration to help the housewives with their kitchen chores and drudgery stemmed the store and business that Lotus and his wife, Lucille, have been operating ever since.

When Lotus Alexander sent me his beautiful Christmas Card, showing three of his beautifully-restored antique gas engines, he signed his name, L. W. Alexander, C. K. D. In thanking him for the card I sort of joshed him 'tongue-in-cheek' about the mysterious three-letter C. K. D. tag on his name, thinking it might be some kind of college or university degree that I had never heard of before. And he replied, 'After over twenty years in the business I have earned the title of Certified Kitchen Deisgner by the American Institute of Kitchen Dealers.' (And no one, but no one should ever be guilty of denying that our Sparkie of the Month has deserved it.)

But now, down to the real nitty-gritty of our story.

This is the beautiful color Christmas card Lotus Alexander sent me -1. to 4.: Delco Light Plant 32 Volt D.C. about 1916; Mogul 1-1/2 HP found 'Coon Hunting' - treed coon in basement of old house. Found engine-left coon; Associated Hired Man 2-1/2 HP. found in fence row, had been there for 12 years.

I acquired my first gas engine from two cousins who treed a racoon in the basement of a vacant farm house,' explains Lotus. 'As they shined the flashlight into the basement window, the beam fell on an old dirty black gas engine which was belted to a unique water system -- one pump on a well, the other hooked to the cistern.

This was the 'spark that fired the plug that set the wheels into motion' in one Lotus Alexander's brain from there on out. For it seems the coon was soon forgotten and escaped to be chased another day.

The engine turned out to be a 1-1/2 HP Mogul which I took apart, piece by piece, and thoroughly cleaned down to the original green paint,' laughs Lotus, recalling that humorous incident which spared a racoon's life and launched him on a brand new hobby which would be getting him up early of mornings and keeping him late of nights.

The second engine I found was in a fence row behind an old house,' says Lotus. 'I knocked on the door and, after chatting with the owner, discovered it was used by his father on a cement mixer. He said it had not been used for twelve years.

I was able to purchase it and took it home for a clean-up,' continues our Spark Plug. 'It was surprising to find out how easy the nuts came off the bolts, but the piston was really stuck. I soaked it for three months in fuel oil before I could break it loose. This engine turned out to be a Hired Man 2-1/2 HP, made by Associates of Waterloo, Iowa, and has a hit-and-miss battery ignition.

Next I picked up a couple of Maytag Engines and overhauled them. By this time several people knew I was collecting engines,' recalls Alexander, a bit proud of the reputation his new-found hobby was creating. 'A young fellow came in one day asking me to identify something he had picked up. I guessed it to be a farm Delco Light Plant. He worked on it a couple of months and then came back wanting to sell it.

Lotus Alexander is restoring this old grist mill made by Frank Ward of Rockford, Illinois, Patent date, Feb. 13, 1888. Photo by Lotus.

This is a view of Lotus Alexander's immaculate work shop. [How I wish I could turn Lotus loose in my 'junk heap' for a few hours. I wouldn't know the place]. Photo by Lotus.

This plant had been used in a farm home a few miles from where I was raised,' says Lotus. I reluctantly bought it because I did not know much about electricity. I took pictures of it and sent them to the Delco Plant but they could not help me. It is a 1916 Model 800 Delco Plant with a one-gallon tank.

It was here that Lotus Alexander called in a fellow engine buddy, Dale Robertson, who is Chief Engineer in the total energy plant of one of the local schools and runs the engine room that makes their own electricity for heat, lights and water supply, using natural gas as fuel.

Dale eyed it eagerly and said, 'Sure it can be fixed',' says Lotus.

Taking the plant apart, Dale took the 32-volt generator home with him while Lotus cleaned and repaired and painted the engine.

You would never believe some of the things we found,' chuckles Lotus. 'The 1/4' bolts and terminals were threaded 1/4 x 24. The crank-shaft had been handmade, the crank was bolted to the shaft and it had a pollution control valve that was better than the ones in modern cars today.'

Photo of a Nelson Bros. Jumbo Line Engine I recently completed restoring. I am real proud as it is my first venture. Your magazine is tops. Keep up the good work. [Thanks Charlie!]

'When Dale brought the generator back, you would not know it was the same one. He had rewound it, made new brass lugs and had made a complete schematic wiring diagram. We assembled the motor and generator, timed the firing sequence, started the engine with a crank and I had 'Edison' Dale Robertson pull the switch. On came the lights and the 32-volt light plant was alive. I put three 12-volt car batteries in series to allow the unit to charge as the sixteen 2-volt batteries were broken. After the batteries had come up to charge, the generator converted to a starter until the engine took over and then it began automatically charging the batteries.'

Lotus had only three of the old-time carbon filament clear glass Mazda Bulbs with the glass points on the ends, but he didn't want to use them. So he bought twelve 40 watt, 32 volt railroad bulbs which he now uses to light his unusual display.

'I also have a 32-volt quarter-horse motor which we use with a wire wheel to clean spark plugs, points, etc. and comes in mighty handy around the shows,' says Alexander. 'I had never before exhibited at an engine show, but now I felt I had something worth showing. So I made up a ten-foot square framework out of electric conduit to keep the public protected from turning wheels and this also gave me something to hang the bulbs on.'

One of his best-loved engines is a 2-1/4 HP Reeves, made in the Reeves plant where Lotus had worked for twelve years. 'I had advertised in Gas Engine Magazine for one, but got no response. Later I found this Reeves Engine thirty two miles north of Columbus, Ind., owned by Roy Willard. I talked him out of it for a 'price' and now have it restored with a fly-wheel driven mag like it was originally made. It had been used on a water pump in a local greenhouse.'

'My belief is we should restore these engines to the original shape and color as they were manufactured,' preaches Alexander, a true advocate to the principle of prototype preservation. (The act of restoring can be nothing less.)

In view of this conviction Lotus Alexander has worked out certain methods he employs in restoring old gas engines. After filing off rough spots and burrs, he then fills in pits and inaccessable spots with a lacquer auto sanding sealer and body putty to get a really smooth finish. Then he has new paint matched exactly to the original color to finish the job.

Finishing his first engine, the 1-1/2 HP Mogul that saved a racoon's life, really set the pattern for restoring the other old engines that followed. And the interesting things he discovered about the fuel system really set him off. Such as

starting it with a small carburetor on top, then switching over to coal oil and observing how the excess fuel is pumped back into the tank, and so forth, world without end, Amen.

Altogether Lotus Alexander has acquired a total of some twenty-one gas engines in the one to 2-1/2 HP ratings, in addition to one horizontal and one vertical 3/4 HP ' Nelsons -- and, to date, approximately ten old Maytag Engines.

'Maytags don't count except two-at-a-time,' chuckles Lotus, although he does sort of brag that his nine year old granddaughter, Karen Kohler of Marshal, Mich., is restoring a single Maytag. 'Karen decided if she was going to continue to be the apple of her 'Poppa's' eye, she'd have to get into the engine business'.'

And wife, Lucille (Mrs. Alexander) figures that to keep in hubby's good graces and remain the 'apple of his eye' she'd just continue to help hunt up other old gas engines just to keep him happy. Like Eve tempting Adam with the apple, Lucille lures Lotus along old fence rows in quest of more old rusty one-lungers with stuck pistons while he gets stuck with unsticking the stucked 'stinkers'. (If you can figure that one out!)

'Lucille doesn't help me work on the things, but she loves to go out and help me find the oldies,' laughs the CKD -- our Certified Kitchen Designing Spark Plug, Lotus Alexander.

With only two shows under your belts -- Rushville and Tri-State of 73 -- you're both new but 'adding' very rapidly, Lotus and Lucille. And for it all we thank you enough to invite you to take your seat in our Hall of Spark Plug Fame. May your 'POP-ulation' keep increasing and your 'family of old plugs' continue to multiply with fecundity.