Robbins Engine

Courtesy of Charles R. LaDow, 3735 Trudy Lane, San Diego, California 92106.

Charles R. LaDow

Content Tools

3735 Trudy Lane, San Diego, California 92106

A. R. Robbins started building a full line of heavy duty marine distillate engines in 1907. Two years earlier, he had opened his machine shop at the foot of E Street in San Diego, California. Of course, all of his machine tools were operated by a maze of flat belts, driven by overhead shafts running in babbitt bearings which were in turn, driven by a gas engine next to the building. Originally from Boston where he had learned the steam engine trade, Mr. Robbins migrated to San Diego via New Orleans, Seattle and way points where he had overhauled the steam engine on various tugboats. Like many a strong-minded man, he gave in to his wife's preference for a living-place and so the gas engine business was born in San Diego.

The engines were built to order, while the shop was kept going on repair work of various kinds, including black-smithery, and in 1911, the building was moved by barge to the foot of Elm Street, where it became a carpenter shop for building boats. A two story sheet metal machine shop was added the following year and for six years, the gas engine and boat business grew in this plant. The addition of a foundry in 1918 made possible the complete manufacture of the engines in this spot, the only items 'bought out' being magnetos, carburetors, nuts-screws-and bolts, and the crankshafts (which were forged in San Francisco). Even the piston rings were cast and machined on the grounds. So, wooden boats requiring anywhere from 4 to 110 horsepower could be completely manufactured on the premises, with the exception of minor accessories. Growth of the fishing industry made this a major enterprise in San Diego at that time.

An interesting innovation on the Robbins engines was an eccentric arrangement on the rocker-arm shaft, whereby the left of the intake valves could be altered by lever, with the engine running, by as much as three-eighths of an inch, thereby increasing slow-speed economy. Other manufacturers soon produced similar devices. A reciprocating bronze cooling-water pump was a reliable feature. Nary a spark plug was seen on a Robbins engine (hence the title of this piece). Unless the mica insulation became damaged, 'changing plugs' simply meant removing the igniter (held by two nuts) and replacing the burnt-out contact point. This was made of any handy piece of one-eighth by half-inch band iron and fastened in place by a set screw. The operation took no longer than changing a spark plug and was a lot cheaper in material. Another interesting feature of the engine was removable by-pass pipes for cooling water between the water jackets of heads and cylinders. Thus, solid head gaskets could be used (all you needed was a sheet of asbestos). Blown head gaskets and trips to the parts store were unlikely things.

How reliable were these engines? Twenty years of hard fisherman service on one overhaul was the expected thing, with reasonable care. Of course, we must remember that they ranged in weight from 112 to 160 pounds per horsepower and ran at from 230 to 500 R.P.M.; nevertheless, their performance was remarkable.

Were they hard to start? They were started on gasoline; then switched to distillate. Properly adjusted (not a difficult matter), a couple of rocks of the flywheel (by hand on the small ones, by bar on the large) would send them off. On later models, compressed air on one cylinder would make them go.

Although these were low-compression machines (60 pounds), it is interesting to note that they were nearly square in bore and stroke, in the era of the long stroke engine. They ranged from 5' x 6' to 10?' x 12'.

20 hp. Robbins Engine.

4 hp. Robbins Engine.

The foregoing information was gathered from Ira A. Robbins, son of the founder, who bought out the shop at his father's retirement in 1929. The present Mr. Robbins dropped out of school at the age of 16 to enter his father's plant. What 16-year-old lad, of an active mechanical nature, could resist making such a change? A shop of that kind exhibited a spread of basic skills which is impossible to find in one place today! One-can believe this son that his father showed no favoritism to him in shop discipline. In days when mistakes were not condoned, fewer mistakes were made and this was a firm where integrity was not just an advertising slogan. Ira began at the bottom and earned his way to management.

A few Robbins engines were built after 1929; but like it was with Auburn, Velie, and Lexington cars, the handwriting was on the wall for these fine machines. The 'Great Depression' was a wringer-out of small manufacturers and classic machinery; but it was otherwise kind to the Robbins enterprise. Fisherman must fish and their boats and equipment must be overhauled. After all, converted auto engines break down oftener than Robbins engines, so Robbins weathered through nicely. Eventually bought out, with his historic shops encompassed and demolished, by Natural Steel and Shipbuilding Co., Ira Robbins moved his activities to Point Loma, where he kept the Coast Guard boats running during World War II.

A picture of CASE tractors, from left to right. A1957 - 500 diesel, 1955 - 400 Diesel, 1963 - 430 Diesel, 1929 Model 'C', 1936 Model 'L'. In front a one quarter size of a CASE 65 traction engine not complete yet, a one sixth size of a CASE 65 traction engine and a one sixth size of a 28-50 CASE separator.

Mr. Bill and Joe Fischer of Thorp, Wise, own the 500, 400, 430, Model 'C', and the ? size steam engine. The one sixth size steam engine and separator are owned by Mr. Richard Fischer of Greendale, Wise, my brother. I own the CASE Model 'L'. The two boys on the 400 and Model 'C' are my sons.

From Ira Robbins' home, on Brant Street in San Diego, there is a fine view of San Diego Bay. As we sat in his garden, jets constantly flew in low overhead, coming in for Lindbergh Field and drowning out our conversation. Many people in that area write letters to the editor complaining of the noise. Although his hearing is perfectly good, Mr. Robbins showed no sign of annoyance. After all, even in retirement, he is an engine man.

(The writer, Charles R. La Dow, is a member of Early Day Gas Engine and Tractor Ass'n., Southern California Chapter, Branch No. 9. He has on hand a 1928 Caterpillar Tractor and a Maytag washing machine engine of about the same vintage.)