How I Got Started On Engines and What Keeps Me Here

Delco light plant

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70 Hurlbut Road Mexico, New York 13114 JR504@aol.com

About two years ago I visited a tractor and engine show in South Dayton, NewYork, with a good friend of mine (and fellow old tractor owner), Norm Ziegler. It was several hours from home, and we went there mainly because they had antique tractor pulls, something neither of us had ever seen before, both of us being former city folks and fairly new to tractors. There were quite a few tractor pullers in attendance, and we spent a considerable amount of time in the morning wandering around looking at the different tractors and pulling setups.

While waiting for the pulls to start, we took a walk through the engine display area. Norm and I had never had any exposure to these strange-looking things before, and really had no idea what we were looking at. There was an older gentleman there (I wish I had gotten his name) with a JD 1? HP and a little Maytag sitting in the back of his old pickup. He was very friendly and quite talkative about his engines. I had a million questions and this looked like the ideal place to get a quick education. Norm was less interested in this stuff and wandered off after a short while. I spent the next ninety minutes talking with this gentleman about old farm engines, hit and miss governing, throttle governing, open and closed crankcases, water hoppers and oilers. He took me around the display a little to show me examples of what he was talking about. It was quite the experience. I left the show hooked, bitten badly by the engine bug.

I didn't know anyone else that was into engines. I didn't know of any local clubs, or of any other shows I could attend. I had no idea where to find one, but I had to have one. I carried a couple of pictures from the show around with me, and started asking friends, students and co-workers if they had ever seen old engines like these, and if they knew where one could be found. My persistence paid off. I had recently started a new teaching job at the local state college, and one of the other automotive instructors there was an Indian motorcycle collector. He said he knew where there were a few engines sitting in a barn where he bought his last bike. He didn't know what they were, but he was sure the owner would part with them for a reasonable price.

Within a few days we were there. We found three Delco light plants in various states of disrepair. Two of them were stuck, and the third was free and appeared complete. The owner said it had run about 15 years ago, but wouldn't start now; the other two had been stuck since he'd acquired them. They weren't exactly what I was looking for. I really wanted something that looked like what I had seen, two flywheels, a water hopper, etc., but I had to start some place. I bought them and took them home. I had never heard of a light plant before. I had no idea what they were, of how they operated. I turned to the Internet for help.

A quick search turned up quite a bit of information. I found out what they were used for, and even a few places to buy parts. I called one of them, Wayne Spahr (Dr. Delco), down in Pennsylvania. I was in need of service information if I was going to repair them properly, but I had no idea what I had, let alone how they worked. Mr. Spahr suggested I send him pictures of them and serial numbers and he would help me identify them. Then he could get me the proper repair manuals. I found out I was the proud owner of a Model 850, Model 1260 and a Model 1278, all made between 1910 and 1935. The 1260 was in the best shape. Between the service manuals and extra advice from Dr. Delco, I was able to tear it down for inspection and have it running in very short order. It needed a little wiring repair to make the generator charge normally (mouse damage), but other than that it was very straightforward preservation. I mounted it on a reinforced pallet along with a bank of batteries and was set to go. This is the engine I bring to all the shows. It starts, runs and charges flawlessly.

My 1278 has been more of a challenge. I have been doing a very careful restoration on it, and have spent a bit more time hunting for parts and repairing other pieces. The 850 is a long term project. It is still stuck badly.

I attended my first engine show as an exhibitor last summer (June 2000). I had no idea what to expect with my simple display. I set up a small table that had a photo album with 'rescue and restoration' photos, and two 32V bulbs lit by my running Delco. I was pleasantly surprised by the response I got from show spectators.

It's no secret that Delcos are not the most interesting engines to have on display. Their great cast iron cooling fins, exposed rockers, and long pushrods are all covered by cooling shrouds. There's nothing to see except a spinning flywheel. They are generally ignored by fellow engine enthusiasts, probably for this reason.

Regardless, I had a great response from show attendees. It seems everyone had a Delco story. So many people seemed happy to see one running again, and they all stopped to tell me what they remembered. I heard stories from ladies who remembered having them on the farm, and men who were put in charge of running them, and maintaining the batteries when they were boys as young as age ten. I had a fairly steady stream of visitors at nearly every show I attended, and many of them stopped to talk. From my point of view, this is what it's all about. These engines we drag around to all these shows have such rich histories, for me to hear stories from the people who experienced them firsthand, and to see the gleam in their eyes as they relate their experiences, is priceless. In my short time as an engine guy I've noticed few things seem to grab the attention of the 'regular folks' like the Delco. Over the summer I added a Stover CT-2 and then an old water pump to my display, but they don't seem to stir the same interest.

I'm still looking for engines (isn't everyone?), I'd love to find a small Hercules or maybe a Witte--they look nice. But no matter what engines I end up with, I'll probably never stop bringing along the boring-looking Delco. The stories and conversation it brings me in a weekend I would not want to miss, and hopefully those stories will keep coming.

I'm still pretty new to this engine stuff, having only participated in eight or ten shows in one season, but I'm a dedicated fan. The engine folks I have met this past year have been a great bunch! They are friendly and helpful and treat everyone like they've known them forever. Without exception, everyone I met has done his best to help me and make me feel welcome.

My buddy Norm still hasn't 'seen the light.' He doesn't understand my newfound fascination with engines. He did attend one show with me last year, but he still liked the tractors best. I guess there's no helping some folks.