Rescuing a 12 HP Olds Engine

12 HP Olds engine lives on after disastrous accident.
By Bill Vossler
October/November 2013

Ole Elden’s circa 1910 12 HP Type 6A Olds gasoline engine’s hopper and front end. One of the selling points for this model was that, with the obvious exception of the flywheels, most of its moving parts are hidden. Visible here on the left side of the black exhaust pipe is the carburetor and a small reservoir for starting gasoline. The small pipe and hand valve at the very bottom at left are for draining the gas tank, which is cast into the base of the engine. There is no fuel pump.
Photo By Bill Vossler
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If anybody would end up as a collector of old iron, it would be Ole Elden, who grew up surrounded by vast collections that his father put together. “My father collected tractors, steam engines, threshing machines, had a saw mill on the farm built from parts that he brought back from Norway, a museum with more than 2,000 small articles, and of course about 30 gas engines. We grew up with old stuff in sheds all over the place,” the 64-year-old Thief River Falls, Minnesota, collector says.

The museum was open every Sunday from May 15 to Oct. 15. “But we were kind of off the beaten path, so we didn’t get a lot of people coming out to see it,” Ole says. “My parents didn’t charge enough to keep the lights on. A lot of the items were in my dad’s family, and there was a joke about how his side of the family came from a long line of pack rats. They never threw anything away.”

Ole’s father, Alf, also held the Red River Steam Threshing Bee on the family farm from 1955-1972, exchanging old iron items with the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers’ Reunion at Rollag, Minnesota, for the chance to have some handmade steam traction engine models at his show.

Unfortunately, after Alf died in 1978 and farming became more difficult, most of the old iron had to be sold to keep the farmland in the family. Ole made the decision to keep a few special items, like a 1936 Farmers Union CO-OP No. 3 tractor that his father bought new, a 1941 Minneapolis-Moline GTS that his father and uncle bought new, and a 1912 Model F Rumely OilPull that his grandfather purchased new in 1912. “They have been in the family all the time,” Ole says. “So we have a few memories around.”

Olds 12 HP gasoline engine

One of those memories includes a rare 12 HP Olds gasoline engine, manufactured in 1910 or 1911 by Seager Engine Works, Lansing, Mich. Nameplate information identifies it as Self Contained Olds Engine No. 6 Type A 12 HP Shop No. F 5346, which has the latest patent date of April 6, 1909. The engine came from Mekinock, N.D., about a dozen miles west of Grand Forks. It had been used on a feed mill in the grain elevator there.

Some time in the late 1960s an elderly man told Alf about this 12 HP Olds. “People knew Dad collected stuff, so they would ask if he would be interested, and he was in that engine,” Ole says. “It was an unusual engine, quite rare around this part of the country anyway, and we hadn’t seen one before.”

Like many acquired pieces of old iron, once the engine was safe on the home farm it languished amidst everything else that had to be done, including the time-consuming Threshing Bee and other old iron to be restored. “When Dad got a good deal on engines he got them, and they weren’t always restored right away,” Ole says. And some of them — like this Olds — were never restored.

Sometime in the ‘60s or ‘70s, Ole’s brother Karl had plans to restore the engine, so he took it apart. But before he could finish the project he left for college. So by 1979, when the old iron had to be sold, the Olds was still in pieces. “Pieces were scattered around, and by the auction sale time we decided to hang onto that one, even though it had never been reassembled or restored,” Ole says.

“We hadn’t had it running yet, and we wanted to get it going, so my older brother, Allan, from Washington, decided to load up all the pieces and take them back with him.” Allan also took an old 4 HP International Harvester screen-cooled engine.

Over the next few years, Allan worked on the engine. The piston was stuck and mice had gotten inside, so the valve cages and valves had to be taken out, cleaned up and the valves ground.

“Allan was going to replace the rings, but its very wide rings were hard to come by,” Ole says. “He found some half the width, and put two in each groove as a substitute. But the grooves were worn, and the rings clattered, so he put the old rings back. So there’s a lot of blow-by, and the machine doesn’t have the power it should have.”

A small gear on the crankshaft that runs the pushrod that activates the exhaust valve was worn out and had to be replaced, so Allan made a gear out of brass. Ole says he wishes he would have machined one out of steel because of wear, but he’s quick to admit it hasn’t worn as much as he thought it would. “It’s all enclosed under the cover of the crankcase, with no external gearing on this engine and very few moving parts. That was one of their claims to fame,” Ole says.

Ole explains how the engine works: “The spring to the left of the hopper is for the intake valve. A bracket at the bottom of the spring moves up and increases tension on the spring when the exhaust valve is held open. The rod that pushes the bracket up is connected (through a tube inside the water jacket) to the exhaust rocker arm below the cylinder. So as the exhaust valve opens, more tension is put on the intake valve spring, holding it shut during the miss part of the hit-and-miss operation. When the engine slows down, the exhaust valve closes, tension returns to normal on the intake valve, and it is drawn open by the vacuum created in the cylinder by the piston moving back toward the bottom of the stroke. With the intake now opening, a fresh charge of fuel and air is drawn into the combustion chamber. As the crankshaft rotates, bringing the piston forward, the mixture is compressed and ignition takes place just before the piston comes to the end of its travel.

“The governor, located in one of the flywheels, not only controls the valve position, but also allows ignition only when it needs to have speed increased,” Ole continues. “When speed increases to the predetermined setting, ignition is cut off, the intake valve is held shut and the exhaust valve is open so the engine does not have to work against compression. Olds said in their advertising that with this type of governor, the engine will automatically shut down rather than ‘racing’ or ‘running away’ if a spring breaks or any part of the governor fails.”

The water jacket is detachable for easy replacement if it freezes. The 12 HP was the second-largest engine made at Seager, behind their 20 HP Olds. The engine, which has a bore and stroke of 7 by 9 inches, was designed to run at 375 RPM. “The crank handle is recessed into the side of the rim of one of the flywheels, so to start it you have to flip that handle out to crank it,” Ole says. “When it starts, it is supposed to fly back into the flywheel, but sometimes you have to help it back with your hand. Or your foot.” The flywheels are 38-1/2 inches in diameter.

Eventually Allan got the machine completely restored, and in 1992 he decided to bring the engine back from Kent, Wash., to the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers’ Reunion, along with the 4 HP IHC engine.

The stuff of nightmares

Allan and his wife, Bonnie, were hauling the engines on a trailer hitched to the back of their large motor home. The trailer had just had its tires replaced.

“They were driving near Ellensburg, Wash., when the most frightening thing happened,” Ole says. “They were going down a steep hill when the trailer with the engines mounted on it began fishtailing, broke the hitch and came loose from the motor home.”

Allan and Bonnie watched with horror as the trailer passed in front of them on the highway, then crossed the median and the other two lanes before landing in a deep ravine.

Luckily, there was no oncoming traffic. The tongue of the trailer ended up stuck in the ground, and the Olds engine had sheared off the bolts holding it to the trailer. The engine had flipped over, end over end, and the top of the water hopper and the flywheels had scraped on the ground. The engine, which had to be retrieved from the ravine by a wrecker, was ruined. Allan had the engines hauled to Ellensburg, where he retrieved them on the way back home from Minnesota.

“I was expecting both engines to come back to Minnesota, and when he showed up, I said, ‘Where are the engines?’” Ole says. “He said, ‘I lost them out in Washington.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding!’ But he showed me a picture of the damaged engines, and I could hardly believe it. I wasn’t sure if it meant the end of the Olds engine or what.”

But miracles do happen. Allan picked up the broken engines on his way back home, where he and his stepson set about restoring the Olds. Two flywheel spokes were broken, so repairing them was a major problem. “In order to weld the spokes, Allan had to heat the flywheel because it’s a large amount of cast iron,” Ole explains. “Otherwise the flywheel might crack in other places. He got that done and put it back together, and today there’s just a slight wobble in it. Maybe the crank is bent just slightly, but it runs fine. It starts very easily. Just take the small plug out of the carburetor and pour less than a cup of gas, hook up a battery and coil (it doesn’t have its own magneto, and never did), put the choke on, and when you turn the flywheel it starts easily, with no trouble.”

Allan decided to overhaul the timing mechanism on the engine, but, as Ole says, he messed it up. “It took me a long time to get it figured out again, but now it’s pretty close,” he says. “I’m still not sure it’s 100 percent of what it should be. A timing mechanism like that one is hard to figure out because there are so many adjustments that are possible, and we don’t know how it was supposed to be set.”

Ole wonders if the machine didn’t have some kind of accident before the Washington fiasco. “Not all the parts match up,” he says. “Some of the parts say 7A, when the engine is a 6A. They were all on there before we got the engine, so they must have taken parts off a different engine and put them on there, the crankcase cover for one. The brass nametag isn’t the original one.” The Type A designation meant it was a closed-jacket engine.

One flywheel has an 18-inch diameter belt pulley bolted directly on the flywheel, made for using a 6-inch-wide belt, doubtless used when the machine ran the feed mill in the grain elevator at Mekinock all those years ago.

According to Ole, the 12 HP Olds has several unique and unusual features. A swinging pendulum making electrical contact for the ignition is on a pushrod that holds tension on the intake valve to keep it shut while the exhaust valve is held open. Ole says it is one of the few engines he’s seen that has this pendulum style of make-and-break ignition.

Another unique feature is the lack of a fuel pump: The gas tank is built into the cast iron base, and the suction of the piston draws gas up into the carburetor. The cylinder has no head, and the water jacket has a separate cover with a gasket over the end where the head would normally be.

After the 12 HP Olds finally came down to Rollag, Ole’s original idea was to bring the engine back home after the WMSTR season. “I had a half-ton pickup, and discovered it was way too heavy to load in the pickup,” he says, “so I asked if I could leave it there, and they were gracious enough to make room in their building, and it’s still there.”

Ole says he enjoys tinkering with engines, restoring them and running them. His favorite of his stationary engines is this 12 HP Olds. “I enjoy it most because it is so unique and quite rare,” he says. “I don’t get to a lot of shows, but I haven’t ever seen another 12 HP Olds engine.”

His son Jon found a reprint of a catalog for the Seager engines, with the 12 HP engine being the first one listed in the booklet. It made a great Christmas gift for Ole.

Ole regrets not having kept some of the 17 gas tractors, five steam engines and six threshing machines, along with the sawmill and various other items, from his father’s farm. But when it came time to choose between those items and the home farm, the choice was much easier, and he will always be glad they kept the 12 HP Olds.

“When people read the story of the accident, which we have posted by the engine, they marvel at how nice it looks, and are impressed that it is in as good of shape as it is.”

Contact Bill Vossler at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369 • bvossler@juno.com 


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