Advocate for Air-Cooled Engines

Iowa man dedicated to educating the next generation of collectors with air-cooled engines.

Sam Ruth Air Cooled Engine Collection

A portion of Sam Ruth’s air-cooled engine collection on display at the 2013 Midwest Old Threshers Reunion.

Photo by Sam Ruth

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Sam Ruth is not new to old iron. Born in 1949, he started attending the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, in 1950 with his parents, who were deeply involved with the show. “My brother, my nephew, my whole family have always been involved with Old Threshers,” he says. “It’s always been a part of my life.”

He got his first engine, a rough 3/4 HP Briggs & Stratton, when he was about 10 years old. He spent his 20s in the military, and when he returned he decided to get serious about collecting. Thirty years later, his collection is more than 50 strong.

Thanks to his lifetime of exposure to the hobby, Sam’s on a mission: get the younger generation interested. Through his collection of air-cooled engines, he wants to bridge the gap between the “old” technology of hit-and-miss engines and the technology in modern internal combustion engines. “With new tractors you need a computer to see what’s wrong,” he says. “I can listen to an old engine and tell you what’s wrong.”

Sure, Sam admits, he’d love to have a few hit-and-miss engines, but because of the cost and space they just aren’t feasible options. So the focus of his collection is on older air-cooled engines. “These engines are very primitive compared to today’s engines,” Sam says, “but there are similarities. But with these air-cooled engines, younger people can look at them and see how they relate to today’s engines. It gets attraction and attention from people.”

And Sam knows a thing or two about getting attention, having worked in marketing and also working for John Deere. The key, he says, is having a plan.

“I know the size of the frames, then make a formula to make them fit,” Sam says. He even uses a protractor to get the angles just right. “People always say, ‘Your display catches our eye.’ And it’s because I utilize my space.”

Sam continues his family’s legacy of collecting by engaging his grandsons in the hobby. “Dalton pulls the plugs and helps change oil before shows,” he says. “Brandon keeps ahead with the dust rag.” Sam says it took seven or eight hours to get the ten engines he displayed in 2013 ready. “Gotta have the country music break, an ice cream break, a Pepsi break.”

Sam’s collection includes a very rare 1938 3 HP NOVO engine, which he acquired from a collector in Minnesota. The engine is one of only 700 made (Sam’s is number 572), and he says no one’s ever seen one so it’s usually a good talking point. Another stand-out in Sam’s collection is a 1933 Briggs & Stratton prototype hand-crank Model A.

None of Sam’s engines ran when he acquired them. But that doesn’t mean he is buying whatever he sees. “I go to a lot of shows, flea markets,” he says. “I’m picky about what I buy. I can appraise within a minute. Does it run? What’s the condition? Mechanical stuff. If the price is right I’ll buy it. I keep my eyes open.”

Sam remains steadfast in his goals though. “If what I do here with the younger generation, even if it’s just getting them to try and keep a lawn mower engine going — then I did my job,” he says. “My display catches a person’s eye, but it also gets interest once someone is looking. I’m looking out for the next generation. I try to be organized, visit with everyone, put in the effort, knowledge and personality.”

Contact Sam Ruth at 1107 E. Linden Dr., Apt. 203, Mt. Pleasant, IA 52641 • (319) 217-9963

Beth Beavers is the associate editor at Farm Collector and Gas Engine Magazine. Contact her by email at or find her on .