A History of Atlas Engines

A history of Atlas engines written by the late Glenn Karch.

Atlas King Bee engine

Keith Kinney’s 1907 4 hp Atlas King Bee.

Photo courtesy Keith Kinney

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Regular readers well remember engine enthusiast and Hercules Gas Engine Co. historian Glenn Karch, whose regular installments of Hercules Engine News appeared in Gas Engine Magazine for 14 years. Glenn had a particular interest in Indiana-made engines, including the Atlas Engine Works of Indianapolis, Indiana. Presented here is a history of Atlas written by Glenn before he passed away in 2009. Never published in Gas Engine Magazine, it was recently brought to my attention by Glenn’s good friend Keith Kinney, who maintains Hercules Engines, a website devoted to Glenn’s interest in Hercules products. – Editor

Atlas introduction

The Atlas engine story began for me on Feb. 9, 1974. That is when I spied flywheels through a small woods some two or three miles west of where I live. Naturally, I drove back to the farm to see what was there. Knowing that the farm owner was deceased, I went to see a son of his who lived nearby. He farmed the place now. I traded him two sacks of Pioneer seed corn for the engine, a 2 hp vertical Atlas King Bee engine made by the Atlas Engine Works of Indianapolis, Indiana.

The engine was rusted, but appeared to be complete, with an extra pulley hanging on the top. Being rather new in the gas engine hobby, I had never heard of an Atlas engine before. I sent in a couple of pictures to Gas Engine Magazine along with a short story, and it appeared in the July/August 1975 issue. From that article I received two responses. One was from Ross Steiner near St Louis, Missouri. He had a 4 hp horizontal Atlas King Bee engine. Mine also had the King Bee tag. We corresponded several times, and eventually I visited them. On January 11, 1990, I was able to purchase his Atlas engine. The other response I received told of an 8 hp Atlas King Bee belonging to Gilbert Merry in the state of Washington.

Atlas Engine Works

The three engines mentioned above were the only ones I knew about. Information on them was scarce to nonexistent. Ross Steiner had some information, but it was primarily about the similar but later Krueger-Atlas engines made in San Antonio, Texas. Eventually, I made a trip to Indianapolis to visit museums and libraries to find Atlas information. There was little to find other than the factory location and some brief history notes. There were some steam engine catalogs, but not a word about the gasoline engines.

The company began in 1872 as the Indianapolis Car and Machine Works. Two years later, it was reorganized as the Atlas Works. In 1878 it was again reorganized into the Atlas Engine Works. It was located on 65 acres of land near 19th Street and Columbia Street. 19th Street and Martindale Street is also mentioned. A trip to the area revealed a deteriorating industrial site with some old brick buildings, vacant areas and some metal buildings with not much sign of activity anywhere. I found a note somewhere relating to a rail car lost in the engine works facilities for a week until it was located.

The company built industrial steam engines and prided themselves with being able to provide rather compact, complete units, ready to install. Nowhere is there any reference to the gas engines produced there. The only clue is the tag on the existing gas engines that states, “Atlas Engine Works, Indianapolis, USA.”

Apparently, gas engines were in the works by 1898. A hand-hole cover on one of my vertical engines has a pattern date on the back of it. I have a copy of a magazine ad from June 1906 and an 8-page leaflet dated May 1907.

According to limited information, the company was recapitalized in 1902, but with a declining steam engine market, the company went into receivership in 1907. Production of the steam engines and the 1-cylinder gas engines apparently ended by 1909. In 1910, C.C. Krueger of San Antonio, Texas, purchased the gas engine assets and moved them to Texas and began engine production in 1911. He owned SAMSCO (San Antonio Machine & Supply Co.). It would seem that Krueger was interested because he apparently was one of the main sales outlets for the Indianapolis Atlas company. There were already several Atlas engines in Texas. They were renamed Krueger-Atlas and there appears to be comingling of Atlas and identical Krueger-Atlas parts on some of the resulting engines.

With the demise of the steam and gas engine business, the Indianapolis facilities gave rise to the Atlas-Lyon diesel engines, the Atlas-Knight car and the Midwest Utilitor small tractor. These industries used parts of the facilities until they themselves disappeared.

Survivors

Of the Indianapolis-built gasoline engines, about 20 are currently known to exist, all within the 26,000 to 32,000 serial number range. From limited data, the 6,000 serial number range doesn’t mean 6,000 were made, because steam engine serial numbers appear to be comingled with these.

The Atlas gasoline engines were well built for commercial and industrial use. They were advertised as “no cranking.” After intaking fuel, they could be kicked back against compression and they would fire and start easily. All required an auxiliary cooling system. At this time, there is no indication that they were available as portables other than the fact that the King Bee version had the fuel tank in the base rather than remote.

Once the facilities, equipment and parts were moved to San Antonio, production of the Krueger-Atlas engines was begun there. Some engines produced there had Atlas on the cylinder, but others had the Krueger-Atlas tag. One even has the Indianapolis Atlas tag with the San Antonio serial number. Parts already made at Indianapolis were likely used until the supply ran out, and then more were made at San Antonio. Likely about 40 of these engines still exist, all falling between 5,000 and 5,750 serial numbers.

All the Indianapolis engines use an igniter and were hit-and-miss. Some of those made in Texas used a Webster magneto system, and there were some throttling governed ones, too.

Special thanks to Keith Kinney for supplying Glenn Karch’s Atlas history and images. Check his website at Hercules Engines.


Keith Kinney’s 1907 4 hp Atlas King Bee

Manufacturer: Atlas Engine Works
Year: 1907
Serial number: 29711
Horsepower: 4 hp @ 425 rpm
Bore & stroke: 5in x 8in
Weight: 1,300lb (approx.)
Flywheel dia.: 36in
Flywheel width: 2.25in
Ignition: Make-and-break
Governing: Hit-and-miss

Engine enthusiast Keith Kinney bought the 1907 4 hp Atlas King Bee featured here from Glenn Karch’s widow, Marian, after Glenn passed away in 2009. According to Keith, both Glenn and the previous owner had a difficult time getting it to run properly, so Glenn had the late Ted Brookover look it over. Ted found that the trip shaft in the igniter was a few thousands of an inch too tight, and when the engine heated up it would bind. The fix involved reaming the igniter body so the shaft would turn smoothly. Keith says that Glenn was responsible for the engine’s unique cooling tank, a repurposed Holyoke hot water heater of similar vintage.

“I really like the style of the engine,” Keith says of the 4 hp King Bee. “I think it’s a beautiful engine and has beautiful lines.” Keith says that part of his motivation to buy the engine was simply to make sure it stayed in the area. When Keith bought the 4 hp, he also bought one of Glenn’s 2 hp vertical King Bee engines.