Bigger is Better

Collector hits paydirt with interest in oil field engines


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Oil field engine collector Steve Cox of Perrysburg, Ohio, started out small. "I started with a 1-1/2 HP International engine, then something a little bigger. Then I thought, 'Why not bigger; why not the big oil field engines?'"

This turn of the century Olin 4-cycle natural gas engine was built primarily for use in oil field applications, mostly powering pumping centers for oil production. It was built in Titusville, Pa., in 1897 or 1898; the patent for this type engine was filed in 1894 and issued in 1896. "This engine was probably installed on an oil lease in the northern part of Wood County or possibly in Sandusky County, Ohio," says Steve.

Pumping for black gold

Around 1898, the Olin powered a large 16-foot wooden band wheel (this band wheel is the one used at the Wood County Historical Museum, Bowling Green, Ohio, to demonstrate oil well pumping). There were 12 oil wells operated off that lease, seven wells on one farm and the remaining five on another farm; this engine could probably pump about eight oil wells maximum. "The farthest well was almost 3/4 mile away from the pump," says Steve. "You can imagine how heavy 3/4 mile of shackle rod would be to move back and forth plus pumping the oil well." All oil wells being pumped would have a pump jack and shackle rod connected to the band wheel to provide the pumping action. This engine and the 16-foot wooden band wheel were probably in use until the 1950s or 1960s; no good records exist.


Manufactured: Titusville, Pa.
Horsepower: 20
Year: 1898
Serial number: 1823
Weight: 7,500 pounds
Normal RPM: 180-200
Show RPM: 25-30
Bore: 10-1/2-inch
Stroke: 20-inch
Flywheel width: 6 inches
Flywheel diameter: 68 inches
Belt pulley: 16 inches in diameter, 11 inches wide
Fuel: oil well natural gas; now propane
Compression ratio: 4.5-to-1 or 5-to-1 (estimate)

Getting it back in shape

"This Olin engine was removed from the oil lease 10 to 15 years ago, I bought it in the fall of 2003 from another local engine collector," says Steve. "I started working on it in the spring of 2005 and by fall, except for the water circulating system, I had it pretty much finished and took it to several shows." During these shows the head gasket would keep blowing on the valve chest body. Steve says, "I removed the valve chest body and found it to be warped; I machined it on my horizontal milling machine, re-installed it and found that the problem was solved." Steve has a small machine shop in his engine restoration shed.

"During this same time period I modified the frame to make it narrower so it would fit on my trailer properly," says Steve. "The 'I' beams were cut and 8 inches were removed from each beam. They were re-welded and then a new out-board bearing support was fabricated and installed." A water-circulating tank was added and plumbed into the original water pump located at the end of the crankshaft. This was more for demonstration as the engine runs very cool when being operated just for show use.

A little help

"Rotating the crank and flywheels even with the connecting rod disconnected was quite a task, so I decided that a pony motor of some type would be needed," says Steve. The small engines in his collection were either too big or too small and would have to be restored before they could be used. He decided the best way was to buy a new 7 HP Briggs & Stratton engine with a gear reduction. The pony engine assembly was mounted on a sliding frame with a foot pedal that engages a small solid rubber tire against the flywheel. According to Steve, "At full power the pony motor will turn the flywheels about 35 RPM, which is just about right." The 4-cycle Olin valve mechanism can be set to partially skip the first compression cycle and reduce compression cycles thereafter. This gives about three rotations for the flywheels to get to a reasonable speed for ignition to take over. With the pony motor installed the Olin can easily be started.

The particulars

"The compression ratio of the Olin is about 4-1/2-to-1 or 5-to-1; this is relatively low compared to today's standards," says Steve. It has a 10-1/2- inch bore and a 20-inch stroke; the flywheels are 68 inches in diameter and almost 6 inches wide. "The flywheels, crank and clutch assembly weighs 3,400 pounds, which is why a pony motor is needed just to get that mass spinning." The belt pulley is 16 inches in diameter and 11 inches wide, and it has a built in clutch controlled by a lever so power to the belt wheel could be stopped. The serial number of the engine is 1823 and matches other numbers on the engine.

The tank you see under the engine is an accumulating tank that provides a volume of natural gas, or propane in this case, ahead of the intake cycle. For normal, or slow idle operation, a tank of this size would not be necessary. "If the engine was working under a load then a typical tank should have a volume three to four times than that of the engine displacement," Steve says.

The gasometer

"The small tank you see in front of the engine is called a 'gasometer,' which performs some of the functions of an accumulating tank. But in addition, it serves as a kind of pressure regulator for the natural gas coming from the well to provide fuel for the engine," Steve says. The gasometer consists of two cans, the upper can fitting inside of the lower can. Inside the lower can are two gas pipes that extend through the bottom about three-quarters of the way to the top. The lower can was filled about halfway with a liquid, crude oil during the oil pumping days, and with water today. The upper can is slid into the lower can with the water providing a seal to prevent gas leakage. The top can is connected to a gas valve, and as the gas comes in the top half as it is raised up. As it comes up, the gas valve is closed accordingly. Therefore you have an accumulator tank and a simple gas regulator. "The gasometer is not being used right now," says Steve. "I have it there for show so I can demonstrate how it used to work."

Keeping it cool

The water-circulating pump on the Olin is driven off the end of the crankshaft. Several methods were used for engine cooling. One was to pump the salt brine coming from the oil well through the engine and out into some type of ditch or drain. This method greatly reduced engine life due to corrosion or the plugging up of the internal water passages of the engine. A natural spring could be used or even drilling a water well if there was just no other water. Another way was to bury a barrel in the ground so the water would not freeze in the winter; the water pump circulated this water through the engine for cooling.

What's next?

"I started collecting when I was in my early 30s and like a lot of other people - who collect engines I started with 1-1/2 HP engines Fairbanks, International, John Deere and so on," says Steve. From there it slowly grew; a 1-1/2 horse was nice, a 3 HP would be better, or how about a 5 HP? This led to tracing down some of the larger oil field engines. "Once I got into restoring these engines the history behind them became just as important to me as the restoration. It was intriguing to me to find out how and where they were used," says Steve. "The ingenuity that people had 100 years ago to create and build something is unbelievable. Showing your collection is fun, but I like the challenge of restoring it and getting whatever it is to function like it did 100 years ago.

"This 20 HP Olin is the biggest operating engine that I have," says Steve, "I have a 1912 25 HP Superior sideshaft but it is still undergoing restoration after many years." There are several oil field engines and other projects sitting off to the side waiting more time. These include a 10 HP Spang 2-cycle, a 7-1/2 HP Kootz combination with the pump mechanism built right into the engine and designed to pump two oil wells, a 20 HP 4-cycle S.M. Jones, and a very early Ball half-breed with a curved spoke flywheel, probably an 1885 or thereabouts. "These are future projects," Steve admits.

Steve Cox, Perrysburg, Ohio can be contacted at: and visit

Contact Don Voelker at: 5511 Kimberley Road, Ft. Wayne, IN 46809-2140