California Gold

A Private Exhibition Highlights Engines Made Along the California Coast

West Coast Engines

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An amazing lineup of rare California-built engines, including a 15 HP Western (left), a 15 HP Commercial (center) and a huge 42 HP Commercial (right). The Western line of engines, made by the Western Gas Engine Co., Los Angeles, Calif., were popularly used in city power plants across California. The Commercial Engine Co., also located in Los Angeles, is thought to have started up around 1905. Little is known about the company today.

On May 10-12, 2002, Georgia and Bob Critz hosted an exposition of rare, California-made engines at their ranch in Vista, Calif. In addition to Bob's extremely rare Stearns and West Coast engines, various friends brought an additional 13 California-made engines for this little get together.

The engine exposition was a huge success. Three Sterne Bros. West Coast engines, manufactured in San Diego, Calif., were present, including a 2-1/2 HP engine, serial number 77, owned by Bob Critz. Another, later West Coast engine with high tension Webster magneto was shown by Bob Hemphill.

Bob Critz also exhibited his very early Stearns (not to be confused with the Sterne Bros. West Coast engines) gas engine, manufactured in Los Angeles. Bob's Stearns engine represents one of only three known, and it's also the only Stearns engine in running condition. Very little is known about the Stearns engine line, but their design suggests them to have been made very early in the evolution of the internal combustion engine, likely around the turn of the century. At least one source lists the company as having formed in 1907.

Bob Critz's Stearns (far left), one of only three known, and two West Coast engines made by the Sterne Bros., San Diego, Calif.

Four early Western gas engines, manufactured by the Western Gas Engine Co., Los Angeles, Calif., were present. All four were 7 HP models manufactured sometime around 1907 to 1908, and this assembly of Western's represented two-thirds of known 7 HP Western engines. Ed Cooksey, Bill Peterson, Dick Bouma and Mike Tyler brought the Western engines to the show, and host Bob Critz also exhibited a beautiful 25 HP Western.

Two early-style Samsons and a late-style Samson, all manufactured in Stockton, Calif., were also shown. The early-style models were a 4 HP and 5 HP shown by Dick Bouma and John Ficke, and I brought along the late-style, a 3 HP engine.

John Ficke's early-style 5 HP Samson made by Samson Iron Works, Stockton, Calif. The company is thought to have begun operations around 1898.

A very early 1891, 2 HP vertical Pacific Gas Engine Co. vapor engine made in San Francisco, Calif., was shown. Owned by Anton Affentranger, it was brought to the show by Greg Johnson, who ran the engine briefly to demonstrate how it can run off the gas fumes from the gasoline tank. The Pacific Gas Engine Co. was a predecessor of the Onion Gas Engine Co.

Bob Critz also exhibited and ran his two Los Angeles-manufactured Commercial engines, a 15 HP engine and a huge 42 HP engine. Commercial Engine Co., Los Angeles, Calif., is thought to have started building engines around 1905. Other exhibitors included Don Decker, who brought his 8 HP 1898 Fairbanks-Morse Standard and an extremely rare partial Mery engine made in Chico, Calif., and Jim Church with his 1935 Huppmobile automobile.

To top it all off, the Critz family served up excellent meals for the exhibitors and guests. On Saturday, Bill Baldwin prepared his famous Dutch oven, slow-cooked roast beef and potatoes with accompanied Dutch oven apple and peach cobblers. And Bill Peterson established the proper ambiance for this great meal, serving his famous Peterson Zinfandel wine. Truly, a meal to remember.

All told, a unique gathering of rare - and rarely seen - West Coast engines.

Contact engine enthusiast Mike Tyler at: 320 S. Locust St., Ridgecrest, CA 93555, or e-mail: