Clift Motor Company

From 1913 through the 1930s, the small-scale Clift Motor Company was somewhat remarkable for its longevity.

4 HP Clift engines

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4 HP Clift engines waiting for final assembly at the Clift factory. An educated guess places this photo at about 1918, when Cliffs small engine sales were booming.

Brass nameplate for a Clift engine. This plate is stamped 5 HP, even though that size engine was never listed. The engine for this plate, if it ever existed, is long gone.

As collectors of stationary and marine engines are well aware, small, low production engine companies abounded across the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century. As the knowledge and usefulness of gasoline engines expanded, so did the number of companies making a bid to enter a potentially profitable industry. Most of these companies, however, were not only low production operations but were short lived, as well.

The Clift Motor Company of Bellingham, Wash., was one such small-scale organization, but it was somewhat remarkable in terms of its longevity. From its beginnings in 1913 and through the 1930s, the firm turned out a variety of marine engines ranging from 4 HP to 100 HP, building as many as 5,000 to 10,000 engines, although the exact figure is unknown.

Clift Engines

Large, multi-cylinder Clift engines featured post construction and were produced in the open crosshead (also referred to as a 'T' head) form. They featured crankshaft splash shields and could be furnished with air starters. In the first five years of production the company emphasized its heavier engine lines, but after 1918 production of its smaller engine line boomed, with smaller engines produced at a rate of approximately 60 units per month. These smaller engines were produced in 4 HP and 7 HP sizes, and cylinders could be doubled to yield 8 HP or 15 HP. Clift engines used Model T Ford pistons, connecting rods and valves. The economy of this practice meant the smallest engines could be sold for $150, including clutch and propeller.

In addition to being sold under the company name, many Clift engines were jobbed out and sold as other marques, such as 'Standard Kid and Fish Skiff Special.' In his advertising for Clift engines, plant manager Comely Clift reminded potential customers that the company deserved credit for having built far more engines than those actually bearing the Clift trade name. As one ad stated: 'We realize further that we have overlooked the advantage in failing to properly identify our trade name in the production of the hundreds of engines now in service.'

Push for Numbers

Introduction of the smaller Clift engines coincided with a company announcement in 1919 that it was about to 'enter a vigorous campaign ... to establish (the Clift) trademark and the quality of the engines in the minds of the boat owners of the country.' The company, according to the December 1919 issue of Pacific Motorboat Magazine, was 'undoubtedly the largest plant on the Pacific Coast devoted exclusively to small engine production.' With an eye to increasing sales, the company advertisements reminded readers that, 'Some good territory is still open to responsible agents,' as well as the less restrictive 'Live Agents Wanted.'

Despite the economic slump that followed World War I, sales appear to have been vigorous, with reported sales of blocks of 30 to 50 units to Pacific coast cannery fleets. Engines were reportedly marketed to fishing interests as far away as Sweden.

With their four-cycle design, Cuno timers and Schebler carburetors, Clift engines earned a good reputation for durability. Mechanical troubleshooter Frank Clift, brother of company founder Comely Clift, attended to the occasional local breakdown. Every now and then, needed repairs went beyond the ordinary. Former company employee Bill Hays, who passed away in the early 1990s, told of a local Japanese fisherman who installed a Clift engine in his skiff and departed, only to return several months later to report, 'Engine sick, it go bump, bump, bump.' Inspection revealed that the engine, though well lubed when it left the factory, had never been topped with oil and had long since run dry. On teardown the bearing babbitt was found to be long gone, and the crank journal had been reduced to the thickness of a lead pencil. Amazingly, the engine still ran in this condition.

One of the Clift engines built by students at Bellingham (Wash.) High in the early 1950s. The intake and exhaust ports were reversed on these last engines, which also featured a counter-balanced crankshaft.

An original Clift 4 HP engine, serial number 1482, date unknown. Clift 4 HP engines used Model T pistons and rods and had a bore and stroke of of 3- inches by 4- inches.

Another Clift 4 HP engine. Note the spark plug mounted in the side of the cylinder instead of the top of the cylinder head. Clift made numerous changes to the 4 HP engine line as it evolved.

Photographs show the company plant on the Bellingham waterfront as being rather typical for the times, with multi-paned windows, a barrel stove for heat and some 30-plus engines on the floor ready for shipment. According to former plant employee Hays, his wages grew from 25 cents to 60 cents per hour in the years between 1917 and 1925 as he progressed from fledgling to full machinist. He reported that approximately 15 men worked in the shop at any one time. By the 1930s, however, the Clift motor works apparently reduced its operation to machine work and Clift engine repair, perhaps having fallen victim to Depression-era economics. It's thought the company continued in this capacity until the early 1940s when it ceased operations all together.

The story of Clift engines however, was not yet over, for as late as the early 1950s Clift engine castings were being machined in the Bellingham High School shop as student projects. In the early 1950s machinist Bill Hays, who worked at the plant through eight of the years of peak production, landed a job as shop teacher at Bellingham High School. Under his direction, several students obtained castings from the original patterns, machined the parts and completed four 4 HP Clift engines. These final products differed little from the pre-World War I models, although at least one had a counterbalanced crankshaft for smoother running.

Though they are not overly plentiful in Pacific Northwest collections, an occasional Clift appears in a marine museum or at an engine show. The usual problems associated with salt water deterioration have, no doubt, cut down on the number of running examples. Interestingly, many of the original casting patterns were only recently discarded by the Onion Foundry of Bellingham, Wash., which did casting work for Clift Motor Company. Some of these were owned and displayed periodically by a local maritime heritage group.

Contact engine enthusiast Earl Bower at: 417 E. Hemmi Road, Lynden, WA 98264, or e-mail:

Contact engine enthusiast Chuck Zeiger at: 707 Poplar Drive, Bellingham, WA 98226.