Collector crafts replica of Henry Ford’s first gas engine


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In 1893, a 30-year-old machinist from Detroit, Mich., was learning about a new technology, the internal combustion engine. In a backroom shop at the Detroit Electric Illuminating Co., he and a few of his co-workers made a crude working engine. On Christmas Eve, 1893, he took the experimental engine home to show his wife. Clamped to the kitchen sink using the electric light socket for ignition power, his wife Clara controlling the fuel dripping into the intake mixer, Henry Ford started not only the little engine, but his own path to becoming an automotive and industrial icon known the world over."

- Leon Ridenour

Back in August of 2003, I visited the Rusty Wheels Engine Show at Hope, Ark. Among the many displays was a rather odd looking machine that would be easy to mistake for something other than a gasoline engine. It had a sign that said "Henry Ford's First Gasoline Engine." Thinking it was a just a demonstration model that surely didn't actually run, I simply did not pay much attention to it. But the image of that engine was burned into my memory.

Over the next few years I thought about that engine from time to time. Somewhere along the line, I learned that what I saw was actually a full-size working replica of Ford's first internal combustion engine. I searched the Internet and was unable to find any information on it. Then one day I was reading the classified ads in the back of Gas Engine Magazine and there was an advertisement for plans to build one. Once more I dismissed the idea, since at that time I was heavily involved in another restoration project.

Then one night a friend of mine called. In our conversation, Ford's engine came up. He said, "You know Bo Hinch built one?" No, I did not know that. Bo only lives a few miles from me so the next Saturday I was on my way to his shop to see his engine and that's all it took. I was bitten. I knew I had to build one. By this time, I had finished the restoration I had been working on and I needed another project.

The man with the plans

Leaving Bo's shop, I went back to my house and started searching through my GEMs until I found the ad for the plans to build the engine. I called the number in the ad and Leon Ridenour answered the phone. I told him I wanted to buy his plans to build Ford's first engine. We struck up a conversation that immediately earned my respect for him. His primary concern was not that I wanted to buy the plans, but to be sure I knew what I was getting into, and that I had the right tools and skills to complete the project. Had I not, I'm convinced he would have discouraged me from buying the plans. Money wasn't the issue here.

After a short discussion, he was satisfied I had what would be needed to build the engine. He asked for my address so he could send the plans to me. Reaching for a credit card, I said, "How do you want me to pay you?" He said, "Just send me a check when you get the plans. And by the way, there are a couple parts that might be hard to find that I'll include with the plans."

Several days later the plans arrived at my house. Along with the drawings was a DVD that I watched immediately, several times. Then it was off to the lumber yard to buy some of the plumbing fittings that I would need to get started.

This began about a three month process to duplicate Ford's first internal combustion engine. I began this project with a little bit of apprehension as I was very new to machine work and my mini-lathe and mill were limited in its capabilities. There were also a couple parts I felt I just didn't have skills to make, but I had a secret weapon. I knew my neighbor was an accomplished machinist and had connections with a machine shop that he works with regularly. I knew I could count on him for help.

I followed the plans and DVD explicitly. Leon shows each step in detail. But it is important that anyone attempting this project know some of the basics, such as the principles of the internal combustion engine, interpreting drawings, basic lathe and milling machine techniques, and silver soldering.

The details

Many of the parts can be bought over the counter. The combustion chamber is a 1-inch pipe T. The mixer is a 1/2-inch check valve. The exhaust valve is built into a 3/4-inch stop and waste valve. Special care must be taken to insure that the exhaust valve seals properly. The cylinder and rod are seamless tubing. The main bearing frame and crank arm are made from a 1/2-inch plate. The crank and cam gear are readily available and part numbers are included in the plans. I bought the gears from a local industrial supply company and the cam is easily made on a grinding wheel. The flywheel should weigh between 10 to 14 pounds and be 12 to 14 inches in diameter ­- I found one at a flea-market. The fuel reservoir is a modified engine oiler.

The piston is the most machine intensive part to make. But it too can be made with machines as small as the mini-lathe and mini-mill. It took me two tries.

Assembly of the parts is straight forward. The DVD gives detail instructions on how to assure proper bearing alignment, crank and cam gear alignment, and timing. Here again is where an understanding of the basic principles of the 4-cycle internal combustion engine is very helpful. Instructions are given for several different ignition systems, including the original piston strike igniter. I chose to use a buzz coil ignition. Turns out that I had an original buzz coil with the Ford script logo burned into it. It is a great compliment to my engine.

Starting it up

The day finally arrived for me to try and start my engine. I primed the mixer with starting fluid as per the instructions, flipped the switch on and turned the flywheel. Lo and behold it popped on the first turn. Honestly though, this was just kind of a teaser. You must carefully calibrate the fuel drip from the oiler to keep from starving the engine for fuel or flooding it. But once you get the drip right, it runs great. Of course, you can only let it run for a minute or so as it has no means of cooling.

I can truthfully say that this has been one of most rewarding projects I've ever done. It was a perfect opportunity to learn a whole lot more about machine work. I was, and still am, very much a novice. But, I know a lot more now than I did before I started this project. One of my most rewarding experiences with this project is the relationship that I established with Leon. We exchanged phone calls a number of times over the duration of this project. He helped me over a number of hurdles and always let me know that his main concern was that I finish this project successfully. And I did. Thank you, Leon.

Leon Ridenour lives in Knoxville, Tenn., and can be reached at (865) 584-9759

Contact John Bailey at Watch video of the engine at