This article, written by Menno Duerksen, originally appeared in Cars & Parts Magazine, March 1975 issue, and is reprinted with permission. It was sent to us by George N. Whiston, Jr., 508 North Range Street, Oblong, Illinois 62449, who would appreciate hearing from anyone who has information on the Powell-Lever design.
It must have been about the time when I was aged eight or ten, a youngster on the farm, when Father produced a long steel bar with a flat end, plus a heavy block of wood, and suggested that I help him grease the axle of our big horse drawn farm wagon.
Father shoved the block of wood up near the wagon axle and then shoved the big steel bar with the flat end under the axle, with the bar balanced over the wooden block and sticking out seven or eight feet behind the block.
Then he instructed me to heave all my weight downward on the bar. I found that a young squirt weighing less than 80 pounds, could easily lift a corner of that heavy wagon off the ground and hold it while Pops removed the wheel, 'buttered' the dry axle with a paddle dipped in Black Beauty axle grease and returned the wheel to the axle.
I was slightly more than astonished at the power that big bar gave to a farm youngster barely old enough to milk a cow.
After that one of my favorite pastimes was to lug that heavy steel bar out to a deep dry canyon near our farm where I and several of my friends used it to pry huge boulders loose from the rim of the canyon and watch them go plunging and roaring into the bottom with a huge crash and a cloud of dust. These were rocks we could never have budged by sheer kid muscle power alone.
So I was prepared to have faith, a year or two later, when one of my teachers in school suggested that if a man had a lever long enough, a place to perch a sturdy fulcrum, he could lift the entire world weighing trillions of pounds.
I was learning the principle of the lever.
It must have been about the period 1915-1920, a time not too far removed from my axle greasing experience, when a man named Alvah Leigh Powell, a southern minister by profession but perhaps a mechanic and amateur engineer by choice, brought forth the idea that this old lever principle could be used to improve the performance of the internal combustion engine which was then taking our country by storm.
As all motor car enthusiasts know, of the internal combustion engine which has now been with us so long, a gasoline-air mixture is exploded in the firing chamber of an engine to give a mighty push downward to the top of a piston. That piston push, in turn, is transmitted through a connecting rod to the offset arm, or throw, of a crankshaft and makes that crankshaft turn. Power to drive a motor car, or do other useful work, has been produced.
The idea germinating in the brain of Rev. Powell was, simply, that if the piston pushed on a lever, and the lever in turn pushed on the crankshaft, the power of the piston could thus be doubled or tripled.
A modern day automotive engineer might quickly point out that it really is not all that simple. But the idea was there and, as it was to prove, it was an idea with considerable merit.
It can probably in truth be said that from such dreams and ambitions of American inventors has come the gigantic automotive industry which today is the backbone of the nation's economy.
The tragedy of it has been how few of those dreams or ideas, even those with considerable merit, have brought fame or glory to their inventors, much less economic success. But there they were; ideas by the hundreds, or even thousands, for new engines, new transmissions, new clutches, brakes, carburetors. Sources of power that would, hopefully, 'revolutionize' the industry. But seldom did.
So this is the story of Rev. Powell and his 'lever engine,' which almost literally swallowed the lives and fortunes of several substantial citizens, lured them on with 'almost' promises of success before the idea finally faded from the scene in the early 1950s. But during that period of labor and research, lasting more than thirty years, a considerable number of those lever principle engines were actually built. They powered automobiles which rolled for hundreds of thousands of miles, powered at least one flyable airplane and, in industrial form pumped thousands of barrels of oil.
The pity, in telling this story, is that so little can be told of Rev. Powell himself for so little of the record of the man and how he conceived the 'lever idea' can be found. His name does appear on the patent applications filed during the period 1920 to 1928. But little more.
So, by necessity, most of our story must evolve around other people, men who became enamored and lured by the mystical power of the lever into devoting their lives to the pursuit of an idea and a success which, at times, seemed to be almost within their grasp but always slipped away. This would include such men as C. F. and R. P. Rainey of eastern Montana, substantial land owners and cattlemen, and later Rexton (Rex) Rainey, the son of C. F., now retired and living in Jeddo, Michigan, after a career as an engineer. Rex, and his brother, Dr. Froelich Rainey, of Gladwynne, Pennsylvania, are among the few people still surviving who can even remember anything at all about Rev. Powell.
'I have only a hazy, childhood recollection of him,' said Rex recently. 'I recall him as a rather portly figure, but impressive and very much the southern gentleman type.'
The story is that Rev. Powell, around 1919, went to Washington to look into the matter of patenting his lever engine idea and to seek financial backing to-develop it. He was, so the Raineys remembered later, armed with drawings but no working model of his engine.
It was in Washington that he, by chance, ran into the Rainey brothers, also in Washington on business, and managed to interest them in the idea of backing development of the lever engine. The Raineys, with considerable land and cattle holdings in Montana, had substantial, if not great, wealth.
'It was an idealistic sort of thing that got into people's minds and once they were sold on it they almost became fanatics on the subject,' Rexton Rainey told your Free Wheeling editor.
Rex was almost certainly thinking about his father when he made that statement, for there is little doubt but that the elder Rainey became completely sold on the new engineering idea, spending the next several decades of his life, perhaps the major portion of the family fortune, plus the money of other investing stockholders, in trying to convince the automobile industry that here was a valuable, revolutionary idea that could produce vastly more powerful and efficient motor car engines.
Despite the fact that the elder Rainey brothers had no engineering training, they moved to the Chicago area soon after meeting Powell, financed and set up an experimental machine workshop to transform the lever idea into iron and steel, with power flowing from the end of the crankshaft.
So strongly did the elder C. F. Rainey believe in the idea that he sent Rex off to college to study engineering so that he could contribute his talents to the development of the new engine.
Rex recalls that when he returned from college around 1928 and joined the projects, first as a draftsman and later as project engineer, several four cylinder Powell Lever engines had already been built and were operating. Due to the nature of the lever principle, it can be seen that any engine using this feature would be a machine with an extremely long stroke for the piston and a relatively short stroke for the secondary connecting rod and crankshaft.
Rainey remembers those first four cylinder engines as having about 100 cubic inch displacement with a six inch piston stroke, which meant only a three inch stroke for the crankshaft or a crankshaft throw of only about an inch and a half. But due to that extremely long stroke, the design resulted in a very 'tall' engine. In some later designs, when overhead valves were added, the engine became very tall indeed.
The lever was inserted between the piston and connecting rod, usually on a two-to-one ratio, Rainey recalls, and said: 'The positive argument stated that a one pound thrust on the piston resulted in a two pound thrust on the crank. Although, of course, the two-to-one idea never came true, there were some apparent advantages; low piston angularity, very high torque at low
RPM's and, for the time, good fuel economy.'
Rex Rainey and his fellow engineers soon discovered that the four cylinder design was not one of the best for their lever engine. Four cylinder engines of that day were rough in any form and when the lever principle was added they became even rougher. So the decision was made to try the design in a six.
The Rainey-Powell experimental shop at Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, with Rex Rainey as part of the team, now made up several six cylinder engines in two sizes, one of about 200 CID and the other about 350. At least some of the sizes had the extremely long stroke of eight inches.
For testing purposes, several of the large sixes were installed in Studebaker Big Six chassis, the Studebaker being chosen because it happened to be one car that had an unusually high rear axle gear ratio to the long stroke, low speed nature of the original Big Six engine. (This Studebaker engine, with 357 cubic inches of displacement, was rated at 75 BHP at 2400 RPM. The bore was 3 7/8 and stroke 5 inches).
Rainey remembers the rear axle ratio of about 3.1 to 1. (The highest ratio we can find listed as standard for the Stude-bakers of this period was 3.71 to 1, but it is possible that higher ratios were available as optional equipment). That Studebaker Big Six engine had earned a reputation as a low speed 'lugger,' which was a highly desirable feature of any motor car engine of that period. That 'lugging' feature was to be the outstanding characteristic of the Lever engine.
Rainey also remembers that during the experimental period of the six cylinder engines, a number of different combinations of ratios were tried on the levers, bearings, and on the primary and secondary connecting rods. Most of the drawings and illustrations of the engines at this period show an approximate two-to-one ratio on the lever action although later drawings, of the industrial diesel engines developed later, showed the lever ratio to be reduced.
One of the features of these earlier engines was the extremely low RPM ratings at peak horsepower from 1,300 to 1,800but the most unusual feature of all was the extremely flat torque curve. One published torque graph on one of the later Lever engines showed less than five percent difference in the torque rating between 500 and 2,000 RPM's, with the torque output hovering between 240 and 260 pounds and virtually flat in the middle ranges on an engine rated at 100 BHP. It was, for its time, an almost unbelievable torque performance.
Although the Powell-Lever engine was originally intended as an automobile power plant, that slow speed and constant torque rating made it an ideal engine for steady, constant speed operation with industrial applications. It was in the late 1920s that the Rainey group established a small factory at Quapaw, Oklahoma, where some twenty to thirty of the larger six cylinder engines were made and placed in service pumping oil in the oil fields, a type of work for which they were ideally suited.
'These engines were in service for many years service was reported good, as was economy,' said Rainey.
Meantime, one of the next developments from the Powell-Rainey-Lever group was to design a six cylinder lever type engine for aircraft use and when completed it was taken to Wichita, Kansas, and installed in a standard Travel air airplane.
The initial tests were successful. The plane flew well, Rainey recalls, and he went along on test flights to check engineering instruments. But the plane experiment came to an abrupt end one day when the plane was in the air and one of the lever-connecting rod complexes failed, nearly cutting the engine in two. Fortunately the weather was clear and the plane was near the landing field, making it possible to bring it in safely on a dead stick landing.
This was one of the few occasions when the lever actions failed, but apparently it was enough to put an end to the aviation experiments using the Powell-Lever engine. The aircraft failure may well have been a freak for in automobile use, in trucks and on industrial applications, the Powell-Lever engines ran on for years, rolling up hundreds of thousands of miles without such failures.
One of the next moves was to place several of the smaller six cylinder engines in Elcar sedans and roadsters. This also was in the late 1920s, just at the time when Elcar production at Elkhart, Indiana, was fading out of the picture. But the company had a large plant with excellent equipment and the Powell-Lever group made arrangements to use a part of the plant for its new experimental headquarters.
It was during this Elcar episode that the Powell-Lever engine probably came nearest to reaching the market place when the Elcar firm announced that customers in 1930 would have the option to buy an 'Elcar-Lever, Model 85,' using a Lever engine with three inch bore and eight inch stroke. Elcar actually exhibited the car at the January, 1930, auto shows and may have delivered five or six of the machines to customers. If so, none are known to survive. Brochures showing this model were also issued by Elcar. But this plan apparently was aborted by the shaky financial position of the Elcar Company at that time and also because the economic depression just beginning was placing an additional economic squeeze on the almost defunct enterprise.
If the new Lever engine had actually been as revolutionary as its inventors and backers had hoped, and sometimes thought it was, it is likely that Elcar officials would have gone through with the idea of promoting a line of Lever powered Elcars. As it was, the Lever engines ran many miles successfully, and with a considerable degree of reliability, but without the spectacular performance that automotive manufacturers were beginning to expect and look for in this period.
It must be remembered that it was in the mid-1920s, when Walter Chrysler introduced the concept of the fast, high compression engine to the automotive market and while, as we have already pointed out, the Lever engines had some advantages, they just did not fit into the picture of faster, more efficient, high compression engines coming into the picture at this period of history. Aside from the fact that the lever action made the engines more costly and time consuming to build.
In addition, it must be pointed out that the Lever engine reached its peak of development just about the time the great economic depression struck the country in 1929-30. There is little question but that this must have had some bearing on the failure of the Rainey-Lever group to interest any reputable auto manufacturer to gamble on an engine which lacked flashy performance and was more costly to build.
In any case, for reasons even Rex Rainey is not sure about, the Rainey-Lever group around 1932 moved its experimental operations from the Elcar plant to Kissel Industries at Hartford, Wisconsin, the surviving corporate entity of what had once been the thriving Kissel Motor Car Company. It must also be remembered that it was in the 1929-31 period when the Kissel motor car production also came to an end. By 1932 the company had been re-organized and was struggling with a variety of products such as outboard motors and oil burners, but for all practical purposes, Kissel automobile manufacturing had come to an end.
But the Kissel plant was still there, with much of the production machinery still in place, plus remnants and parts of cars, bodies, engines and components, including parts of another promising development in motor cars, the front drive Ruxton. In its dying days the Kissel firm had contracted to build some of the Ruxtons which the New Era Motors, Inc., had been attempting to place on the market as a futuristic front drive entry into the motor car field.
It was here, at Kissel, that several of the Lever engines were placed for testing purposes in several surviving Kissel chassis in a project paid for by the Powell company. Obviously again it was done with the hope that it might help revive interest for the engine in the line of some sound, depression-proof company, preferably a General Motors unit.
It was also here at Kissel, with parts or whole cars left from the Ruxton project, that someone connected with the Lever engine project conceived the idea of placing a Lever engine in the Ruxton front drive chassis. This idea got as far as a brochure which was printed and distributed, showing the Ruxton car with a few styling changes and powered by the Lever engine in front wheel drive form, but so far as is known no such car was ever actually built.
At this point it is probably time to back up a bit in our history to point out that the highest peak of development on the Powell-Lever engine was reached during the Elcar-Kissel period when the Rainey group contracted with the Continental Motors Corporation, America's largest independent producer of motorcar engines, to produce two or three Lever engines in eight cylinder form. These eights turned out to be the most powerful and best performing engines of the Powell-Lever design ever built and two of them still survive today, although neither one of them is in operating condition.
One of them, damaged in a fire but possibly in restorable condition, belongs to one of our information sources who has done considerable research in the histories of the Kissel, Ruxton and Lever stories. It is one of his fond dreams to someday be able to restore the engine and install it in an Elcar 120 chassis.
The reason for this is because it was in such an Elcar chassis that one of the eight cylinder Lever engines was installed and probably turned in its best performance for endurance, dependability, and speed. This Elcar Model 120 was normally equipped with an eight cylinder Lycoming engine.
The Lever engined Elcar, a convertible coupe, was turned over to C. A. Shaffer, a long time employee of the Rainey-Lever group, in 1929 with instructions to take it out and drive it far, fast, and hard. Shaffer did exactly that and estimates that he put at least 200,000 miles on the car before it was turned over to Philip Rinke, another of the Rainey-Lever group, with instructions to wear it out.
Rinke reported that the convertible body eventually wore out before the engine did and was replaced by a roadster body and the car rolled on and on. The engine never did wear out. The cylinder head was removed when the engine had 325,000 miles on it, but this was done because carbon had built up to the point where carbon was blocking the intake ports. During all those miles, Shaffer and Rinke reported, they replaced nothing on the engine except distributor parts. For dependability and endurance, this is a record hard to match anyway, particularly when one considers that this was more than forty years ago.
Shaffer and Rinke, incidentally, are two of the few surviving men still alive with extensive experience in driving and working on the Lever engines. Your Free Wheeling editor drove to Newton, Illinois, where Shaffer now lives in retirement and talked to him about his long association with the Lever project.
Shaffer, born in central Ohio, served in World War I as a truck driver and became associated with the Rainey-Lever group about 1924 through the fact that he had gone to school with Rex Rainey's brother, Froelich Rainey.
Shaffer, who worked mostly as a mechanic and assistant to Rex Rainey, probably did more test driving with the Lever engined cars than any other man.
Shaffer was without formal engineering training but has acquired, through experience, a great deal of knowledge about engines and engineering. Today, he realistically agrees that, despite his long and loyal association with the Raineys and the Lever engine project, that the Lever engine never was the revolutionary machine its originator, the Rev. Powell, and the elder Rainey believed it to be. But it did have unusual characteristics, he pointed out.
'You could throttle that engine down to as low as 40 RPM's and it had power, even at that low speed. The engine was best suited for steady speed driving. It did not have very good acceleration, probably due to the very high gear ratios we had to use, but once it got going it gave a very fast car,' said Shaffer in his interview.
He recalled one day when he took the eight cylinder car to a stockholder's meeting of the company and one of the stockholders asked for a ride in the Lever engined car.
'There was a young fellow standing there who saw us getting ready to take off and he apparently thought he had a pretty hot car and wanted to show us up. When we took off I just drove in a normal fashion while this young fellow took off in a cloud of dust and left us far behind. But after we got speed up on a long stretch of road, we pulled up on him and passed him,' said Shaffer.
Shaffer also remembers that one of the outstanding features of the Lever engines, so far as working on them was concerned, was the accessibility of the parts, including the levers and connecting rods. The engine was designed with removable plates on the side of the crankcase so that these mechanisms could be inspected, worked on, adjusted or removed in a matter of minutes with no necessity of crawling under the car and removing an oil pan.
One of the biggest problems in the early days, he said, was connecting rod bearings a weakness that was later overcome. But during the times when this was a problem it provided Shaffer with a unique experience.
'I was out on the road one day when one of the connecting rod bearings burned out. I simply opened up the side plate, took out that connecting rod and drove home at forty miles per hour on five cylinders,' he recalls.
Also, as a demonstration of the engine's long distance cruising qualities, at sustained speeds, Shaffer remembers that on one trip from Wichita, Kansas, to Wheaton, Illinois, he averaged 57 miles per hour. This was around 1930 when such sustained speed over the roads available then was no mean feat for the best cars built.
As for top speed, with that eight cylinder roadster, he recalls speeds of up to 96 miles per hour under ideal conditions. Again, for 1930, this was performance only the best of motor cars made then could match.
As for the sensation of driving a Lever powered car, Shaffer remembers, 'After you got under way it was sort of like floating. Because of the low revolutions per minute of the engine, you were not aware of your speed.'
At another point he said, 'If you ever rode in an old Stanley Steamer you would know the effect. You are not conscious of the speed you are actually going.'
As for the published specifications of that eight cylinder engine, they showed a three inch bore and six inch stroke on the primary connecting rod, with 340 cubic inches of displacement and a compression ratio of 5 to 1, with a horsepower rating of 110 BHP at 2,400 RPM's. Since the drawings of this engine show the typical two to one ratio on the lever action, this would again produce a three inch stroke, with an inch and a half throw on the crankshaft. It is interesting to note that with this eight the engineers were able to step peak RPM's up to 2,400, which was much faster than the earlier models.
This was probably accomplished by better balancing, lighter reciprocating parts, better breathing and carburetion. There is some evidence that the Ethyl Corporation, developers of the leaded gasoline additives for anti-knock purposes, was interested in the development of the Lever engine. With that extremely long stroke it would have been ideally suited to getting the most out of Ethyl gasolines because the lead actually slows down the burning of the gasoline-air mixture so the Ethyl fuel would provide a longer power push on the long stroked pistons.
The new, higher RPM rating would have helped if it had come earlier, but by the time the Lever engine had achieved 2,400 RPM's other engines were long past the 3,000 mark and still climbing.
In any case, because of the engine's inherent drawbacks, the depression, and the failure to find an automobile manufacturer willing to install this engine in a machine for the market, the Lever products did finally come to an end.
As Rex Rainey remembers it, 'In general the research and development died out through lack of acceptance by any established concern and lack of the large finance required for this kind of operation.' Rainey and others connected with the project say, yes, the idea of making their own car to exploit the engine was considered but again, lack of financing and the depression made this impractical.
Eventually hard headed and realistic engineering arguments were able to convince even the elder Rainey that the engine, if practical at all, was most suitable for industrial power use. But even here no successful engine maker had shown enough interest to make the project viable any longer.
It was around 1950 when the elder Rainey, after spending at least two to three million dollars on the Lever engine project over a 25 year period, most of it his own and that of his family, plus some from other convinced investors, was forced by hard headed realism to call a halt.
He called in Shaffer, one of the oldest and most faithful of the employees, who had also spent some of his savings on the project, and instructed Shaffer to move what was left of the machinery and engines into storage at Newton, Illinois, where Shaffer now lives.
'I more or less inherited what was left of the Lever project,' Shaffer told us in his home.
Normally this should end the story of the Powell-Lever engine, but another engineer who had been associated with the project in its last years, C. C. Chronic, together with Shaffer, made one more attempt to rescue the operation.
It was Chronic who made further modifications in the design, converting the engine to diesel form, with a single overhead intake valve and using a port at the bottom of the cylinder as an exhaust valve. Patent applications and drawings on this latter engine show the traditional two-to-one ratio on the lever reduced to something less than that, with the pivot of the lever moved outward, away from the end of the lever, thus reducing the advantage of the lever.
In effect this would seem to be a move backwards from the original concept of 'one pound on the piston would equal two pounds on the crankshaft.' So, the obvious question is, why use the lever at all? Especially when you consider that the lever merely added to the expense of making the engine and created more moving parts.
Even Rex Rainey, who hesitates to speak ill of the engine out of deference to his late father's long devotion to the cause, and even his own years of labor on the project, will not say the engine was a revolutionary concept.
The best he will say of it today is, 'While the engine did not have very good performance it ran well.'
Then, later, as an afterthought, he said, 'As an engineer I have never been sold on the internal combustion engine as the ideal source of power anyway, and here we were taking the internal combustion engine and making it even more complicated.'
In any case, Rex Rainey had withdrawn from the project long before it ended.
So far as the connections with Elcar and Kissel were concerned, says Rainey today, 'By the time we were associated with those firms they no longer had any financial power left and were in no position to do much with the Lever engine even if they had been persuaded that the engine was a good one.'
Even the final efforts of Shaffer and Chronic to improve the engine through supercharging, Diesel application and more modern design, after recognizing the engine was best suited to industrial rather than automotive use, came to nothing.
Shaffer told us he finally sold the last remaining machinery, then sold the last engines for scrap. One of these, a two cylinder diesel power engine, one of the last made, still exists, as property of Ralph Jenkins who operated a salvage yard at Newton, but it stands outside, exposed to the elements of wind, water, and snow. The only concession Jenkins will make to the historical value of the machine is to say, 'It's not for sale.'
For a time it was believed that the Lever powered Elcar convertible, or roadster, that was driven so many miles by Shaffer and Rinke, had perished but through the efforts of Charles Kalista and Ray Wolff, prominent in Wisconsin antique car affairs, the machine was located and donated to the Harrah Collection at Reno, Nevada, but its number has not yet come up for restoration. If it is ever restored, it may give at least a few privileged drivers in a new age of motors a chance to see what it is like to drive a smooth, low-revving Lever powered car. Someone may even get a chance to see whether this type engine is a 'polluter?' What a stroke of irony if engineers should now find that one of the redeeming features of this old engine design was clean burning of fuel.
The elder Rainey died in 1957, at the venerable age of 92, but even after his death his widow, also now deceased, revealed quite clearly how much she had also been affected by his long devotion to the Powell-Lever cause. In truth, it would also have to be called the 'Rainey Cause.'
In 1964 she wrote that if she were younger and had the writing talent she would have written a book about the long battle to make the Lever dream come true.
'I'd call it 'The Promoter,' for my husband was a promoter with true integrity, as were those who worked with him. We had the engine, but to put it on a commercial market was too gigantic a task with such limited funds, and the competition with large engine builders who had their own babies to sell was too great. So, though we made a success of the engine, we failed to commercialize it, therefore we are counted as a failure. Now I can think more of the success than the failure, for I recall the many exciting times of near success, even though followed by discouragement.'
In looking back on the whole story now, realistically, one would be forced to question whether the Lever group really 'had the engine,' as Mrs. Rainey believed. It is more likely that Rexton Rainey, with his engineering training, is nearer the mark when he said the engine 'ran well,' but lacked the performance to make it a contender in the highly competitive race.
The story of the Lever engine is a tragic one in the sense that so many people had faith in it, so long, and spent so much of their lives and fortunes upon it.
It is just possible that if the engine had reached the peak of its development ten years earlier, at a time when the lugging, low speed pulling type engine was popular and in demand, that some manufacturer might have made a success of it. John North Willys did it with the Knight sleeve valve engine which shared many of the drawbacks of the Powell-Lever design.
Then, of course, the historian is forced to raise once more the ghost of the great economic depression which struck just as the Rainey group had reached the high point of their Lever engine development. It is quite possible, even likely, that this economic disaster played a part in keeping the Lever engine from being placed in the market place where the customer could have judged it on his own.
The Powell-Lever-Rainey engine we prefer to call it that will have to go down in the books as one inventive effort which had merit, enough to create a fervid faith on the part of good and honest men, causing them to spend a fortune in time and energy. But not enough merit to form a true success chapter in the eighty-year-old history of the American motor car.
In preparation of this article, Cars & Parts wishes to thank the following for their generous help with material, pictures, and information: The Kissel Kar Club of America, C. A. Shaffer, Rexton Rainey, Dr. Froelich Rainey, and Ralph Jenkins. We were also assisted by references to previous material on the Lever engine published by the Antique Automobile, publication of the Antique Automobile Club of America, and also try several readers who have long suggested the article.