Engine Companies of Lansing

A myriad of early engine companies were born in Lansing, Michigan.

Olds Motor Vehicle Co. ad

Ransom E. Olds founded Olds Motor Vehicle Co. in 1897 and REO Motor Car Co. in 1905, setting up Lansing as the auto capital of the world.

Illustration by Gas Engine Magazine staff

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Starting before the advent of the 20th century, Lansing, Michigan, became a center for the manufacture of gasoline engines. Thirty-two companies sprang up over time, for several obvious reasons. It’s 40 miles from Detroit, the center of automobile manufacture. Automobiles needed gasoline engines; so did farmers for their corn shelling or water pumping and other on-farm work. Tractors needed gas engines, too.

Though these companies didn’t, for the most part, provide automobile or tractor engines, the area drew inventors, workers, and other people interested in gasoline engines. And people who were already there, working in other areas, people like E. F. Cooley, of Lansing Wagon Works, who moved on from the manufacture of wagons and buggies, to the bright new future of gas engines.

Lansing, the capital of Michigan, also had stellar railroad service with railroads entering and leaving the city in all four directions, so steel and other products could be brought in overland from Lake Huron or Lake Michigan (Lansing is halfway between those bodies of water) and engines could be taken out.

Additionally, the years of Lansing’s supremacy in gasoline engines were the years of testing. Prior to 1920, the questions for almost all mechanical objects with internal combustion engines were simple: One-cylinder or 2-cylinder? Vertical or horizontal? Water-cooled or air-cooled? With automobiles it was more complicated: Which engines? How many cylinders? How many wheels? With tractors, the same questions were being asked, which was why many different engine companies began their lives.

Lansing companies

Ransom E. Olds most affected the early history of Lansing, Michigan. He founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Co. in 1897, and after he left that company, started REO Motor Car Co. in 1905. These two companies set up Lansing as the auto capital of the world at the time, drawing in construction workers and engine people as well as those who worked in side businesses, like rubber tire manufacture and repair, motoring garb, and so on.

Olds had his finger in a great number of pies in Lansing. He organized or was involved in the Capital National Bank, Michigan National Bank, Michigan Screw Company and Atlas Drop Forge Company in Lansing. He financed Olds Tower, the highest building in Lansing.

As this article will show, Olds was also involved in a series of gasoline engine companies. Though the gas engine companies in Lansing had different names, they were often tied to each other by administrators or entrepreneurs, one company morphing into another.

Some of these companies are well-known, while others are less known:

Air-Cooled Motor Co.

One of Ransom E. Olds’ many companies, Air-Cooled Motor Co. claimed to have been the first company to market a stationary air-cooled engine. But like many claims from the early days, it’s impossible to determine for sure. C. H. Wendel writes in American Gasoline Engines Since 1872, “...perfection of the air-cooled design being credited to W. S. Olds.”

Air-Cooled was closely related to the Original Gas Engine Co., and both united to become Ideal Gas Engine Co., all of Lansing. The management in all cases stayed the same, including R. E. Olds, who along with Madison F. Bates of Bates & Edmonds Motor Co. held joint ownership on some engine patents.

Bates & Edmonds Motor Co.

One of Lansing’s earliest engine companies, Bates & Edmonds made vertical engines with a cast A-frame design “somewhat similar to steam engine practice,” Wendel writes. By 1900, the company said they had manufactured 10,000 engines.

Many of these were Bull Dog engines, which “featured a unique valve mechanism,” Wendel writes, “wherein the pushrod actually pulled instead of pushed. A heavy spring kept the cam and roller in constant contact and actuated the exhaust valve when permitted by the cam.” This simple mechanism was invented by Madison F. Bates, whose first patents appeared in 1898. He was also instrumental in the formation of the Bates Tractor Co., and was a major engine entrepreneur whose only fault was living in the same city at the same time as R. E. Olds, who overshadowed him.

Bates & Edmonds Bull Dog engines were sold by many companies and distributors. Thus these Bull Dogs were also sold under the names of A. R. Williams, Baker & Hamilton, Fairbanks, Fairbanks OK, Manning, and doubtless others. They ranged from 1-1/2 to 25 HP, in both vertical and horizontal forms. B&E also produced Bull Pup engines.

Brownwall Engine & Pulley Company

Brownwall incorporated in 1912, and immediately combined with Parker Mfg. Co. of Lansing, which manufactured pulleys. They built 1 to 6 HP engines with, as Wendel says, “A belt-driven fan with a full cylinder shroud effected cooling for this model.” The name came by combining the last names of President Edsill A. Brown, and Vice-President Frank A. Wall. A 1968 article in Gas Engine Magazine by Meridith Brison says that Brown had the mechanical know-how of the management. He had been plant superintendent at Air-Cooled Motor Co. of Lansing, and perhaps was involved with Ideal Gas Engine Co., which was located at the same address. Nothing is known about Ideal.

Wall brought his own expertise, having worked for Olds Motor Works and Reo Motors Co.

A circa-1912 magazine article said, “The Brownwall Engine & Pulley Co. are manufacturing a popular line of air cooled engines in two sizes, namely one and one half and three and one half horsepower. ...these engines are of the horizontal type and have a somewhat novel method of cooling, inasmuch as the fan is provided with a hood which fits closely around the cylinder so that every part of the cylinder is evenly cooled. The fan being on the opposite side from the valves it is consequently out of the way of all mechanism. The manufacturers of the engine call attention to its extreme simplicity, it having no small or delicate parts, and its working parts are reduced to a minimum number that makes it practically impossible to get out of order. The material used in the construction of these little engines is the best.

“The company also manufactures the Parker governor pulley which is designed for starting a cream separator as slowly as it can be done by hand, and running it at the same speed at all times regardless of the irregularity of speed of engine. After it is adjusted once it will always run the separator at the same speed until re-adjusted.”

The company’s motto was, “Runs Right Always; So simple—so few parts and needs so little care.” They were guaranteed for 5 years.

Brison wrote, “I believe the Brownwall engine was a good engine. The main feature of a Brownwall over most other engines was their valve arrangement. Valves are horizontal opposed in a valve box cast with block on right side. Exhaust valve in line with pushrod, with pushrod working direct on valve stem, through a spring loaded sleeve coupling. Valve box opening plate carrying intake valve and seat, it must be removed to remove the exhaust valve.” A dozen engines were manufactured on a good day. Some were sold in England and Canada. All Brownwalls made in Lansing have “Brownwall Engines & Pulley Co., Lansing, Mich.” cast into the flywheels.

In the summer of 1914 the company moved to Holland, Michigan. In 1924, the company became Holland Engine Co., still making a few Brownwall engines, though most were Hollands.

Clarkmobile Co.

It is unclear whether this company, which began building the Clarkmobile automobile in 1903, actually built stationary engines or adapted their 7 HP automobile engine to stationary use. Clarkmobile Co. was the forerunner to the Deere-Clark Motor Car Co., which manufactured Deere automobiles.

Gifford Engine Co.

“Built like a sewing machine. Runs like one,” was the motto of the Gifford Engine Co. Those words underscore what life was like when the company incorporated in 1912. Former factory supervisor R.W. Gifford brought his knowledge of engines from Deyo-Macey Co. of Binghamton, N.Y. Perhaps too much, as Wendel says, “A comparison between the (Gifford) engine and the 1-1/2 HP Deyo-Macey shows them to be virtually identical.”

Gas Power magazine of December, 1912, wrote, “Among the new advertisers in this issue will be found the Gifford Engine Co., Lansing, Mich., who manufacture a one and one-half horse power engine of the water-cooled hopper jacket type built especially for light farm and household power. In general design, an effort has been made to produce an engine neat in appearance and so simple as to be certain of starting operation in the hands of the farmer’s wife or daughter. The cylinder is not only water-cooled throughout its length, but the head of the cylinder and valves are also water cooled, thus insuring a constant and uniform temperature throughout cylinder and combustion chamber and preventing overheating and consequent pre-ignition, which often causes trouble in engines where the cylinder head and valves are not cooled.

“This little engine is good for every purpose on the farm such as running cream separators, washing machines, churns, and in fact for all farm purposes where small power is needed. A catalog giving full information can be secured free upon application.”

The engine weighed 300 pounds, was 28 inches long, 17 inches high and had a jump spark ignition and hit and miss governor. It had a rated speed of 450 RPM.

Hill-Diesel Engine Co.

Hill-Diesel Engine Co. bought out Bates & Edmonds Motor Co. around 1920. Hill-Diesel engines were rated at 6, 12, 18, and 25 HP, all with 4-3/4-by-8-inch bore and stroke. Their 6-by-10-inch series included 4-cylinder models of 60 HP and 6-cylinder models of 90 HP. They also made marine engines.

Motorboating magazine of February, 1932, wrote, “The Hill-Diesel Engine Co. are exhibiting one of their smaller sizes of four cylinder diesel engines directly connected to an electric generator and will also have 4 and 6 cylinder marine units of the same type as one of their large sizes of 6-cylinder engines with a 5-by-7-inch bore and stroke. The present tendency to use diesel engines in smaller sizes will find these Hill diesel units particularly well adapted to a wide range of work in this field.”

Peerless Motor Co.

Early Peerless engines were verticals. In 1904 their engines were bright maroon with a wide black stripe outlined in gold. The 3 HP had 22-inch flywheels weighing 135 pounds each, while the 36 inch flywheels of the 12 HP each weighed 475 pounds, for a total shipping weight of 1,600 pounds.

In 1907, they signed a 10-year contract to produce all the engines for Hercules Gas Engine Works of Alameda, California.

By 1908, Peerless was producing an engine oddly-named “The Butcher Boy,” which made it sound like it would only be used to work with meat. According to Wendel, “These vertical models featured an overflow carburetor and also included a complete cooling system. It consisted of a simple evaporator tank mounted above the cylinder. The ‘Butcher Boy’ title certainly did not limit this engine to use in meat markets, although belting one up to the sausage grinder certainly saved a lot of work.”

By 1909, their horizontal hopper-cooled engines struck the market, 2 to 15 HP, featuring a sideshaft design with the governor mounted directly on the layshaft, Wendel says. “An exceptionally large water hopper was used for reduced servicing time. An overflow type carburetor was also featured with the fuel pump being obvious just ahead of the flywheel.”

Peerless also produced their “Special” engine in 1909 for small jobs, and it could be ordered with a special friction clutch pulley for running cream separators.

1909 was a big year for Peerless, as they also produced a pair of vertical engines, a 2-cylinder 20 HP and 3-cylinder 35 HP, with steel connecting rods.

Peerless was taken over by Acme Engine Co. in 1913, and continued making engines of 2-1/2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 15 HP. As with so many engine companies in general, the final disposition of the company is unknown.

United Engine Co.

There were 15 companies in the U.S. with “United” in their name, and little is known about most of them. The United Engine Co. of Lansing is an exception.

Beginning life as United Manufacturer’s Association of Jackson, Michigan, the company offered a 2 HP gasoline engine “complete” for $45 in 1911. It was not built by them, but probably by Gilson Mfg. of Port Washington, Wisconsin.

Some references say United never built any engines, but was a middleman, having them manufactured by others, like Associated Manufacturers of Waterloo, Iowa. However, according to Wendel, United Manufacturers’ Association moved to Lansing in 1912, and “the copartnership heretofore known as United Manufacturers’ Association has been changed to United Engine Co.”

At this point, the 2 HP United engine was different from the early 2 HP Uniteds. Both were 4-by-5-1/2 inch bore and stroke, but the earlier one was spark plug ignition, and the latter was make-and-break. “A peculiar walking beam valve operating mechanism was featured” on the second 2 HP, Wendel says.

As with other companies, some of the engines were similar to those of other companies. United’s 1-3/4 HP air-cooled engine was virtually identical to Associated Manufacturer’s 1-3/4 “Chore Boy” engine, while their 1-1/2 HP was similar to the “Johnny Boy.”

Some of United’s advertisements were interesting, Wendel says, offering two sets of varying horsepowers of engines: 1-1/2, 2-1/2, 4-1/2, 6, 8 and 12, in one part of the ad, and 1-1/2, 3-1/2, 6, 8, 10, and 13 in another. Some early engines sold for $35, but were then lowered to $28.

United sold many more engines until their demise in the late 1920s. Repair parts for Associated engines “were available,” as listed in a Farm Implement New Buyer’s Guide of the 1940s, says Wendel, “from WHW Machine & Tool Work of Lansing Michigan. Even though United engines were practically identical, even down to the same part numbers, the same publication listed ‘No Repairs’ under the United Engine Company heading.”

Curiously, an Internet check under “Lansing gas engine companies” shows a complete shutout of the old companies. Perhaps a few others remain, but they are internet invisible. In the end, time takes its toll on humans and companies of all kinds.


Contact Bill Vossler at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369 • bvossler@juno.com