Get Back Jack!

A Nelson Bros. KracKerJack restoration

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Clive Heritage’s KracKerJack engine, sold by Smyth-Despard Co., Utica, N.Y.

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Over the past two years, I've traveled to many vintage engine events in hope of finding an interesting, early horizontal, open-crank engine to restore. Twice a year, we have a local swap meet held at a disused World War II airfield near a small village called Enstone, in Oxfordshire, England.

Back in November 2005, myself and three other friends, Pete Downer, Nigel Garlick and Eddie Earls, drove about 14 miles from my hometown of Banbury, in Oxfordshire, and arrived at the Enstone venue nice and early to get any bargains. It was 7 a.m. and 39 degrees, but despite the bitter cold quite a few stallholders had started to turn up. Among the first sellers to arrive was a guy who had travelled from Norfolk, which is on the east coast of England (this is where United States Air Force Mildenhall and USAF Lakenheath are based). He was selling an engine that was described as a 1925, 3 HP Smyth-Despard KracKerJack.

This engine seemed to be just what I was looking for, so I checked it over and the owner started it for me. The only history he knew about the engine was that it came from an area of England called the Midlands (central England) about 10 years prior. We talked about the engine for a while, haggled over the price, and before long I shook his hand and the deal was done. I only had a rough idea of this engine's value but I realized I had a bargain, so I asked him if I could collect it later when I'd checked out the other stalls, and he agreed.

After about an hour, one or two people came to me and congratulated me on my purchase, saying it was the "best engine bargain of the sale" and "well done you lucky person," or words to that effect. I was quite taken aback by the response, so was it possible I had found something a bit special? Maybe the manufacturers didn't make that many of these engines or maybe they were only exported to England in limited numbers. I thought a bit of research was called for.

We loaded Nigel's Land Rover and trailer with our various engine purchases and headed back to Banbury. Once back at home, we unloaded my engine and had a good look around to see if we could find any maker's plate or name on the engine, but there was nothing. I looked through my copy of American Gasoline Engines Since 1872 by C.H. Wendel, and found my engine on page 473. It stated that it probably came from the Nelson Bros. stable and was sold through the Smyth-Despard Co. in Utica, N.Y., around 1925.

I've restored several vintage stationary engines in the past, so I decided I was going to return this one to its former glory. I thought the Internet might help me find some answers, so I took some engine photos and sent a cry for help to Gas Engine Magazine and the British equivalent Stationary Engine, plus a few others I thought might be able to help. I soon discovered that various people, who are well respected among the vintage stationary engine scene, had never even heard of this engine. The nearest comparison I could find on the Internet was a number of McLeod engines, one of which was a 3-1/2 HP, which bore quite a striking resemblance to my engine. (www.clanmacleodusa.org/ StanRankinHobbies.htm)

About a month later, Gordon and Suzi Tengen from Mount Pleasant, Mich., sent me a letter explaining they owned a 1-1/2 HP KracKerJack engine. They also very kindly enclosed a KracKerJack engine decal. A couple of paragraphs in Gordon's letter caught my eye. He wrote: "I have been to shows from Wyoming to Pennsylvania and from northern Minnesota to Kansas (more than 25 shows) and I've never seen another KracKerJack other than mine. I have always thought that if I ventured around upper New York state I might find some." Gordon also wrote, "I've been to the show at Portland, Ind., a number of times. They bill themselves as the largest engine show in the world and boast having more than 3,000 engines. I don't know about the accuracy of their claims, but there are a lot of engines there and I've never seen another KracKerJack."

So could it be possible I stumbled upon a bit of a rare beast? Gordon also gave me some history of the Nelson Bros. engines and an important contact. He told me about a guy named Dave Babcock from Cass City, Mich., who had pieced together some of the history of Nelson Bros. and actually spoken to the last three living relatives of the company.

I spoke to Dave on the phone, and apparently if the two igniter bolts are vertical the engine dates from 1911-1914, and if they are horizontal the engine dates from 1915-1918. After that I would assume the engines went to high-tension ignition. My engine has the Webster tri-polar Series K low-tension magneto, so that dates it to around 1915. Some of these engines were also stamped on the machined, flat face of the left flywheel (pulley side) with a four- or five-digit serial number, although this may be very faint; a magnifying glass might be needed. This is true of both KracKerJack and Sattley engines. The number on the KracKerJack will start with a letter and this will denote the horsepower of the engine. My engine number starts with CA and is quite clearly marked in figures about 1/4-inch high, so it's definitely a 3 HP.

Another of the KracKerJack engine's characteristics are the open "crow's foot" lugs, which are the method by which the engine block is bolted to the subbase fuel tank. According to Mark Meincke, author of The Complete Guide to Stationary Gas Engines, Nelson Bros. made engines under 74 different names: Sattley, Monarch, Dazzle Patch, Detroit, Little Jumbo and Gray are just a few. Because of this, some people may have a Nelson Bros. engine but are unaware as to its true identity. Engines would be sold to implement makers, catalog houses or just about anyone who was willing to order a number of engines at a time.

As a contract engine, the manufacturing process had to be done as cheap as possible, and while this did not mean a reduction in casting quality, it did bring about certain cost cutting measures. It's not uncommon for a contract engine to come without a brass plate because after all, the retailer would probably replace it with his own. Some engines were even supplied without a crankguard, especially where the engine would be situated inside a box or cover arrangement like you find on cement mixers, etc. A further savings would arise from not having to drill and tap the securing bolt holes. Apparently, the Smyth-Despard Co. even sold stoves called KracKerJacks, so they probably did little to an engine from Nelson Bros. except un-crate and sell it.

The restoration

The first priority in a restoration has to be a good engine cart. As I cleaned and repainted the various parts to this engine, I figured I could rebuild them on the new truck. I would guess that most contract engines were supplied, at best, on simple timber or metal skids, so I decided to build a timber cart. I managed to get some well-cast 12-inch wheels and an old drawbar from a local swap meet, so I incorporated these into the build as well. I've never seen a photo of a Nelson Bros. engine on original timber transport, but I decided to go for a conventional 4-by-3-inch ladder chassis. I figured that's the route the company would have taken because it's simple, strong and easy to construct. At the same time it's going to look authentic and well put together.

My KracKerJack engine rests on a subbase, and as a result, it stands about 10 inches taller than a comparable engine that has a separate fuel tank. So I increased the usual wheelbase by 10 inches to give the overall look of the project better dimensions and proportion. Building the timber cart went without a hitch and it turned out real fine. Once completed, the virgin timber was treated with a Jacobean dark oak wood dye. The beauty of this is, you apply this dye with a sponge so there are no streaks or brush marks. Once it's had a few days to soak and dry, you rub the timber down with a soft cloth to remove any excess dye, followed by two coats of satin outdoor clear varnish straight over the top. Next, some new steel axle mountings were fabricated with the two different heights so the front articulated axle would turn under the ladder chassis, giving superb maneuverability.

Now, my attention turned to the engine. This KracKerJack was duly stripped down to see what parts were OK and if any bits would need replacing. As it turned out, the engine was in remarkably good condition overall, despite its many years. However, the passing of time had taken its toll on one or two components. The wrist pin, timing gear shaft and the two governor weight pins needed to be replaced. This was not a problem as I'm extremely fortunate in knowing many people in the trade. So when I needed some first-class engineering work done, my friend Pete made the replacement parts.

The next job was the paint work and it wasn't going to be easy. The progress was painfully slow as it took so long for the paint to dry properly with the low temperatures we had during that time of year. However, just before Christmas, Mandy, my fiancé, relented and took pity on me, and she helped me carry the engine block into the living room to cure the paint in front of the radiator for a few days - how lucky was that? She didn't even complain when the inevitable paint fumes made it impossible to be in the living room for a good three or four hours!

On one occasion, back in the garage, I was removing the non-original red paint from the engine crankguard with some paint stripper when I started to find traces of the original Nelson Bros. green paint underneath. I quickly neutralized the paint stripper with some water and took some photos before the old paint was lost forever. I imagine the original green paint would have been quite a bit darker when it was first applied some 90 years ago, but had obviously faded. So with this in mind, I've painted my engine with a dark green which I imagine would have been somewhere close to the original. I've also managed to find somebody local who made another engine decal. He used the one Gordon sent me as a pattern, scanned it on his computer and duplicated the KracKerJack logo so I was able to apply one to each side of the water hopper. By now, things were starting to take shape with the engine block, subbase, flywheels and crankshaft all assembled on the wooden cart in their final coat of paint.

It was then time to check the working components and get them ready for assembly. The piston looked to be in fine shape and the ring grooves were free from carbon deposits. I offered the connecting rod onto the crankshaft and bolted the end cap down. I found the fit to be a just little loose, so I made new steel shims to make sure the rod bearing gap was properly balanced when fitted. So now, together with the newly made wrist pin, the whole piston and connecting rod assembly were carefully fitted into the engine.

I started on the cylinder head next. The valves were duly checked, reground and fitted, and the whole assembly was bolted in place over a new head gasket. The fuel mixer (carburetor) followed, along with a newly fabricated copper fuel pipe. The ignition timing gear wheel is fitted to this engine by means of a shaft, which passes through its center and is held in place on the side of the engine block with a pinch bolt. But when these two parts were fitted together, I found the hole in the gear wheel was quite worn and was allowing the gear to move about instead of running true.

My friend Pete came up with a solution to this problem: He carefully drilled the hole in the center of the gear wheel to make it true again. He made another, very slightly oversize shaft that was machined down to the correct size to fit into the engine block. This corrected the problem with the added bonus of now having a gear shaft that could not be pressed too tightly against the engine block that it would have pinched the gear wheel.

Early in the rebuild it became apparent that despite having been repainted about 10 years prior, this engine had not really been shown proper attention for quite some time. With this in mind, I decided to refurbish everything and give the engine a sympathetic restoration. By that, I mean every part of the engine was taken apart and checked. New parts were bought or fabricated and all the old components had the paint removed with watered-down paint stripper in order to find the correct color before I repainted and rebuilt the engine.

If enough of the original paint had survived, I would have just restored and re-built. Unfortunately, the previous owner took it upon himself to paint everything in red house paint and it simply looked awful. But the new Nelson Bros. green paint will eventually mellow with age and hopefully the restoration will keep this engine running for many years to come.

On to the igniter, I acquired some new mica washers and tube off the Internet from Bill Lopoulos (www.magnetoparts.com). Bill also suggested I get the Webster tri-polar magneto checked. I sent it to a man named Les Vincent who repaired a stiff bearing and re-magnetized the unit for me. The crankguard, or rod shield, is made from cast iron and comes in two parts. Now, the engine came with the large piece, but the smaller piece which is fitted to the rear of the engine was missing. This was, by far, the most difficult part to find in the whole restoration. I tried many potential sources in finding this illusive rod shield. I have to thank quite a few people for helping me finally find the part to complete the rebuild.

I e-mailed GEM again asking readers if they had a similar engine, and whether they had the missing rod shield piece I was looking for. If so, I wondered if they would be prepared to have a replica piece cast and forwarded to me in England. I would of course pay to have this done and refund the postage. Little did I know what chain of events would then be put in place.

My friend Gordon spoke to Roger Eldred, who discussed my need for this part with Ron Huetter. Ron remembered he sold a similar 3 HP KracKerJack engine to Paul Hunt. Gordon rang his friend (Dave Babcock from Cass City), who arranged to pick up the original part and took it to the foundry. Once the replica had been cast, he picked it up again, whereupon Gordon and Roger drove to Caro, Mich., to get it. Gordon then mailed the rod shield to me when he returned home.

The build was now complete and the day finally came when I would try to get a tune out of the old girl. After a few adjustments and a while spent tinkering, she finally burst into life. I soon realized I had set the timing gear one or two teeth out, but once this was sorted she ran much better. The flywheel governor springs also needed adjusting to get the engine running at the right speed. Another fault I encountered happened when I turned the fuel mixer from gas to kerosene and the engine stopped. It turns out, the end of the copper fuel pipe that delivers the kerosene from the subbase fuel tank sits about 1-inch from the bottom of the tank and I didn't put enough fuel in to meet the bottom of the pipe. An innocent oversight, but I guess I expected one or two teething problems along the way.

I've since had the old girl running on a number of occasions and every time she seems to run just a little bit better. I guess the engine just needs to settle in and get used to running properly again. This restoration has taken the better part of 16 months to complete, but it's all been made possible with the help and advice from many seasoned engine enthusiasts from both sides of the Atlantic. Your collective efforts are very much appreciated gentlemen and I'm therefore greatly indebted to all of you, thank you.

Now, I just have to find another engine project!

Contact Clive Heritage at: 48 Grimsbury Square, Branbury, Oxfordshire, England OX16 3HP; amanco@btinternet.com