Hit - and - Miss

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It's July as I write this, and the show season is in full swing around the country. In conversations with engine collectors in various states, it's clear that yet another bumper crop of old engines is being harvested, with rare and unusual engines popping up everywhere. More than a few vintage tractors have come to the surface as well, with reports of a rare Allis-Chalmers 6-12, one of perhaps 35 survivors, coming back into the fold.

But as fascinating as the rare and unusual machinery may be, it's really the bread-and-butter equipment from companies like IHC, John Deere, Fairbanks-Morse and Hercules, to name but a few, that has fueled the old iron hobby. Engines from these companies were produced by the hundreds of thousands - IHC built close to 430,000 Type M engines - and those huge numbers tranlated into great numbers of survivors. John Deere Model Es, Fairbanks-Morse Type Zs, these are the engines that, more than any others, have made the hobby grow.

Thankfully, and amazingly, examples from these manufacturers continue to come to light, found even today quietly sitting in barns, behind sheds or sometimes in the woods, patiently waiting their turn at renovation and rebirth.

That said, some of the most remarkable engines were produced by some of the earliest purveyors of the trade, and if you don't believe that, take a trip to Coolspring, Pa., and visit the Coolspring Power Museum. There, in sheds and buildings established around the grounds, you'll find engines displaying a degree of technical and mechanical ingenuity and innovation that boggles the mind.

The list is long, including items like overhead camshaft Springfields, gearless Olds engines and sideshaft Elyrias, to name but a few. Early manufacturers working with new technologies were literally carving out a new mechanical universe, and in the process forever shifting the balance of power from steam to gasoline.

Unlike steam, however, they were dealing with a volatile fuel of routinely unstable and unpredictable quality. Many innovations were, in large measure, driven by this reality, because even if the fuel wasn't perfect, the machine, if properly designed and executed, could be. As is often the case, extreme complexity ultimately gave way to simple, rugged designs, especially in smaller engines designed for less rigorous duties. Improvement in fuel quality was a major factor in simplification, as stable and predictable fuel allowed consistant and predictable operation across a broad range of operation. And it was, ultimately, simplification that allowed manufacturers like IHC to mass produce hundreds of thousands of engines at prices millions could afford.

The complex and the innovative engines excite and draw many of us, but the simple engines got many of us started, and without them the old iron hobby would be a very different breed of animal.