A Teen and his Hobby of Restoring Gas Engines

Teenager Edgar Johnson, Jr. shares information about his hobby of restoring gas engines.

Power grain threshers

Photo courtesy of Edgar Johnson, Jr., Flemington, New Jersey.

PHOTO: LEONARD JAMES

Content Tools

All about a teen and his hobby of restoring gas engines. 

Most kids at the age of 15 are out swimming or playing ball come summer, but Edgar Johnson Jr. of Rural Ringoes is more likely to be found down in the basement garage working on his hobby of restoring gas engines.

Restoration is the word, too, because Johnson starts with antiques: old, beaten-up liulks with pistons rusted to cylinder walls. He finishes with finely running engines covered with gleaming coats of paint.

Part of it may be that Edgar's dad, Edgar Johnson Sr., is a mechanic and runs an auto body shop on Hampton Corner Road in Raritan Township. But it's mainly help in the form of a wrecking truck to haul the engines around and equipment like sandblasters that Edgar Sr. contributes — his son doesn't need any encouragement at all.

Edgar Jr. has two engines completely restored and is halfway done with a third. He works on them one at a time. 'If we didn't make him stick to one, he'd never get any done,' his mother explains.

Because out in the back yard are four more old engines, and Edgar is constantly on the lookout for more. He's itching to get lo work on an old 5 hp New Holland, and he doesn't know whether to take that one next or a small spark plug model Fairbanks Morse the Holcombe sisters who live down the road gave him.

"They had everybody in there after that motor, but they would not sell it. I heard about it and I went down to look at it. I told them what I was doing, and they said they'd rather see the thing fixed up than out rusting in the barn," Edgar says. They gave it to the youth in good faith, refusing to take any money for it.

"So now when he gets it done, we're going to bring them down and give them a demonstration," his mother adds.

The boy's motors are all about a half century old. The motors of the day were used by farmers to power grain threshers, water pumps, and milling machines. Larger versions of the same design were used by small towns for their first municipal water and electric systems.

Big Offers for Restored Antique Gas Engines

The machines are considered antiques and Edgar has already received offers in the hundreds of dollars for one of his finished models, according to his mother. But he won't sell.

"I figure when I get old, you know, 60 or 70, if I get that old, I'll give them to a museum. There are some like mine already in museums. If I sold one, I'd never know if the buyer took good care of it," he says.

This picture of the International Thresher and 1 cylinder Gas Engine International Picker was taken at the September, 1963 Threshing Meet at Madison, South Dakota.

This is a real old picture out of the files — no description on it but am sure you fellows will enjoy it. — Anna Mae.

Here is a picture of my 3 hp and 1 hp International engines. The 3 hp shows no signs of wear, but it required a new gas tank, the old one having been rusted out. I acquired the 1 hp off a junkpile. It was in good running condition at the time.

I find your new Gas Engine Magazine very interesting as well as learning new facts and helpful hints about these old time engines. After acquiring a new engine, I nearly always run across a new problem that will stump me for awhile. There is a countless number of these small engines left around our part of the country.

It is sure nice that spring is here and all the snow is gone because we can now do all the things with our engines that we only thought of doing during the winter.

Being a young interested reader of your magazine, I wish you and your staff all the success in the future I have read the present magazine from cover to cover and am looking forward to your next one.

Sorry — there was no description with this photo - but it is pretty clear and I thought you might enjoy it! — Anna Mae.

I think this is a Hercules. It had not been run for over 30 years. It's now running. I had to knock the piston out with a block of wood and a sledge hammer. A half century ago, names like Arco, Domestic, New Holland, and Fairbanks Morse identified the engine manufacturers of the day.

The engines weren't the smoothly running, starter motor equipped, spark plug models of today that weigh 50 to 100 pounds and run the family lawn mower.

Edgar's finished 1 horsepower International weighs over 200 pounds. There weren't any spark plugs in those days. Instead two heavy metal contacts are separated by a cam run from the flywheel, just as the distributor points in a car ignition. When the points separate, a high voltage charge generated by a magneto (then called a "Tri Polar Oscillator") jumps a spark, which explodes the fuel mixture.

The International is a two cycle job — on the first cycle the fuel explodes, on the second the gases are exhausted and replaced with new air.

Edgar's other finished engine comes from the days before engines had cycles, it just goes. By "hit and miss" as farmers used to describe it. The engine starts with an explosion, as all of them do. Then it coasts. A cam opens up the cylinder cavity so compression doesn't slow it down, and the flywheel keeps it going. After it's slowed down a bit, a governor automatically sets it up to spark again, and with a loud "chug" it hits.

All of the engines have mufflers (sparks would be a hazard in a barn) and are actually much quieter than whining present day lawn mower engines. They run at slow speeds — around 550 or 650 revolutions per minute. The hit and miss type can be adjusted so slow they look like they're going to come to a dead stop before they fire again.

The fuel is low cost kerosene, but the engines have a complex system of fuel supply (no carburetor tho) so they can be started with gasoline, then switched to kerosene when they warm up.

Inventing a way to Run Cars on Water

The old canard about the anonymous inventor who discovered a way to run cars on water (only to have the big gas monopolies buy it and hide it) probably came from the engines like Edgar's since they also use water with the kerosene. It's supposed to keep the engine from knocking under heavy loads, the manufacturers claim in an old engine handbook he managed to pick up.

A quick flick of the flywheel or a turn with a crank and they're going, Edgar claims, When he tried to demonstrate a quick start he wound up doing what owners of older lawn mowers do — flooding the engine. But then he has to get the magneto magnet recharged, he says, so he'll get a hotter spark.

Parts are hard to get (three piston rings cost $8.00 if you can find them), but Edgar has been lucky in finding most of the engines intact.

He sandblasts, soaks in kerosene, sands piston walls with fine grain paper, and carefully works over brittle cast iron or white metal parts until they look and work like new.

It started three years ago when Edgar Sr. came home with the International, which he found in a junk yard near Glen Gardner and picked up out of curiosity. It lay in the yard unused.

Then two summers ago the whole family went out to the annual Rough & Tumble Engine Historical Association old car and engine show out in Kinzers, Pennsylvania. Edgar was impressed.

Something clicked in his mind, and he's been at it ever since. This August, he'll be exhibiting his engines at the show.