Johnson Brothers Company Motor Wheel

Loren Erwin
October/November 1997
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I would like to share my story of this little gas engine, in hopes the story will interest other gas engine collectors and maybe even stir a few memories for some of the 'older folks' who had one of these engines.

In the winter of 1914 the Johnson Brothers Motor Company of Terre Haute, Indiana, saw the need for an inexpensive means of transportation and, since the main form of horseless transportation in the early 1900s was the bicycle, the Johnson Brothers designed and built these gasoline engines for the purpose of making 'motorized bikes.' The Johnson Brothers Motor Company completely built these engines, but the magnetos would not operate properly at high speeds. Dick Oglesby, an inventor from South Bend, Indiana, offered his magnetos to the Johnsons to try on their engines and the perfect match was found. The Johnson Brothers moved to South Bend, and there they formed the Johnson Brothers Motor Wheel Company and started full production of these gasoline engines.

The engines were 1 HP, opposed cylinder, 2 cycle, 2' bore with 1 stroke, two flywheel magnetos, one magneto for spark to fire both cylinders at once, and the other magneto for a bicycle headlight (3 volt); bronze bearings and float feed carburetor and weighed out at around 25 pounds.

The engine came with a rear wheel unit consisting of the wheel, hub tire, shock-absorbing spring sprocket holder, wheel sprocket and chain, handle bar controls for choke, throttle and engine shutoff, a three quart gas tank and gas line, and all necessary fittings to adapt the engine and rear wheel unit to any 26' bicycle. This complete unit was named the Johnson Motor Wheel. To make a motorized bike, the bicycle rear wheel was removed and the Johnson rear wheel unit put in its place, the engine placed on top of the rear mud guard and secured to the bicycle frame and the gas line connected to the carburetor, the engine controls fastened to the right side handlebars, the pedal and engine chains hooked up and adjustments made, the gas tank filled and, away the 'motorized bike' wentall this in less than thirty minutes!

The controls on the handlebar for the engine consists of two stacked levers and cables. The bottom lever, when held to the far left position, operates a cable and rod which holds open the two engine exhaust valves and, at the same time, makes contact with the engine 'ground out' wire to the magneto to keep the plugs from firing. The bottom lever was held in this position in order to pedal the bicycle to prepare for starting the engine. When a little speed was established, the bottom lever was released and this allowed exhaust valves to close, the magneto to give spark and the engine to start.

The bottom lever was also the throttle. The further to the right it was moved the faster the speed. The top lever on the handlebar was the choke. When the lever was at the left the carburetor choke was open and when turned to the right gave full choke to the carburetor.

Because there was no clutch between the engine and rear wheel, it was necessary to stop the engine each time the 'motorized bike' had to stop moving. This was accomplished by moving and holding the bottom lever on the handlebar to the far left. This 'killed' the engine and left it freewheeling with no compression. This would seem to be a real 'pain,' but once the engine was warm it would usually restart on the first revolution of the engine flywheel when pedaling the bicycle.

My Johnson engine was purchased at a farm auction in the summer of 1996 by a gentleman who in turn sold the engine to me for a very reasonable price. There was the engine only, which had been mounted on a makeshift stand with a homemade cooling fan placed over the flywheel. I was able to obtain an instruction book for the Johnson Motor Wheel and with this booklet, set out to reproduce, as close as possible, using four pictures of the bicycle or rear wheel portion, the rear wheel assembly, shock-absorbing assembly, wheel sprocket, wheel stand, engine mounts, control levers for assembly, etc. I placed the 'Motor Wheel' and engine on an early 1960s Schwinn bicycle, having only to modify the bicycle by welding the shock-absorbing supports on the rear wheel hub. The rest was fabrication, trial and error and installation with no further bicycle modifications necessary. I would like to find a much older bicycle on which to place the 'Motor Wheel' but I am still on a tight budget so this will come at a later time.

I 'kind of know' how the Johnson Brothers felt when designing these Motor Wheel units from scratch. I enjoy tinkering and I thoroughly enjoyed this project. I realize my work is only a reproduction of the Johnson Brothers quality work and am in hopes that wherever I show this engine and bicycle that people who see it will like what they see, not for the work done on it by me, but by the ingenuity of people to have designed and built these units some 80 years ago.

I placed an inquiry in the January 1997 issue of GEM seeking information on the Johnson engine, and I thank Lloyd Warren of Davie, Florida, and Ervin Birzer of Santa Barbara, California, for sending literature; Randy Walker of Brookfield, Massachusetts, for sending an instruction book for the Johnson Motor Wheel, and Patrick Zeller of Paxico, Kansas, for providing me with the Johnson Motor Wheel gas tank. Thank you to ABF Graphics of Carthage for the professional 're lettering' of the gas tank; Allen Jennings (Jennings Bike Shop) and Mark McCoy, both of Carthage, for supplying the Schwinn bicycle; Jack Chandler (Magneeders) my friend and neighbor who helped me through this project; and my wife Glenda, who lets me 'play' with my engines and doesn't think it's weird for a 50 year old man to have a bicycle with an 'engine' on it.


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