Light Years of Pleasure

Delco-Light Generator Model 860

Delco-Light generator

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10 St. Charles Place Midlothian, Texas 76065

Electricity, which we daily take for granted, was considered a dream and luxury to rural families between 1900-1935. The day-to-day chores of washing clothes, pumping water, sawing wood, reading by coal-oil lamps and trips to the outhouse were soon to be history!

The 'affordable' Delco-Light generator powered electric lights (32 volts DC), electric motors, and provided power for running water. The Delco-Light advertisements and literature (written in part by a Mr. Carroll) strongly implied that families growing without electricity were doomed to----, 'a childhood of ignorance, disease and hardship.' The sales literature is excellent, factual, and very persuasive.

Delco-Light was a subsidiary of General Motors during the late teens (1918). Charles Kettering of Dayton, Ohio, who invented automobile self-starters, held many patents in the design of the Delco-Light systems.

The model 860 (850 watt-32 volts) was the first Delco produced. The generator was installed in the home basement, anchored to a large concrete foundation. Due to noise and exhaust, many generators were located in outbuildings, along with an arsenal of 16 two volt batteries. These glass-jar batteries were rated 80 amp-hr or 160 amp-hr. Other Delcos were offered in 12 volt/110 volt, up to four cylinder, and ability to start on demand. Delco offered a complete line of generator plants, appliances, and water systems to meet everyone's needs.

My interest in Delco-Light systems started as a teenager in 1969. I was reading an article in a Rural Electric Co-Op magazine featuring an old-timer who used and collected Delcos. I've purchased four units in the last 10 years and finished the granddaddy 850 watt last year. I am working on completing a 600 watt Delco, which is one-third the size. The 850 watt Delco was built in 1919, an early model with one gallon fuel tank, serial number 73879. The Model 600 was built in 1923. That date is stamped on the engine.

I found the Delco in 1992 at an Oilfield Electric Motor Shop in Abilene, Texas. The unit was complete and had been protected from time for 30 years by a lean-to shed and a metal tub. The owner was 'going to restore it when he retired' and claims it hadn't run for the better part of 50 years. I pestered him for four weeks to get him to sell it, let alone price it! Finally, he said 'I'd better sell it to you so I won't have to be bothered with both of you! At least I know you will restore it. Send me a picture when you get it finished!'

I started restoration in 1992. With the help of 'Dr. Delco' (Wayne Spharr of Avella, Pennsylvania), a GEM advertiser, I found parts, service manuals and good wisdom. I did need a starting crank, but Wayne wouldn't sell me one! He said a crank is best displayed 'safely' out of reach on a wall. I believe he talks from experience! Wayne and his wife are wonderful people. I enjoyed touring his collection of things never to be found anywhere on earth.

The Delco is a 'self-starting' air-cooled, four-stroke OHV engine. The engine is primed on gasoline and runs on K-1 kerosene quickly. A lever on the electric control panel allows the 'generator' to act as a 'motor,' thus 'cranking' the engine. Once the engine fires and runs, the lever is released; an electromagnetic coil 'holds' a set of contacts to send voltage to the ignition coil32 volt. It also 'shunts' the starting windings and energizes the 'field' for DC electric generation. (Took me a little while to figure this out!)

Once running, the generator will charge the batteries at about 15 amp rate. I use three lawn and garden 12V batteries in series, enclosed in a portable case.

The Delco was designed to shut off automatically when the batteries were fully charged. An amp-hour meter on the control panel works like the electric hour meter on the outside of houses today. A wheel 'disc' rotates to turn a gear-driven clock hand. The disc will rotate counterclockwise or clockwise, depending whether you are generating or drawing from the batteries directly. When generating, the clock hours will rotate to 'full' and a set of contacts open. The coil ground is interrupted and the engine stops. Ideally a set of batteries will be fully charged on 'boiling' when the engine stops. (Check once a week.) As the battery supply is used up, the hand rotates the other direction. One could estimate battery life by observing the position of the hand on the numeric clock face and the ammeter needle. An 80 amp-hour battery set would provide eight hours of usage at a 10 amp discharge.

The Delco was well engineered mechanically for use as well as serviceability. The long stroke engine ran 1200 r.p.m. The engine crankcase provides an 'oil bath' air cleaner to ensure clean air intake to the fuel mixer. This 'modular' engine allowed servicemen to replace or repair major components quickly to prevent customer downtime. Removal of three nuts would allow the generator, control panel and armature to be removed. The crankshaft was supported with two Hyatt roller bearings, eliminating need for a support bearing in the generator housing end.

The flywheel (access to crankcase), head, and cylinder were easily removed as well. A detailed repair manual allowed even a novice to expertly maintain and trouble-shoot the light plant.

Why don't we still use Delcos today?? Simple ... we have small families today. The large families of the '20s and '30s provided a mechanical gene pool, where at least one family member inherited a genius to keep the Delco running when it pitched a fit! Many Delcos were abandoned due to high maintenance costs, and families switched to Roosevelt's REA during the Thirties. Also, many units were scrapped (recycled) during WWII, which marked the end of a satisfying relationship.

I guess I'm a bit old fashioned. I love to hear the Delco chug along merrily, lighting Christmas tree light displays and reminding new generations of the past. Since I joined the North Texas Tractor and Gas Engine Association I made the Comanche, Texas, 'Pow-Wow' on October 24, 1994. Excellent show! I displayed a Maytag 92 engine and a Briggs & Stratton. I'm finishing a McCormick-Deering 'LA' 1-2 HP.

My wife and son now have the gas engine bug. We hope to have the '53 flathead-powered Ford F-100 pickup finished and ready to 'trailer on' to other shows next season!

Thanks for allowing me to share a great hobby with others!