I vowed to myself that my current ownership of 8 tractors (some are half-owned by my friend Ron Kochera) and eight antique engines has reached capacity for the time. Ten minutes after deciding this, I read in the public auction section of the local farming magazine that a housecleaning sale for a deceased gentleman included a 3 HP McCormick Deering engine on a cart. My vow was abruptly placed on hold, due to the fact that the auction ad did not have the engine in boldface or in highlights, as often is the case. The ad did mention that it was stuck. Isn't it a collector's human nature to try and outguess potential bidders by thinking they will not see the engine word mentioned in the ad, or to think the word "stuck" may turn off potential buyers?
I called the auctioneer. He, like I, was a schoolteacher by occupation. My certification is in agricultural mechanics (which includes gas engines, of course). The auctioneer said the engines was not in too bad a shape, but that it had not been started in 30 years.
The auction was on a Monday afternoon at a fire hall near Allentown. I had to sneak out of work a little early with some lame excuse in order to arrive shortly after the four o'clock start. Squeezing through narrow aisles of cluttered tables and wall-to-wall people, I did not see the engine. Bidders were increasingly annoyed at my frantic pace throughout the hall. Finally, in between items, the auctioneer turned his head to sip some coffee. Seizing the opportunity, I lunged forward from 20 feet away and quickly asked, "Where is the engine? I'm the teacher who called you."
"Outside the side door in the back of my pickup truck."
"What time will it be auctioned off?" I continued.
"Oh I'd say around 5:30 or so."
Out the side door I went like a horse released from its race chute.
My programmed smile quickly changed to a look of intrigue, to a frown of disappointment. There it was. The engine and cart were brown with rust. A few others were looking at it from alongside the pickup truck. They were either laughing at the engine or some unrelated conversation. One man was overheard calling it a generator. Onto the pickup I climbed for a close inspection. The serial number indicated a type M, 1925, according to Wendel's Notebook. Nothing unusual about this one. The owner's son apparently noticed my look of interest and approached me. "This engine used to belong to my father. He passed away years ago and we were cleaning house."
Upon hearing the word engine, the man who called it a generator raised his eyebrows and quietly slipped away, a little embarrassed in front of his friends.
The son continued, "Dad would cut logs with it when we were small."
"If I buy this engine will you help me load it onto my pickup?" I asked.
"Sure," he snapped, "All you have to do is back up to this pickup and drop your tailgate. We'll roll it on."
The bidding started at $50 from an older man after an initial call of $200. My turn: $75. Only he and I. At $175 he quit. I win!
Down Interstate 78 with an 800 pound paperweight in my Chevy S-10, singing with joy, I suddenly stopped to ask myself why I bought it. All fears were calmed as a car passed me with thumbs up. Usually the look of "What is it?" prevails.
Priority one was freeing the piston. I brought it to school the next day. Before long a herd of students went flying out the back door to our yard to see the engine. Six of my bigger students volunteered to lift the engine off the truck. They did. I'm not sure how. We turned it on its end, cylinder up, removed the head and filled the cylinder with Liquid Wrench. Oh, removing the "stuck" head only took four days. A sure sign of what lies ahead. Now it was fast becoming a contest to see who would free the piston. Every day certain guys would take a few raps with the sledgehammer and 4x4 (easy does it!) to try and free it. This went on for a month. Most guys quit hammering after a few days and sarcastically reminded me of the $175 I wasted on scrap metal.
Comments like that motivate you more to get the job done, but that secret is never revealed. Jason Minnich and Billy Sweigart were not swayed by their peers. Their persistence paid off. With only five days left until the last day of school they moved the piston. Word of this spread faster than pregnancy rumors. Some guys even stopped by to ask me to start the engine now. In my dreams!
Now summer vacation began and the rest was up to me. That stuck piston was only the start. Work on the engine included patching up two large gas tank holes, rebuilding the magneto, completely overhauling an impossible carburetor (needle valves rusted fast), replacing a lovely Farmall F-12 fuel pump "custom fit" to the engine with an original from Ed at Hit-n-Miss Enterprises, repairing a damaged governor system due to rust exposure, and the list goes on. The engine was supposedly in a garage for 30 years. No mention was made if the garage had a roof.
After rebuilding most of these parts and getting a spark from the magneto, the engine wouldn't start. The only sound was an occasional pop. With the beginning of August rapidly approaching, the realization began to sink in that my summer was being wasted on an engine with too many problems beyond repair. One day a friend was in the shop with me and commented on how this engine was depressing me and that I was easily irritated and annoyed at the situation. Knowing that was true, I decided to call it quits. Tomorrow it gets packed and ready for some upcoming consignment sale.
That evening I was watching television and reading my August Gas Engine Magazine. The beautiful engines mesmerized me. The adrenaline flowed. Out the back door I departed to my vehicle. Destination: high school shop once again. Tonight this engine will run, I kept telling myself. A gut feeling about the electrical system kept gnawing away at me. Even though I went over the magneto several times to create a hotter spark, I decided to close the sparkplug gap by another .003 inches. I spun the flywheel. Boom! I jumped. Boom! Boom! She exploded with excitement. Black smoke and dirt were flying everywhere. I was too busy jumping with excitement to realize that the engine too was jumping almost off the bench! Its sound was awesome, unlike the sound of my other engines. This one thumped instead, a unique voice.
Everything was home free from this point. The highest struggle was rust removal. Two student friends came by one day and we ran the engine while the three of us held wood blocks wrapped with 80 grit sandpaper against the fly wheels to sand them down. Eight hours and several sodas later we were down to the fine automotive 400 grit paper for that polished shine. Beautiful! Dark green spray paint and new decals followed. And that cart! It surely weighs 200 pounds alone. The metal bed was replaced with a nice wood covering. The metal frame was painted black and those unique tear drop designed wheels were done brilliant red. The chrome muffler certainly defies the idea of an original engine, but this enhances the engine's beauty and melodic sound. And I know this is true, because after only the third day of school this past September, one of my students made a sign and scotch-taped it to the engine. It read: "Mr. Centonze's big thumper engine."