Roadside Riches: Rescuing Old Engines

Rescuing and restoring old engines, twin brothers discover more in common than blood.

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The four engines Gary Berlin picked up in Canada, from left: a Fairbanks-Morse 7-1/2 HP Model ZC, two International Harvester 3-5 HP LBs with clutch and a 2-1/2 HP LB. The engines are all from the mid-1940s.

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My introduction into restoring old engines started in Berwick, Pa., way back in the early 1950s. My twin brother Larry and I lived near the Susquehanna River and would hike and play for miles along the river banks. We would visit a hermit who lived several blocks from our home. This man collected everything he could get his hands on. Some of it was valuable and more of it was simply junk. Buried in the brush and vines near his house was an old Fairbanks Z engine, probably a 3 or 7 HP.

As 12 or 13 year olds, the engine became an irresistible stop every time we were in the area. We would stand there and turn the flywheel for long periods of time, and when we had a new friend with us, we would initiate him by having him hold onto the spark plug wire while we turned the flywheel.

When we were about 15 we purchased 10 old Maytag engines for $1 each. Some of the engines were not complete, but there were enough parts to make up a few good engines. This allowed us to have some great kick-start fun.

The next engine we rescued was a Wisconsin V4 taken from a piece of farm machinery that had been in a barn fire. We lugged this engine down the narrow basement steps of our home and stripped it down completely. We were sure that we could get this engine operating. Unfortunately, the babbitt bearings had melted out during the fire and we could not find anyone with the knowledge to pour new bearings. We put this project aside, hoping to work on it when we got the money.

Shortly thereafter, my brother and I started working and dating, and our interest in engines was put on the back burner. We graduated from high school and started college. I took a mechanical design course and my brother, still having the engine bug, took courses in diesel mechanics and automotive repair.

Eventually we married the women of our dreams and moved away from home to start our families and careers. About 10 years later Dad called us and asked if we wanted the Maytag engines. He said he had decided to clean out the basement, and we had more there than he had collected in 40 years of marriage. Don't believe him; he was a child of the Depression and he saved everything, down to the pull strings from the old ceiling lights that had been replaced in our home. He trained us well in saving old things.

My brother and I said we had no need for the engines and told him to get rid of them if he wanted - we told him to throw out six operating Maytag engines. Boy, do I wish I had them now. Well, Dad did clean out the basement and discarded everything, except for the cylinder block for that old Wisconsin V4. It was simply too heavy. Dad passed away and my nephew bought the home with the cylinder block still in his basement. It has become a family heirloom.

Larry started his carrier working on diesel engines at a truck repair shop. He then started teaching automotive repair at a local high school. He moved to New Jersey and was asked to set up the course for an adult diesel mechanics school. He became the director of what is called Engine City Tech and continues to work with marine and industrial engines, and trains customers in their operation and repair. I started working at Dewalt Tools as a technician and am now vice president of sales, celebrating close to 40 years in the humidification industry. This is not an industry that has a great use for engines and my interest in them has been very minimal.

In 1994 my brother and I were on a fishing trip in Canada. On the way home we were travelling through Kazabazua, Quebec, a small village about two hours north of Ottawa. Sitting along the road were four old flywheel engines. My brother slammed on the brakes and turned around. Sitting there were two International 5 HP LB engines, a 2-1/2 HP LB and a 7-1/2 HP Fairbanks ZC. We talked to the owner and he wanted $300 Canadian for all the engines. At that time this was about $175 U.S. Being loaded down with fishing gear we took the guy's card and told him we would call. He said they would probably still be there because they had been there for about 10 months and we were the first to stop.

As we drove home my brother kept saying "we need to find a way to get the engines home." Four years went by and each year we would pass the engines at 2 a.m. on our way to the lodge. On the way home we would stop and talk to the owner and the price went up $100 each year.

In 1999 my brother found an International M that he could not resist. He got it running and would run it every so often when I would visit. I did not realize it at the time, but that disease called "old rust" started to get to me.

I often visited our company's office in Ottawa, but I would fly in for every visit and never thought about the engines. Then, in June 2000, I had to make a trip to Ottawa and decided to drive. As I was getting material around for the trip, I accidentally found the card from Jacque in Kazabazua. I called him and asked if he was tired of mowing around those old engines in front of his home. He said, "Are you one of the guys from Pennsylvania?" I said yes and he said, "they have been waiting for you." I set up a tentative time to meet him on Thursday morning and he said the price would be the $300 Canadian he originally quoted.

Now, what was I to do? I had a Dodge Caravan, so I took out all the seats, cut slots in a piece of plywood to access the seat brackets in the floor to attach tie-down straps, and away I went. After completing my meetings in Ottawa, I called Jacque and confirmed that I would be there in the morning. Once there, he asked how the two of us were going to get them into the van. Well, a couple of 2-by-4s and some 2-inch pipe, and they were loaded and strapped into the van in about a half hour. Believe me, the van was sitting a little low.

Taking it very careful on the road to Ottawa was my main worry. Once there, the trip home would be only 400 miles on interstate highways. While traveling to the border I realized I had to clear U.S. customs. All the way I kept thinking what would they charge to get the engines into the United States.

I crossed the border at Ogdensburg, N.Y., and the customs officer asked the usual questions. Then he asked if I had any industrial goods in the van. I said no but he may want to look in the back. Opening the tailgate he asked what they were. I told him they were old farm engines from the 1940s. He tried to move one and said "They must be over 100 HP." He was really puzzled when he learned they were only about 5 HP. He said he had never seen anything like that cross the border before and asked me to pull over while he talked to his supervisor.

Well, I had my first engine show right there at the customs house in Ogdensburg. Everyone in the building came out to see the engines and turn the flywheels. Finally someone said, "Is there any duty on these things?" Someone said, "Do you know how long it will take to research this and I don't think it will be much anyway." I showed them the specification plate on one of the engines and said they were made in the United States and everyone agreed that duty was not required. After about another half hour of discussing the engines and turning the flywheels I was on my way home. I arrived about 6 p.m. and decided to unload the engines in the morning.

I got up shortly after 7 a.m. and backed my van up to a small hill in our side yard. Using a couple of 2-by-6s and the pipe, the four engines came out of the van with little difficulty. Then the problems started. I had no cart to move them and they would not budge on the grass, even with my 300 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal pulling as hard as I could. I have always believed that wherever there is a problem there is a solution. Removing the plywood from the van I loaded one of the engines onto it and attached a heavy rope. The engine was still very difficult to move. I got the garden hose, wet the grass and bingo, away I went with the engine towards the backyard.

I did forget one thing: I did not tell my wife about the engines. I really thought I could get them into the back yard before she got out of bed. Sometimes things just don't work out like you expect when it concerns the little woman. She got up early, got dressed and came out back just as I was dragging the first engine through the gate and into the back yard. This is the first time I heard the question, "What are we going to do with all that rust in the back yard?"

I took some pictures of the engines and recorded their serial numbers. I did some research and found they were from the early 1940s and went on eBay to see if I could find manuals. Within a week I had all the manuals.

Mid-July came around really fast and we were on our way to Canada for another fishing trip. I had not told my brother I had picked up the engines. About 2 a.m. as we were entering Kazsabuazua I acted as if I was asleep. I heard my brother curse and I acted as if I had just woken up and said, "What's wrong?" He told me the engines were not there. I said, "Maybe the guy moved them, we should stop on the way home." He grumbled all the way to the lodge that we should have made a trip to pick them up.

Upon arrival at the lodge, we unloaded everything and I placed an envelope of pictures on the kitchen table. Each breakfast and dinner I kept waiting for someone to open the envelope and look at the pictures. Finally, on Thursday night during dinner, my brother picked up the envelope, looked at the pictures, put them back in the envelope and said, "Nice picture of your backyard." I said, "I took them because we want to do some more landscaping." Not a word about the engines.

I was dying, but did not say anything. About 5 minutes later, Larry got this look on his face, grabbed the envelope and pulled the pictures out. "You got the engines. When? How? What did you pay? I'll buy two of them from you."

I told him I did not want to sell them and was going to try to get them operating myself. He laughed out loud and said that will be the day. He grumbled to my brother and nephew, "What is he going to do with them, he knows nothing about engines, let alone engines of this age." All the way home he grumbled and offered to buy them.

A few weekends later I had finished the yard work and started to look at the Fairbanks ZC. The gas tank had some pin holes and rust. I decided to put some gas in the carburetor and gave it a crank. It popped, and the next crank it actually fired several times. After sitting for over 40 years in a shed in Quebec this engine was going to run.

I removed the gas tank and cleaned the fill tube with carburetor cleaner. I replaced the tank with a coffee can filled with gas. Then I poured water in the hopper and found the crack in the bottom of the head. Well, this engine was sitting outside in Canada for who knows how many years, so I did a temporary Red Green Possum Lodge repair with duct tape.

"I filled up the tape on his answering machine with the sounds of my engine."

Time to start the engine. It started on the second crank. A few adjustments to the carburetor and she was running smoothly. Time to make a phone call. I ran and picked up our cordless phone and called Larry on my way back to the still-operating engine. I got his answering machine. Well, if he was inconsiderate enough to be away at a time like this, I felt I should make sure he knew what was happening. I filled up the tape on his answering machine with the sounds of my engine.

Two weeks went by and he did not call me. I started to work on one of the LB 5 HP engines and found that there was spark. I removed the gas tank and it was very dirty inside but did not have any leaks. I cleaned it out, filled it with gas and turned the flywheel crank; it fired. A few more tries and adjustments and she was running. I cranked up the Fairbanks and ran for the phone. He was not home, again, so I left him another message with the sweet sound of both engines operating. That evening my nephew called. He said Larry was really upset and I probably needed to call him. Actually, he was simply being stubborn since he was the one with the engine schooling and never thought I would be able to do this without his help. I called him and asked what he thought about the sound of those engines. He laughed and said, "I was wondering how long it would take you to mention them." We then had a long talk about the engines.

The following Thursday the local television station had a piece on the Rough and Tumble show going on nearby. I took Friday off and went to Kinzer. I had lived 20 miles from R&T for 35 years and never visited the park. I joined R&T at that show and got Larry a membership for Christmas.

That was the start of a great hobby for Larry and myself. We have met a lot of great people who my wife simply can't bring herself to understand. However, when she questions this hobby I simply remind her about all the shoes in her closets. Larry and I now have about 30 engines between us including a Genco Powerplant, an Ottawa Buzzmaster with cordwood saw, a Myrick 4 HP and many others.

I also have a Fairbanks 3 HP Z direct-gear-drive typhoon pressure pump assembly on its cart. The serial number is 26115, but the engine number is unreadable. If anyone knows if Fairbanks would have used the same serial number for the engine that they used for the pump or has any information on this machine, I really would appreciate a manual for the pump. I have an operating engine and am working to restore the pump and have a working display. Once this is operating, well, that will be another story.

Contact Gary Berlin at: 1439 Jerry Lane, Manheim, PA 17545; (717) 665-7382; garystoys1@aol.com