SPECIAL ELECTRIC HOT ROD

An 1899 6 HP Fairbanks-Morse Type T Special Electric that was hard to pass up

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John Hamilton’s 1899 6 HP Fairbanks-Morse Type T Special Electric, bought off a farm in Ness County, Kan. Although it was highly modified and dirty, it looked solid, turned free, didn’t have rust and it was an upright – a major selling point for John.

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In early 2004, a neighbor, Bob, was visiting me and saw some of my engines. He said he had his father's engine, which I should take. It was an IHC LB 3-5 HP. Soon after I picked it up, it was putt-putting just like new. When Bob heard it, he said I needed to go to Kansas and get "the 6 HP Fairbanks Special Electric."

As I was trying to sell a 6 HP IHC M, I declined. But then he mentioned the magic word - upright. Shoot - another long trip and another restoration, just when I was trying to clean out the shop. Bob's uncles, the owners, wanted their engine to go to a good home. If I could bring the LB back to life, mine was a good home.

In September 2004, I picked up Bob and we drove to my brother Sam's house in Stillwater, Okla. We transferred to his Dodge 3/4-ton diesel and heavy trailer. Who knew what we'd find? In another five hours, we were in Ness City, Kan. The brothers came to the motel to visit us. "Do you have four-wheel drive?" Uh-oh - it had been raining on the limestone powder the county puts on its roads. It is as slick as melting ice and called "smear."

Fifteen miles of two-wheel drive smear later, we walked into the shed and saw the engine. Although the Fairbanks was highly modified and dirty, it looked solid, turned free, didn't have rust and it was a big upright. One uncle used his large bucket loader and a logging chain to load the engine on Sam's trailer. Another 15 miles of smear, and we were on our way home, white knuckles and all.

Back to the beginning

Back around 1899, a farmer in Ness County, Kan. bought this 6 HP Fairbanks-Morse Type T Special Electric engine. He used the engine until the mid-1930s to power a line shaft for a grinder, lathe and air compressor in his farm shop, making many modifications to the engine.

Weather in western Kansas can be severe and at some time the cylinder froze and was replaced. The head was probably replaced, too, because there are supposed to be serial numbers on both pieces. Only the cylinder is stamped, and the number there begins with the letter "O," which would not have been an original issue. There has been discussion on the Internet about this type of serial number, but it is all supposition. Also, this cylinder never had the cast brass nameplate.

During his ownership, the farmer replaced the hot tube and igniter with a spark plug and a magneto from a Hart-Parr 15-30. The mixer was replaced by an aftermarket Schebler D carburetor, which was widely advertised in the early 1900s for this type of application. A Chevrolet water pump replaced the original, and a Madison-Kipp 50 oiler from the Hart-Parr replaced the Michigan manifold oiler. The igniter trip mechanism was modified to trip the oiler.

Also, the crankshaft was reversed in the crankcase, blocking off the original rod bearing lubrication. The original type mechanism with a dedicated oiler dripped into a lipped plate bolted to the crankshaft. As the crankshaft turns, oil is spun to the rim by centrifugal force, which pushes it through a tube into the rod bearing. A kind of pressurized system in 1899! This is unique to the Special Electric as the regular T just used splash lubrication.

A lot of little parts such as the fuel pump, mixer, hot tube and water pump were lost in the process of the changes. A large tractor clutch pulley was mounted for the shop. In reversing the crankshaft to original configuration, I found the pulley would no longer work, so it has been set aside as heavy and unnecessary. The top of the piston had broken off and been rewelded, the valve stems had rotted away because of mud dauber nests, and the intake valve guide was broken off inside the head.

Around 1936, the farmer sold the engine to a neighbor, who hooked it to a grinder and promptly put out one of his eyes. The engine sat idle for a while until this man's sons got out of school around 1937 and decided to open a machine shop. They farmed in Ness County and ran the machine shop powered by the engine until 110-volt Rural Electric Assn. power came in 1946. At that time, the 45- or 46-year-old engine was put to rest. It obviously has spent most of its life under cover, because there was only minor surface rust.

A tall task ahead

When Sam got the engine to Waxahachie, Texas, it weighed in at 1,860 pounds at the feed mill. We removed it from the trailer with two cherry pickers, one piece at a time. We'd take something off with one picker, slide it to the edge of the trailer then pick it up with the other picker. Everything came loose and the job only took a couple of hours. Now what to do? Clean it and leave it as it was? Polish and paint everything? Replace missing parts and restore it?

This was a big project for us. The flywheels weigh 440 pounds each, and the piston and rod are close to 40 pounds. After everything was laid out and we had reproduction parts manuals, we took stock.

The Special Electric was made with heavy flywheels and throttle-governed to turn a generator. The regular hit-and-miss "T" with lighter flywheels and hit-and-miss ignition is called the "Jack-of-All-Trades." These big flywheels are slightly domed for use as the pulley, and there are special guards over the governor gears in case the belt falls off. All of these special parts were intact.

What was missing were the original electric and fuel systems. Over its life, the engine had worked hard then sat unattended for a long time. As there was no finish, a lot of light rust and many missing parts, leaving it in its old working livery was not a reasonable restoration option.

A complete restoration would have provided a very unusual and desirable engine but replacing all the parts would have been very expensive. Because we know all of the history of this engine and how it was used and by whom, there was a third option in this case - a hot rod! After all, if you replace the exhaust, carburetor and ignition on your car it is called a hot rod. This engine spent most of its life with aftermarket and adapted parts handling most of its functions. We decided to leave as much as possible in place and replace only what had to be replaced.

• Fuel system: The Schebler D carburetor was advertised in Gas Review magazine around 1915 to replace inefficient mixers on stationary engines. Dykes Automotive manuals have a complete page on this carburetor. Since it was a period piece, it was kept. This saved looking for a fuel pump because the Schebler is gravity fed. It looks good, too. The owner had made an adaptor out of a Model A Ford carburetor base so it just bolts on. The original rod from the governor controls the carburetor. The original mixer was unique to the Special Electric, and required a fuel pump and a lot of plumbing. I adapted a Briggs & Stratton fuel tank by making a bracket to hold it to the head bolts above the carburetor.

• Ignition system: Originally, the engine was equipped with both a hot tube and an igniter.

The Hart-Parr magneto and spark plug modifications from the 1920s were pretty crude, so Sam found the proper igniter. A friend and I designed and made a trip mechanism that looks like a factory piece. During the start-up process, I made an L-bracket from a barbecue grill to hold the igniter. The wire was attached to the spark plug and it was placed so that the trip mechanism worked the spark. It worked for the test, but the plastic button and hardened steel tripper probably would not have worked well over time. This is an easy fix for any spark plug engine. You can disguise the mechanism in a special box and fool anyone.

• Cooling system: The original water pump had been replaced by a 1930s Chevy water pump working with a 55-gallon drum. The local radiator shop boiled the cylinder and head overnight and removed a lot of debris. That's probably a good plan for any engine that does not have babbitt on the parts to be boiled. We will use a small water tank bracketed above the cylinder, operated by thermosyphon, for engine shows.

• Lubrication: The Madison-Kipp was too new for the engine and its wobblers were stuck. I missed the proper Michigan 5-place manifold oiler on eBay, but had a bunch of matching oilers. The engine took six! The missing crankcase lubrication system was made from a round disc of 18-gauge steel. The edge was rounded into a lip over the end of an anvil and a small tube soldered to the top to meet with the hole in the crankcase. It bolts to the side of the crankshaft web. A small L-bracket was made to hold the oiler to the outside of the crankcase, and another small tube was added from the bottom of the oiler to the hole in the crankcase, thus making sure that the end of the tube touched the plate inside the crankcase. It looks identical to the original setup.

• The head: One of the valves sat open and both valves were rusted almost through near the head. An earlier Gas Engine Magazine contained my article on making your own valves ("The 25 Cent Valve," January 2005) and I could have done this. However, a swap meet in Fredericksburg, Texas, turned up a new pair so we took the easy route. At some time, the head had received a blow and the intake valve guide was broken off. This defied my best efforts but a nearby machine shop did a complete valve job and replaced the guide for $100.

Finshing touches

Most of the real work was just clean-up and paint. The Ness County area has a lot of limestone, and the dust mixing with an oily engine turned into concrete. It would not scrape or sandblast off, but cleaned right up with a pneumatic descaler from one of the junk tool catalogs.

There was not a trace of original paint anywhere, even though every bolt was taken off. An early FM could have been red but dark green might have been the color, too. Model A Ford engine paint is close enough for a Fairbanks-Morse. It is dark green and best of all, available. Two quarts did the job.

I also found a replacement for the brass engine nameplate on eBay for $18, delivered! Once in a while, you get lucky. Even though this cylinder did not have a plate originally, it was too nice to omit.

A lot of cleaning and fabrication, and everything looks good. Compression is almost too good, and it is easy to set timing with the trip mechanism we made. All of the brass looks good, too.

So where are we? It's not original, but it's close to how it was used through most of its productive life up into the 1940s. Since the carburetion and ignition have been modified, I'll just call it a hot rod. Leaving it as it was wasn't a realistic option and restoring it to original would not have been representative of its productive life. The history is preserved with the engine. It's in Oklahoma now awaiting some fine tuning and a proper trailer or cart.

Contact John Hamilton at 910 W. Marvin Ave., Waxahachie, TX 75165; a.p.hamilton@att.net