Crown Motor Works was one of many small firms engaged in the mechanization of America in the early decades of the 20th century. The airplane and the telephone were, in practical terms, still in their infancy, while vacuum tubes for efficient radio broadcasting was still a struggling technology. But the internal combustion engine was fast becoming an industrial mainstay as the century progressed.
Electricity was still not widely available in rural areas, so small gasoline-powered engines were sought by many people for powering machines and equipment. To satisfy this need, small manufacturing companies popped up across America, especially in areas surrounding large, industrialized cities. Elgin, Ill., situated 40 miles west of Chicago, was one such spot, and this is the story of one of those small, early-1900s firms; the Crown Motor Works, of Elgin, Ill.
One Horse Power Air Cooled Gasoline Engine Complete, Ready to Run $35.00
From all indications the Crown Motor Works was one man's dream, a part-time spin-off that lasted for perhaps a little more than a decade or so, and a venture that was, in the end, never a commercial success. It was a venture that appears to have been carried out quietly, almost confidentially, by the quiet, unassuming man who was my grandfather, Arthur Henry Van Wambeke.
Arthur Henry Van Wambeke was the grandson of Constantine Van Wambeke, who, at the age of 17, emigrated from Belgium to America in 1856, settling in Moline, Ill. His second U.S.-born son, Heinrich (who later went by the name Henry), grew up in Missouri. Henry and his first wife, Fannie, had eight sons and one daughter. Arthur, the eldest son, was born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1880. Some time around 1892 Henry and his family (including his younger brother, George) moved to Chicago. A year or so later Henry and his family settled in Elgin, while George stayed in Chicago, where he set up an Auburn auto dealership around 1914.
In Elgin Henry established a grocery store, first on Congdon Avenue, and later in the front of his home on the southeast corner of Jefferson and Hill streets. This is where all the 'Van' children grew up, and all nine helped in the store during their school years. Arthur attended Columbia Grammar School and Elgin High School, graduating (?) in 1898. His first regular employment was as a draftsman. In 1904, at age 24, he married Clara Larkin, and the same year he began what was to become a life-long career as a pattern maker at the Elgin National Watch Co., where he worked until his retirement in 1949.
Surviving HP engine. Note tape measurer. This was a tiny engine.
The surviving 1 HP engine, Lunkenheimer carb clearly visible, as is chain-drive sprocket.
Arthur became a highly skilled craftsman for his day, and during the years 1906-1908 he and his father Henry and several brothers built and sold motorized wagons under the banner of 'Van Motor Wagons.' Basically horse-drawn wagons converted to motor power, Van Motor Wagons were assembled in a barn behind the family store in Elgin using two-cylinder air-cooled gasoline engines, steering wheels, and other parts Henry and his sons sourced for their construction. The Van Motor Wagon Co. built and sold about eight vehicles, most configured as delivery wagons, before going out of business shortly after 1908. A photo of one of these early motorized vehicles, perhaps the last one made, survives.
It was during this time that Arthur's interest in designing and making small gas engines developed. Some time around 1909 he began making engines, calling his new company Crown Motor Works. As best we can tell, production of Crown stationary engines was a part-time activity carried out by Arthur from his basement shop, first in a home on Preston Avenue, and later, after about 1911, in his large two-story home at 1112 Bellevue Ave. in Elgin, where he lived until 1953. His engine-building activity ran from about 1909 until 1925, during which time he continued in his pattern-making profession at the Elgin Watch Co..
Arthur's Crown engines were small, simple gas engines intended for a variety of light-duty services. Of two-cycle design, they were air-cooled, had integral heads and were spark plug ignited.
They were of single-cylinder (usually vertical) design, and incorporated a heavy cast-iron base or legs for mounting. Arthur designed the engines working out of his home shop, where he also made his own drawings and the wooden patterns used to make sand molds for casting the various engine parts. The iron castings included the cylinders (with integral heads), crankcases (with integral bases or legs), flywheels, pistons, etc. He had sand molds made and castings poured in a local Elgin foundry. Final machining and assembly of the castings and other parts (such as the cylinder bores, piston walls, ring grooves, wrist pins, crankcase bearings, crankshaft journals, and rod bearings) was done in his home shop.
According to the sparse company literature that survives, Crown Motor Works customers could order engines in just about any form, from drawings and castings to complete, ready-to-run engines. Arthur would even machine the parts for customers who wanted to finish and assemble the engines themselves. He also provided accessory parts for his engines, such as carburetors, spark coils, spark plugs, batteries, wire, switches, gas tanks, pulleys, fans, mufflers, and oil caps. Engines ordered as completed units were assembled and test-run by Arthur before being packed and shipped to customers.
Drawing for Crown HP engine, presumably done by Arthur Van Wambeke
Arthur used dry-cell, battery-powered 'jump spark' (spark plug) ignition systems consisting of a vibrating-reed spark coil. A timer contact bar attached to the flywheel hub rotated with the flywheel, rubbing past a contact point on the crankshaft hub. Ignition timing (spark advance) was adjustable by rotating the contact bar or its rub ring. One version of the timer contact bar has a heavy weight acting as a centrifugal governor to limit the engine speed. The governor is adjustable by a spring-loaded tension knob on the flywheel hub. Arthur's literature also states a 'ball type' governor as available on some Crown engines.
All Crown gasoline engines were fitted with cast-bronze Lunkenheimer carburetors. The carburetor has an adjustable needle valve to control fuel-flow into the throat of the carburetor and a throttle valve to adjust airflow through the carburetor. The carburetor is gravity-fed from an external tank. A spring-loaded poppet valve in the carburetor allows fuel to meter into the throat when the piston is on the up stroke, maintains crankcase pressure during the downward stroke of the piston in the two-cycle engine, and shuts-off fuel flow when the engine is not running. Crown engines could evidently be run using natural gas instead of gasoline, but no clear indication of the fuel-metering device used for natural gas is found in the surviving literature of the company.
I have found no indication that Arthur either sought or obtained any patent or trademark protection for his engine designs, or for any particular features of his engines. Further, it is not known how many engines Crown Motor Works made or sold. No sales figures have survived, and I have been unsuccessful in locating anyone besides family members who know anything about the Crown engines. As of this writing only two of his engines are known to exist.
The Crown Motor Works was, from all indications, a total service, one-man operation, and no doubt a labor of love. According to the recollections of his eldest son, Don (now deceased), and eldest daughter, Ruth (now 94 years old), the demands of family, Arthur's lack of promotional and marketing skills, and the relentless competition by other more sophisticated engine designs that came onto the market, meant that Arthur couldn't keep Crown Motor Works going at a profit.
Some time around 1925, after about 16 years of part-time operation, he quit making Crown engines, continuing his career as a pattern maker for the Elgin Watch Co. until his retirement in 1949. After retirement Arthur continued providing pattern-making services from his home shop for numerous other industrial customers around Elgin right up until his death in 1965 at age 85.
Available records indicate three different engines were made by Crown, sized at HP, HP and 1 HP. Critical specifications appear in the table above (See Table 1).
Two versions of 1 HP Crown engines are described in the Crown pamphlets. This size engine appears to have been produced in two different configurations. A horizontal-cylinder version may have been the first 1 HP unit marketed by Crown Motor Works, and may even have been made by another company in Elgin, the Elgin Manufacturing Co., and merely marketed by Crown Motors. In this version of the 1 HP motor the carburetor is mounted on the wall of the cylinder, not on the crankcase as with all other Crown engines described here. This horizontal engine also has a sight-glass oiler fitted to the cylinder, and a fuel tank sits atop what is probably a battery box next to the cylinder head. A second version of the 1 HP Crown Motors engine was a vertical-cylinder version, and was featured in what I believe to have been the most-recently printed Crown Motor pamphlet, along with the HP unit. Both the 1 HP vertical engine and the HP vertical engine have carburetors mounted so they are aspirating the engine through a connection in the side of the crankcase.
It appears there were several different versions of the HP engine. Minor variations were in the crankshaft length (to accommodate differing flywheels and power-takeoff drums), and in the flywheel spokes (straight versus fan blade) and type of governor mechanism utilized.
Only one version of the HP engine is evident from a surviving blueprint, a set of patterns and one nearly complete engine (less carburetor and timer mechanism). It appears from notations made by Arthur on a surviving blueprint of the HP unit that some minor modifications to it were being considered when work on it stopped.
Table 1: Crown Engine Specifications
with single flywheel
with dual flywheels
Dia. of crankshaft
Dia. of pulley (or sprocket)
Dia. of flywheel
8-inch (or 10)
Main bearing(s) material
Connecting rod material
Fuel feed: gasoline carburetor
Castings & drawings
Castings & carburetor
Machining of castings
* One Crown brochure indicates power rating of hp at 1200 rpm.
** One version of HP engine has replaceable bronze main bearings.
Surviving Crown Engines
At least two Crown engines have survived into the 21st century, and these are shown on page 25 as they looked in December 2001. They are both two-cycle, air-cooled, single-cylinder vertical engines. The 1 HP model stands about 19 inches tall and weighs 53 pounds as shown. The smaller engine, thought to be a HP model, is seven inches tall and weighs seven pounds as shown. Both of these engines are in my ownership, and I have stored and protected them for over 35 years.
Both engines are constructed of cast iron for cylinders, crankcases, and flywheels, and steel for crankshafts, assembly screws, and keyway keys. Surviving literature for the 1 HP engine says it has a drop-forged crankshaft with 'high grade Babbitt metal' bearings, a bronze connecting rod and a piston featuring 'three perfect fitting rings' (verified by my observation of three rings when looking into the exhaust port). A red, plastic-like insulating material is used for the timer insulating ring, and cast bronze is used for the governor arm on the 1 HP engine.
The surviving 1 HP unit is complete with a bronze Lunkenheimer carburetor (marked ' R.H.') having an integral -inch NPT pipe thread nipple for connecting it to the engine's crankcase casting. Also included with the engine accessories surviving from Arthur's operation is a New York Coil Co. vibrating-reed spark coil (weight 2.25-lbs.), and a Champion Ford spark plug (with -inch NPT pipe threads with a pitch of 14 threads per inch).
The 1 HP engine shown is in excellent condition, and was last run about 53 years ago by me, when I was a teenager! I remember at the time verifying the engine's ability to run in either direction, because when I had it running that day and slowed it down too much (with the timing set incorrectly) it would backfire and start running in the opposite direction!
The HP engine is currently missing a carburetor (it needs one with a 3/8-inch pipe thread nipple connector) and a spark-timer mechanism (a drawing of the timer is depicted in the upper right corner of the surviving blueprint).
The surviving patterns appear to be made of a fine-grain, light-colored wood, and are comprised of many different pieces, individually formed then fitted together. The portions of the patterns that represent the actual cast metal part to be made are painted black, whereas the core-portions of the mold are finished with varnish (or shellac?). The two halves of the cylinder and crankcase patterns are joined with slip-fit brass pins to align the two halves of each mold pattern. In a sense, these are beautiful little works of art.
The patterns are in excellent condition, despite being about 80 years old, and I wonder if, with a little touch up, they could be used to build a HP Crown engine. Is anyone out there interested?
Crown Motor Works Literature
Some printed literature that Arthur had produced describing and promoting his Crown Motor Works engines survives to this day. It consists primarily of several small, folded pamphlets (listing engine specifications, prices, etc., for the HP and 1 HP units), and two working drawings. One drawing is a blueprint of the HP motor, and the other is a black-on-white, photo-reduced drawing for a HP motor. It's clear from the pamphlets and drawings that Van Wambeke made a HP motor, but no example is known to remain. Presumably, Arthur drafted both of these drawings himself, although neither is signed or dated - typical, I think, of his modest style.
I believe it possible that the HP engine may never have been put into production beyond a prototype model. This speculation is suggested by two things: first, the small engine is not described in any surviving Crown Motor Works pamphlets; and secondly, the original blueprint drawing of it has some lightly sketched-in modifications marked in red pencil in Art's hand, suggesting he was contemplating some minor design modifications to the engine at the time he stopped working on it.
Personal Notes and Recollections
A.H. Van Wambeke, or 'Gramp' as I knew him, was my mother's father. My father's dad died before I was born, and as such Gramp was very special to me. My Gramp's activities as an engine builder took place many years before I was born in 1932, so I learned about it only much later, and I never knew the full story (and still don't know a lot!) until I started researching this article.
After Gramp's death in 1965 I acquired his two surviving cast-iron engines and the one existing set of wooden patterns (which he made for the smaller of the two surviving engines). I also obtained two drawings and several pamphlets, and have preserved the engines and literature for many years. I also occasionally made notes after various chats with my mother, Ruth Van Wambeke (Nash), and an uncle, Donald Van Wambeke.
An early Crown HP engine, featuring an extended crankshaft with the flywheel mounted on support base.
My mother recalls how as a girl during grammar school (1914-1922) Arthur (her father) built engines in the basement of their home on Bellevue Avenue in Elgin. She said that in those early days before electricity was available, Arthur used one of his engines to power a lathe and another to power a vacuum pump. The pump provided their large, two-story house with a centralized vacuum-cleaner system, with pipes leading from the pump and canister in the basement up through the walls above to outlets in every room of the house, which she and her mother used for housekeeping chores! She also said that a miniature automobile that Arthur built for his kids (we know it was built before Christmas of 1911), and which is depicted in many heirloom snapshot pictures of the family taken in those years, was powered by one of his Crown engines. The little car is no longer in the family and we don't know what happened to it.
After a long and productive life of 85 years, Arthur Van Wambeke died in his sleep one October night in 1965 after having spent the day working in the basement shop of his post-retirement home at 11 Commonwealth Ave. in Elgin. The day before he died he was working in his shop on a wooden pattern for a local Elgin industrial customer. The customer never claimed the beautiful, varnish-finished mahogany pattern, and that pattern, plus many of his tools, two of his engines, and other artifacts - including photos, documents, and even a short oral-history audio tape I made with him in his shop in 1964 - have survived and represent his life's work. These are cherished mementoes of a gentle, loving family man. He had five children and 12 grandchildren, and was a great dad and Gramp to all of them. As a master patternmaker and early engine builder, Arthur Henry Van Wambeke and his Crown Motor Works was a mere tiny - but important - participant and contributor to the complex drama of early 20th-century industrial growth in America.
If you know of any existing Crown engines, or have any information relating to Crown engines or the Crown Motor Works, or to any engines that you think may have been made by Arthur Van Wambeke in Elgin, Ill., but marketed or sold under a different trade name than his, you are invited and encouraged to contact me.
Contact Doug Nash at: 32906 Avenida Descanso, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675, (949) 493-4260, Fax (949) 240-0213, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org