The Motor Wheel & Fiyer

1919 Flyer and Motor Wheel

My original 1919 Flyer and Motor Wheel.

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1091 Benjamin Franklin Highway East, Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518

I have some information on small engines I'd like to share with GEM readers. I'm also sending along some photos related to my story.

When A. O. Smith of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, acquired the North American manufacturing rights to the Motor Wheel from the Wall Company of England in 1914, its primary use was to propel bicycles. This small power unit (1 HP) was mounted on a twenty inch dished wheel. A. O. Smith spent almost two years making numerous changes and improvements, before putting their own version of the Motor Wheel on the market. All their work must have paid off, as the Motor Wheel became quite popular.

In 1917 they had a company from New Jersey design and manufacture a buckboard type vehicle for them as an additional use for their Motor Wheel. They named the new vehicle the A. O. Smith Flyer.

Each one of these flyers had its serial number on a brass plate mounted on one of its wooden slats. All the metal work on the Flyer was painted bright red. The body consisted of six varnished hardwood slats, two and one-half inches wide. The flyer wheel base was 62' with a tread width of 30'. All the wheels had 20' x 15/8' clincher tires. Both axles were bolted directly to the wooden slats (no suspension). Each of the two upholstered seats (sitting on four posts), were also bolted to these slats.

The steering column had a hardwood automotive type steering wheel with the throttle lever mounted on one of its three spokes. Its steering linkage was similar to that used on a riding lawn mower. A hand lever mounted on two of the slats was attached to a steel rod that in turn was attached to a small saddle on the fender of the Motor Wheel. This acted as a clutch, lifting the Motor Wheel off the ground for starting the little engine. The engine had a compression release, also 8 to 1 gear reduction directly on the crankshaft. A hinged arrangement was used to attach the Motor Wheel to the flyer. The hand lever was secured in a notched gate, while starting the engine. The simple brake system can be compared to those used on farm wagons. The Flyer brake pedal activated a rod that pushed the rear fenders (which had leather pads at an appropriate place) against the rear tire for braking.

In 1919 A. O. Smith sold all the rights to the Motor Wheel and Flyer to another Milwaukee firm, the Briggs 6k Stratton Company. This company continued producing and marketing the Motor Wheel and Flyer. They also made some noted improvements increasing the horsepower and integrating the entire ignition system under the flywheel. The A. O. Smith engines had externally mounted magnetos. They also added fan cooling to the flyer engines.

Although A. O. Smith and Briggs 6k Stratton both produced thousands of Motor Wheels for use on bicycles and the Flyer, and both had some success with these products, in 1919, less than six months arter acquiring the Motor Wheel rights, Briggs & Stratton made one of the most significant moves they would ever make. They took 150 of the little Motor Wheel engines, cut off the so-called horns, and put them on the market as small stationary engines. They designated these engines as their Model S. The S prefix in front of the serial number may have identified them as stationary engines.

Almost no one knew, or knows now, of the existence of any of these S models. In early 1980 by pure luck, I became the owner of one of these engines. I bought a pair of old Briggs 6k Stratton engines from an old gentleman whose acquaintance I had made at a farm sale. After cleaning up these engines, one of them turned out to be a Model P, which I knew was an early model Briggs 6k Stratton. But the other engine had its model and serial number (S-102) stamped, it seems almost randomly, on top of its block and down the one side. Since neither one of these engines resembled any of my other Briggs 6k Stratton engines, I decided to write to Briggs 6k Stratton for any information they might have on either one. Their reply was quite unexpected. They told me the Model P was built in 1920. But they had almost no information on S-102, other than their records indicated this engine was shipped to the Sharplee Milker Company of West Chester, Pennsylvania, in November of 1919. This is only a few miles from where I bought the engine. They also told me they had no idea what these engines looked like, as they had never seen one and did not know of the existence of any other S model engines.

The Model S engine had a unique method of checking the oil level. This consisted of a one-inch glass window located in the back of the oil pan. All the Briggs & Stratton Motor Wheel engines also had this feature, but it was never used again on any later model Briggs &. Stratton engines.

I sent the Briggs & Stratton people a photo of my S-102, and they showed an immediate interest in acquiring this engine. Their interest is understandable, but after numerous letters and phone calls (even a visit from two of their company representatives), I still have no desire to part with S-102.

Even though S-102 does not resemble any of my other Briggs & Stratton engines, when you cut the horns off the little Motor Wheel engines, as Briggs &. Stratton had done on their initial entry into the small stationary engine market, there is no doubt these engines are identical. This gives the Motor Wheel engines the distinction of being the father of the largest manufacturer of small stationary engines in the world, with the S model as its first offspring. I bought my first Motor Wheel at a garage sale four or five years before I bought S-102 and I guess it was a few more years before I came across an article in an antique car magazine on the history of the Flyer and Motor Wheel by a man in the business of restoring these little vehicles.

Before I discovered this article, I knew nothing about the Motor Wheel or Flyer, and it wasn't until my first trip to Florida in March of 1988 that I saw my first Flyer in the flesh at an engine show. When the owner of the Flyer started the little Motor Wheel engine, for the benefit of a dozen or more onlookers, my interest in the Flyer and Motor Wheel was greatly aroused. My curiosity failed to subside until I paid the little Flyer a number of visits before leaving the show. In July of that same year, I came across another Flyer at a show in northeast Pennsylvania. The owner of this Flyer said he had pulled his out of a fence row and restored it. I haven't seen one since. I guess this was when I got the bug to own a Flyer of my own. When I got to thinking about the fact that I had only ever seen two of them while attending dozens of car and engine shows, I figured my chance of finding an original Flyer was pretty slim. But since I already had a complete Motor Wheel plus a dozen or so photos and the article in the Antique Car Magazine, I decided to make a reproduction of a Flyer. I also got some valuable information and encouragement from the now defunct Motor Wheel Club of America.

I started work on my reproduction in November of 1990, doing a lot of the work on my enclosed back porch since my hit &. miss engines were hibernating in any space that might have been suitable for working on my project. Since I had retired in 1988, most of my time was my own. This was a big help. My lack of any knowledge of drawing up plans or blueprints didn't help matters any.

Despite all my shortcomings, by September of 1991 I displayed my reproduction Flyer and restored Motor Wheel for the first time at the Hay Creek Valley Historical Association Fall Festival. I always informed my onlookers (and there were many of them) that my Flyer was a reproduction. Whenever I started up the little engine, anyone nearby had to inspect my Flyer and Motor Wheel. Almost no one had ever seen one of these small cars.

During this show, a fellow member of our organization who was inspecting my Flyer informed me that he had an original Flyer at home in his basement waiting to be restored. He had acquired his at an auction for almost nothing many years ago. Naturally, I offered to buy it from him, but he said he still had hopes of doing his own restoration.

Acquiring this Flyer never left the back of my mind, and when in 1995 this fellow decided to have public auction and move out west, I immediately inquired whether the Flyer and Motor Wheel were going up for sale, which they were. When I got to the auction site the day of the sale, I discovered the Flyer and Motor Wheel lying in a heap in the owner's back yard. A basket case if I had ever seen one. I decided right then it was now or never if I was ever going to own an original Flyer. As the saying goes, you win some and you lose some, and when the bidding was over I had won one!

The restoration of this Flyer was a lot simpler than building one from scratch. Surprisingly, most of the original parts were there, and all it took was a lot of elbow grease to clean them up and re-finish them. This Flyer had been stored in a fairly dry basement which certainly helped make my restoration easier.

Most of the problems I encountered I solved myself, with the exception of the wheels, which originally had clincher tires; as these are no longer available, I had a bike shop install new rims and spokes on the original hubs so I could use conventional bike tires. I was also missing one of the Flyer wheels, but I was fortunate to have a machinist friend, who made a very accurate reproduction of a new hub for me. The bike shop took care of the rest.

I was able to use all the original wood parts and also all the metal parts with the exception of the wheel rims. As for the Motor Wheel engine, it was also complete, but I did convert it to battery ignition by removing the magneto and coil from under the flywheel and replacing them with a pair of six volt dry cell lantern batteries and a six volt car coil. I mounted both these items inside a small wooden box behind the seats of the Flyer. I also mounted a toggle switch between the seats for on and off ignition. This setup works very well, and though not original, it just makes my Flyer a little more unique.

After reading this article it may sound like I have abandoned my hit &. miss engines, but this is not the case. I'd like to end my story on a subject 'Ye Olde Reflector' keeps reminding us of, and that is safety around our engines.

My father was a farmer all his life. In 1923, when he was 33 years of age, he had a Columbus 10 HP hit & miss engine they used for sawing wood and various other farm chores. They were sawing wood with this engine one day, when he got a sleeve of his jacket caught in the pulley of the engine. This was three years before I was born. This almost completely severed his hand from his wrist, but somehow they did save his hand and got the two to grow back together as one, leaving him no flexibility whatever in his fingers or wrist, for the rest of his life. He lived to be 83.

Some years later, my father had another unfortunate accident with this same engine. He and one of my brothers were lining up the engine to cut fodder when an iron bar he was using under one of the wheels slipped off and broke his leg.

The last time I saw the old Columbus was shortly before World War II on a flat bed truck on its way to a scrap yard. I think my father got seventeen dollars for this engine as scrap.