The Old Olds With a Heart That Could

Early Oldsmobile logo

Early Oldsmobile logo. Olds began using the Rocket logo about 1949, when the over-head valve V-8 was introduced.

Content Tools

P.O. Box H Waterford, California 95386

This story has a beginning that happened quite a long time ago, shortly after the turn of this century, and during the period of World War I. The location: Modesto, California.

Albert Landini, barely a teenager in 1918, walked to school every day past a livery stable which had an object in back that drew him like a magnet-an old car that had been abandoned and junked. Some parts were missing, but the engine was intact. Since this was war-time, the school he attended had been unable to obtain a gasoline engine for the shop classes (they called it manual training then) to work with, and this looked like a golden opportunity. As it turned out, it was. The livery operator gave Albert and his school chum, Nip, the old car on condition they would clear it out lock, stock, and barrel. The next couple of weeks' spare time after school was busy for Albert and Nip. The kids' coaster wagon and a borrowed wheelbarrow were pressed into service, and tools were conned from every available source. The single cylinder engine was pried out and transported to the school shop for inspection, tear-down and overhaul. The car was a 'curved dash' Oldsmobile of about 1901-1905 vintage. The engine required a 3-point suspension for mounting, and this was accomplished by using some old railroad ties and scrap timbers.

The boys, with the aid of their manual training teacher, got the old engine running, by using a Model T Ford carburetor, and a jury-rigged chain driven tractor magneto furnishing the spark. At the end of the school year it was taken to the Landini Ranch on the east side of Modesto, where it was intermittently used to run a fanning mill for cleaning grain for a number of years. About the early 1930's it was retired and stored outside by the ranch tankhouse, where a pile of old boards and scrapped fruit-drying trays gradually accumulated-and it was forgotten.

In the spring of 1987 I was told by a mutual friend that a Mr. Landini of Modesto had some old engines that he needed to dispose of. Following up on this, I arranged to meet him and found a delightful gentleman in his 80's, from whom I purchased a 1923 FBM, 3 HP, Model Z and some other items. Mr. Landini was in the process of selling the final couple of acres of the old family ranch for development, and he showed me a large pile of old boards and fruit-drying trays alongside the original ranch tankhouse. He said that somewhere under that pile there should be an old car engine which he had not seen for over 50 years. We had taken a mutual liking to each other, and when I expressed an interest in the old engine he promised to phone me when the engine was uncovered during the property cleanup.

Sure enough, about a month later, I got a phone call from Mr. Landini. He told me the engine was uncovered and available! I was over at his place within the hour, and there it was-an early Olds single cylinder, side-shaft automobile engine, and everything turned and moved. How lucky can you get??!!

Dis-assembling, cleaning, and restoring the Olds proved to be a good-sized undertaking. A quarter to half inch of dried grease and dirt covered everything, which probably accounted for the engine being free after all those years. I elected to hand scrape, and then glass bead-blasted to finish. I am indebted to Dan Dark who graciously allowed me to use his new bead-blaster, and to Frank Frunz for much advice and help.

The engine is truly a classic, and has some engineering features that were ahead of its time. Bore is 4?' with a 6' stroke, with water jackets in the block and in the detachable cylinder head for cooling. Poppet valves are actuated by rocker arms with roller cam followers and even roller valve stem followers. The cam lobes are fabricated on a separate piece of stock which is fastened to the end of the side-shaft with a taper pin. The cam lobes appear to have been built up by forge welding. Compared to modern engines the intake period has quite a short duration, while the exhaust is extremely long. This makes for interesting 'stack music'-the exhaust has a hollow whistling sound due to a combination of a relatively long restricted passage plus the long duration. Starting the engine never fails to draw a crowd!

The 'curved dash' Olds engine uses a spark plug with ?' pipe thread (a la Model T Ford) and was fired by a buzz coil powered by dry-cell batteries. A cam lobe near the driven end of the side shaft actuated contact points. Spark could be advanced or retarded by a wire control that varied the position of the points against the cam lobe. I was lucky to find these pieces still on the engine even though not used in the first restoration. The side shaft is driven from the crankshaft through 2 to 1 spiral gears cut by Brown & Sharp of Providence, Rhode Island. These gears show virtually no wear and still have an excellent finish.

Carburetion and quality consistency of fuel were both pretty 'iffy' items around the turn of this century. Efforts to locate an original carburetor proved fruitless, so a brass Holley carburetor for a Model T Ford of about 1912 vintage was settled on and has proved very satisfactory. The engine has no governor, so speed is controlled entirely by throttle setting with a lawn mower type wire control.

Engine lubrication is by a sight-feed drip oiler for the cylinder, with the connecting rod catching oil mist thrown back from the piston in a set of V-shaped grooves feeding an oil hole. The engine crankcase is enclosed and has a dry sump. Main bearings and the side shaft have grease cups, and valve rockers and stems are serviced with an oil can before startup. At shutdown the driver had to remember to turn off the cylinder drip-oiler. In case he forgot, there is a drain petcock at the bottom of the cylinder head. This was also useful in event the engine got flooded during starting.

Another Olds feature was the connecting rod bearing cap, which was hinged on one side and could be serviced by removing an inspection plate on top of the crankcase. Simply remove the single con-rod bolt, remove or replace shims as necessary to service the bearing, and then replace the bolt and inspection plate. Of course, if you dropped anything in the process, you were in trouble (just ask anyone who has ever changed bands in a Model T Ford).

The Olds drive system consisted of a 2-speed planetary transmission mounted on the extended crankshaft. There was an outside mounted third main bearing located beyond the transmission. The transmission also had a reverse gear, an important feature for that period. The transmission was coupled to the rear axle by a chain drive.

Chassis suspension utilized full wheelbase length leaf springs. Steering was by a tiller bar, and the car was driven from the right-hand seat. Another unique feature was the starting system. The engine was started from the driver's seat by a starting crank on a ratcheted jack-shaft with a 2 to 1 ratio. The driver and passenger sat directly over the engine flywheel, with the cylinder head to the rear of the car. With its light overall weight, the Olds was considered a very good performer in its day. And with the 'curved dash' styling it was one of the most stylish and popular cars of its era. This was the car that the song 'In My Merry Oldsmobile' was written about. Some accessories available included acetylene lights and a bulb horn.

Restoration of the Olds engine presented a number of challenges. The cylinder was found badly scored from a loose piston pin, the exhaust valve seat was cracked, valves and valve guides were badly worn, the connecting rod was badly bent, and the pins holding the rollers on the rocker arms were worn nearly halfway through. On the plus side was the good condition of main and rod bearings and journals, the side shaft assembly was OK except for end play, and the flywheel ran true!

Standard boring bars didn't have enough reach to bore the long cylinder, so it was necessary to make a jig and use a milling machine to sleeve the block. The piston pin turned out to be odd-ball size, and a new one had to be ground to proper oversize with new bronze sleeves to fit. The cracked valve seat had to be pinned and an insert installed. Valve guides had to be bored out and inserts installed. Valve head size was odd-ball and new valves had to be cut down to fit, and stems drilled for keepers. And the threads on all the half-inch studs were to the so-called Old Standard-12 threads to the inch. Machine shops work by the hour, and of these there were quite a few.

Eventually, everything began to come together. The original piston rings were salvaged and de-glazed. New head and valve chamber gaskets were obtained from Olson's Gaskets, and other gaskets were cut as required. The machine shop didn't want to tackle the bent connecting rod, said it was bent too close to the crank journal end. I finally found an old-timer named Joe Silva who said he could straighten it, and did. And the worn roller pins in the rocker arms were replaced with drill rod of the proper size welded in place. End play on the sideshaft was taken up with shims.

This was an awkward engine to assemble, with its single flywheel and 3-point suspension. The problem was finally solved by bolting the cylinder block vertically by the head studs to a shop cart, thus permitting installation of the crankshaft and flywheel, and adjusting the main bearings. The partly assembled engine was then transferred to its permanent mounting, which is a modified replica of the engine assembly stands which were used in the Olds factory. Assembly was completed on the stand including the outboard third main bearing. An adapter was fabricated for the carburetor, a thermosyphon cooling system was rigged, small fuel tank installed, and spark and throttle controls connected. After installation of a buzz coil and battery, it was time to lubricate everything, fuel up and start!

The first startup involved quite a lot of trial and error, mostly carburetor adjustment, and a lot of cranking. To crank up you simply grab a flywheel spoke in one hand, the rim in the other, and pull through. Now, after everything is set properly and the cylinder primed, the engine will usually start on the first pull. Operation is remarkably smooth, thanks in good measure to the fully counter-balanced crankshaft, another ahead of its time feature. As stated earlier, this engine makes interesting stack music that never fails to draw a crowd at startup time!

STATISTICS; Bore: 4? in.; Stroke: 6 inches; Displacement: 95 cu. in., 1.6 liters; Horsepower: 7 @ 500 RPM. Vintage photos from Those Wonderful Old Automobiles by Floyd Clymer, copyright 1953.