Worth the Work


The Austral is a vaporizing oil engine that runs on kerosene

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Some engines are worth the hassle. Take Dave Rotigel’s 1920 11 HP Austral oil engine, for instance.

When Rob Skinner of La Habra, Calif., decided it was time to part ways with the Austral, Dave drove an average of 850 miles per day for four days from Greensburg, Pa., to buy the engine. Before he left Pennsylvania, he realized he needed a bigger trailer, so he bought one on eBay and picked it up in Tennessee on the way. Four days later, with the 6,800-pound Austral in tow, it was back on the road for another four days of driving. In all, Dave drove 5,800 miles over eight days. But from the looks of it, the Austral was worth every mile.

Made by the Ronaldson Bros. & Tippett Co. of Ballarat, Victoria, in Australia, this particular Austral left the factory on Feb. 20, 1920, en route to the McLaurin Bros. farm in Rutherglen, Victoria. There, it pumped water from the Murray River, powered a seven-station sheep sheering plant and likely operated in other capacities as well. And while brothers Dave and Adam Ronaldson along with partner Herbert John Tippett were able to make a unique engine by appearance, closer analysis reveals some interesting mechanical details.

“The Austral has some characteristics very similar to those of the English Blackstone engine, almost to the point that it looks like the Ronaldson Bros. and Tippett copied it,” suggests Rob. “While they look dramatically different, the mechanics are almost identical.”

Citing an identical governor, and a similar timing valve apart from orientation (the Austral’s is horizontal, the Blackstone’s vertical), Rob is convinced the Blackstone was, in fact, the mechanical inspiration for the Austral.

“I think they did copy it,” says Rob. “Australia didn’t have a large industrial structure and they imported a lot of English engines. I think they saw the Blackstone, saw that it was a good engine and copied it.”

The particulars

As for specifics, the flywheels are around 800 pounds apiece with a 3-3/4-inch width and 48-inch diameter. The Austral generates 11 HP when it’s up to speed at 225 RPM, with an 8-5/8-inch bore and 15-inch stroke. It starts on kerosene but Dave uses propane to keep it going. “At a show, 1 gallon of kerosene will last 10-12 hours,” says Dave. “I use a lot more propane than I do kerosene.”

The Austral is a vaporizing engine. As Rob explains, fuel vapor is heated by contact with the vaporizer walls and ignition occurs when fresh air is combined with the hot fuel mixture. “The tricky part is lighting the lamp and heating the vaporizer,” says Rob. “If it’s not hot enough, it won’t start and if it’s too hot, it won’t start. It’s sort of an intuitive thing to get it just right – kind of like baking a cake.”

“Rob started it a couple of times and then he showed me how to start it,” says Dave. “The first place I showed it at was Coolspring (Pa.) later that spring and I had to call Rob to help me start it again. But after that, I was fine.”

Time to part ways

The Austral is not an easy engine to find in the United States and this example is one of the finest. “When we got the engine, it was only missing a few minor parts that I was able to fabricate,” says Rob. “The water pump needed a little bit of work and a few oilers needed to be located. I also made a new lamp for it.”

Rob didn’t want to sell the Austral, but one hard-to-miss characteristic convinced him to do so: “It’s a large engine,” says Rob. “And since we live in the suburbs, we don’t have a lot of storage space. It was one of the most attractive engines we owned. And though not the rarest, it was still (show worthy).”
Still, Rob and his wife, Kelly, felt the time had come to part with the Austral. And fortunately, a good friend was interested in taking it off their hands. “Before Portland last year, it came up for sale,” says Dave. “I wrote Rob and told him I wanted to buy it – consider it sold.”

“We were sad to see it go, but we’re glad it went to Dave,” says Rob.

And despite the hassle, Dave is happy as well. “I wish there were more around, even though that would probably decrease the value of mine,” says Dave with a smile.

Contact Dave Rotigel, Greensburg, Pa. at:
rotigel@alltel.net and Rob Skinner, La Habra, Calif. at:
Watch the Austral in action on YouTube at: