70 Hurlbut Road Mexico, New York 13114 JR504@aol.com
About two years ago I visited a tractor and engine show in South
Dayton, NewYork, with a good friend of mine (and fellow old tractor
owner), Norm Ziegler. It was several hours from home, and we went
there mainly because they had antique tractor pulls, something
neither of us had ever seen before, both of us being former city
folks and fairly new to tractors. There were quite a few tractor
pullers in attendance, and we spent a considerable amount of time
in the morning wandering around looking at the different tractors
and pulling setups.
While waiting for the pulls to start, we took a walk through the
engine display area. Norm and I had never had any exposure to these
strange-looking things before, and really had no idea what we were
looking at. There was an older gentleman there (I wish I had gotten
his name) with a JD 1? HP and a little Maytag sitting in the back
of his old pickup. He was very friendly and quite talkative about
his engines. I had a million questions and this looked like the
ideal place to get a quick education. Norm was less interested in
this stuff and wandered off after a short while. I spent the next
ninety minutes talking with this gentleman about old farm engines,
hit and miss governing, throttle governing, open and closed
crankcases, water hoppers and oilers. He took me around the display
a little to show me examples of what he was talking about. It was
quite the experience. I left the show hooked, bitten badly by the
I didn’t know anyone else that was into engines. I
didn’t know of any local clubs, or of any other shows I could
attend. I had no idea where to find one, but I had to have one. I
carried a couple of pictures from the show around with me, and
started asking friends, students and co-workers if they had ever
seen old engines like these, and if they knew where one could be
found. My persistence paid off. I had recently started a new
teaching job at the local state college, and one of the other
automotive instructors there was an Indian motorcycle collector. He
said he knew where there were a few engines sitting in a barn where
he bought his last bike. He didn’t know what they were, but he
was sure the owner would part with them for a reasonable price.
Within a few days we were there. We found three Delco light
plants in various states of disrepair. Two of them were stuck, and
the third was free and appeared complete. The owner said it had run
about 15 years ago, but wouldn’t start now; the other two had
been stuck since he’d acquired them. They weren’t exactly
what I was looking for. I really wanted something that looked like
what I had seen, two flywheels, a water hopper, etc., but I had to
start some place. I bought them and took them home. I had never
heard of a light plant before. I had no idea what they were, of how
they operated. I turned to the Internet for help.
A quick search turned up quite a bit of information. I found out
what they were used for, and even a few places to buy parts. I
called one of them, Wayne Spahr (Dr. Delco), down in Pennsylvania.
I was in need of service information if I was going to repair them
properly, but I had no idea what I had, let alone how they worked.
Mr. Spahr suggested I send him pictures of them and serial numbers
and he would help me identify them. Then he could get me the proper
repair manuals. I found out I was the proud owner of a Model 850,
Model 1260 and a Model 1278, all made between 1910 and 1935. The
1260 was in the best shape. Between the service manuals and extra
advice from Dr. Delco, I was able to tear it down for inspection
and have it running in very short order. It needed a little wiring
repair to make the generator charge normally (mouse damage), but
other than that it was very straightforward preservation. I mounted
it on a reinforced pallet along with a bank of batteries and was
set to go. This is the engine I bring to all the shows. It starts,
runs and charges flawlessly.
My 1278 has been more of a challenge. I have been doing a very
careful restoration on it, and have spent a bit more time hunting
for parts and repairing other pieces. The 850 is a long term
project. It is still stuck badly.
I attended my first engine show as an exhibitor last summer
(June 2000). I had no idea what to expect with my simple display. I
set up a small table that had a photo album with ‘rescue and
restoration’ photos, and two 32V bulbs lit by my running Delco.
I was pleasantly surprised by the response I got from show
It’s no secret that Delcos are not the most interesting
engines to have on display. Their great cast iron cooling fins,
exposed rockers, and long pushrods are all covered by cooling
shrouds. There’s nothing to see except a spinning flywheel.
They are generally ignored by fellow engine enthusiasts, probably
for this reason.
Regardless, I had a great response from show attendees. It seems
everyone had a Delco story. So many people seemed happy to see one
running again, and they all stopped to tell me what they
remembered. I heard stories from ladies who remembered having them
on the farm, and men who were put in charge of running them, and
maintaining the batteries when they were boys as young as age ten.
I had a fairly steady stream of visitors at nearly every show I
attended, and many of them stopped to talk. From my point of view,
this is what it’s all about. These engines we drag around to
all these shows have such rich histories, for me to hear stories
from the people who experienced them firsthand, and to see the
gleam in their eyes as they relate their experiences, is priceless.
In my short time as an engine guy I’ve noticed few things seem
to grab the attention of the ‘regular folks’ like the
Delco. Over the summer I added a Stover CT-2 and then an old water
pump to my display, but they don’t seem to stir the same
I’m still looking for engines (isn’t everyone?), I’d
love to find a small Hercules or maybe a Witte–they look nice. But
no matter what engines I end up with, I’ll probably never stop
bringing along the boring-looking Delco. The stories and
conversation it brings me in a weekend I would not want to miss,
and hopefully those stories will keep coming.
I’m still pretty new to this engine stuff, having only
participated in eight or ten shows in one season, but I’m a
dedicated fan. The engine folks I have met this past year have been
a great bunch! They are friendly and helpful and treat everyone
like they’ve known them forever. Without exception, everyone I
met has done his best to help me and make me feel welcome.
My buddy Norm still hasn’t ‘seen the light.’ He
doesn’t understand my newfound fascination with engines. He did
attend one show with me last year, but he still liked the tractors
best. I guess there’s no helping some folks.