If you ask antique gas engine collectors what their favorite thing about collecting is, I’m sure you’ll get a myriad of answers: the community, the history, the mechanics, the sights and sounds.
For me, the more I learn about engines the more impressed I am by the contrasts between engines. Different makers, different models: They all seem to have their own variation on the theme of the internal combustion engine. Whether minuscule or substantial, these differences are what set the engines apart and make them memorable.
Collector Craig Babington agrees. His collection includes all sorts of engines, from a 1911 12 HP International Harvester Famous to an unusual 1916 7 HP Abenaque that can run using either gasoline or kerosene. “Something that kills me is how all these manufacturers made their engines,” he told Bill Vossler, “Each one is different, and that’s why I have so many engines: to see how each one runs different from the others.”
I know these variances were done for practical reasons — to get around a patent or to solve a known problem, for instance – but it’s mind-boggling to see what these designers came up with more than a hundred years ago, before quick and easy access to information, before computers and CAD programs, before the Internet and smart phones.
Take a look at the Springfield Model A. Made in around 1895, it was one of the earliest engines to successfully burn gasoline. The engine also has fuel injection by a governor-controlled pump and features a governor-controlled second poppet valve in the intake air passage so that the engine gets no air on idle cycles, preventing the cylinder and intake passage from drying out, a known problem with hit-and-miss gasoline engines of the time.
My best guess for how these inventors got all these problems worked out? Trial and error.
And if you think about it, that’s what members of this community continue to do to this day. Engine won’t start? Take it apart. Ask questions. Figure it out. Make it work. Need to know exactly when the points on your 2-stroke magneto engine open? Build an easy device to let you know. (Bruce Pierson shows you how.) Need to make a dome muffler for an engine using only basic materials you have in your garage? Roll some steel, weld it together, clamp a flat piece of steel on top and hammer away (Peter Rooke does it).
Peter Rooke and Bruce Pierson make these tasks look easy. But they’ll both admit it’s taken them years to learn their crafts. Lots of mistakes, lots of trials, lots of errors.
So, if in doubt about your skills, keep tinkering. Keep trying until you get it right. Take it apart. Ask questions. Figure it out. Make it work. The history of old iron is shrouded with ingenious people who tried until they made it work. Something tells me if you’re a part of this community, making it work is one of your favorite things about collecting.