Briggs & Stratton: How Engine Production Began

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Frank Lavinio's early 1920s Briggs & Stratton scooter.
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Jim Altman's 1920 Briggs & Stratton Motor Wheel.
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Jim Altman's 1916 Smith Motor Wheel.
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Joey and Chevelle Tackett (children of the author) on a 1916 A. O. Smith Flyer with an A. O. Smith Motor wheel owned by Dennis Tackett. that Mr.

Briggs & Stratton small gas engines, seemingly, meet the power needs of the world. Briggs & Stratton Corporation is the world’s largest producer of small, stationary, air-cooled, gasoline engines. What follows is brief history of how it all began.

Mr. Juneau, who was a coach at South Dakota State College, introduced Stephen Foster Briggs, an engineering student from South Dakota College, to Harold Mead Stratton, a successful grain merchant with entrepreneurial ambitions.

Mr. Juneau was well aware of the outstanding engineering talents of Mr. Briggs. Mr. Briggs had developed a 6-cylinder, two stroke gas engine while attending South Dakota State. Mr. Briggs hoped to produce his gas engine in order to enter the expanding automobile industry. Mr. Juneau felt that Stratton (who owned a farm next to his) and Briggs might make a good team.

The combination, which emerged from this initial meeting, operated as a partnership. The first location of the Briggs & Stratton Co. was a rented space in a building located in the old Third Ward of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Briggs & Stratton incorporated as the Briggs & Stratton Company on April 16, 1909, in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The first project of this new partnership was Mr. Briggs’ gas engine. This six cylinder engine was too costly to produce. It was short lived.

The second project of Briggs & Stratton Co. was an automobile. Briggs & Stratton produced three cars, two touring cars and one roadster. The cars were produced from components, which were supplied by outsiders. These cars were produced under the name of “Superior.” Unfortunately, the car was also too costly to produce.

Briggs & Stratton applied for a patent for a gas engine igniter system on February 2nd, 1909. The patent was granted on February 22nd, 1910. This new venture allowed the company to stay solvent. Although the gas engine igniter system was not a huge success, it did launch Briggs & Stratton’s rise to the top of automotive electrical component production.

In 1910, the grandfather to the first Briggs & Stratton small gas engine began to appear on the streets of England. The Wall Auto Wheel, which was sold as a power booster attachment for the bicycle, consisted of a one horsepower, single cylinder, air cooled gasoline engine. This engine was mounted on a twenty inch bicycle wheel. The Wall Auto Wheel was attached to the side of a bicycle.

The Wall Auto Wheel was patented by Auto Wheels-Limited of London, England. All manufacturing rights to the motor wheel were owned by Auto Wheels-Limited.

An American manufacturer, A. O. Smith, was vacationing in England, in late 1912. A. O. Smith felt that the ‘motor wheel’ would be a big success in the States. Smith secured manufacturing rights to the motor wheel from Auto Wheels-Limited. This acquisition occurred around November 19, 1912.

Once he was back in the States, Smith redesigned the Wall Auto Wheel. The new, bright red Smith Motor Wheel was considerably more advanced than its ‘Wall’ predecessor. After nearly two years of research and development, the Smith Motor Wheel went to market in October, 1914.

Once on the market, the Smith Motor Wheel was offered in four separate models. The A model was offered in late 1914 and 1915. The B model was offered in early 1916. The BA model was offered in 1916 and 1917. The C model was offered in 1918 and early 1919.

While the basic design stayed the same, each new model exhibited slight engineering advancements. Each model was rated at one and a half horsepower.

In 1916, the A.O. Smith Corporation developed their version of a flyer. The Smith Flyer was a unique automobile. It had a steering wheel, wood slat frame, two bucket seats, two axles with twenty inch bicycle style rims, and a lifting device. The lifting device was attached to a motor wheel, which was mounted at the rear of the small car. When lowered, the motor wheel would push the little car along its way.

Briggs & Stratton officially entered into an arrangement to begin producing small gas engines on May 19, 1919. Although the deal was worked out at some prior time, this is the official date. On May 19, 1919, Briggs &. Stratton purchased the rights to manufacture the motor wheel from the A. O. Smith Corporation. The acquisition was worked out by Stephen Foster Briggs and the A. O. Smith Corporation.

The relationship between these two companies dated back to the attempt by Briggs & Stratton to produce the “Superior” car. A. O. Smith had supplied the frames that were used to produce these three automobiles. The Briggs & Stratton Company had provided the A. O. Smith Corporation with blueprints for an internal flywheel magneto, for the motor wheel. They provided these on several occasions. One such occasion was March 10, 1915. This shows that the Briggs & Stratton Company was at least familiar with the motor wheel, prior to acquiring the manufacturing rights to it.

The Briggs & Stratton Company redesigned the C model Smith Motor Wheel. They increased the horsepower rating to two horsepower. They utilized an internal flywheel magneto, which was similar to the one that they previously offered to A. O. Smith.

The newly redesigned Briggs &. Stratton Motor Wheel was deemed the D model. The only other model of motor wheel which was offered by the Briggs & Stratton Company was the SD model. This was employed on the first motorized scooter to be produced in the United States-the Briggs & Stratton Scooter. The flyer car remained in production as the Briggs & Stratton Flyer.

The many uses to which the motor wheel was applied demonstrated the need for a stationary power source. Realizing this, Briggs & Stratton rid the motor wheel of its horns, thus producing the P model Briggs & Stratton gas engine. This was the first stationary Briggs & Stratton small gas engine to be produced.

In December 1920, Briggs & Stratton accepted a contract to sell 1,150 one horsepower portable, or P model, gas engines. These engines were to be sold to Mr. Frank Held. This contract gave Mr. Held exclusive rights to use the P model engine on his cultivators until January 1st, 1923.

The P B and F models soon followed the P model. Briggs & Stratton gas engines were soon being sold to such companies as Gilson Manufacturing (which is now Bolens), and F. B. Zieg Manufacturing Company, which manufactured washing machines.

The success of these engines could not have come at a better time. The motor wheel and related items were not producing the profits that were hoped for. Briggs &. Stratton sold the manufacturing rights to these items to Automotive Electric Service Corporation, of North Bergen, New Jersey, around February, 1924. The motor wheel did produce big profits in that it helped Briggs &. Stratton find its niche in the manufacturing world.

The Briggs & Stratton Corporation has sold well over 100,000,000 small gas engines. They have developed dozens of different models, each model with its own application. The next time you see a Briggs &. Stratton engine in use, you’ll know how it all began.

REFERENCE MATERIAL

Antique Automobile, Official publication of the Antique Automobile Club of America. March-April 1971, “The Motor Wheel”, written by Jim Altman. Vol. 35, No. 2.

The History of Briggs & Stratton Corporation, 1989, Published by the Briggs & Stratton Corporation. The Gas Engine Magazine, Jan-Feb. 1974, Vol. 9, No. 1.

The Wall Auto Wheel, Published by Auto-Wheels, Limited, 1913-1914, Russell Road, Kensington, London, England.

Smith Motor Wheeling, Pamphlet produced by the A.O. Smith Company, 1989.

Motor-Wheeling, Booklet produced by the A. O. Smith Company, 1916.

A letter from Fred P. Stratton dated November 28, 1969.

A Briggs & Stratton Corporation Blueprint, #636, dated March 10,1915. Print is of a flywheel type magneto.

Photo Credits: Mr. Jim Altman and Mr. Frank Lavinio. A special thanks to the A. O. Smith Company and Briggs & Stratton Corporation.

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