Old advertisements for Superior Gas Engine Co. of Springfield, Ohio, aren’t nearly as common as they are for other engine manufacturers of the era. The firm apparently relied on its reputation for ‘superior’ quality to promote sales. This practice of showing-by-doing must’ve worked for Superior, as several other manufacturers built engines many people now call “Superior clones” due to their similar design.
In reality, Superior engines were favored for their somewhat better fuel efficiency. They used a four-cycle engine design in the oil field where gasoline production was scarce. Most people agree that Superior engines were at the higher end of both the price and quality scale in the world of oil field engines. If Reid and Bessemer engines are common like a Chevrolet or Ford car or truck, then Superior engines might be the Cadillac or Lincoln luxury car of the oil field – not necessarily better, but prettier and with all the bells and whistles.
In 1889, Patrick J. (P.J.) Souvlin’s machine shop opened in Springfield, Ohio, during a period when shop services were in high demand thanks to the booming Lima, Ind., oil field that had been discovered only a few years before. Originally just a repair facility, Souvlin’s machine shop soon joined the ranks of firms competing to develop an internal-combustion engine that could use well head gas as fuel. Natural gas that escaped into the atmosphere was viewed as an annoying and sometimes dangerous by-product of drilling.
75-100 HP Superior Tandem Engine
Souvlin designed a new engine called the Superior, which he produced under the name Superior Gas Engine Co. Years later, in 1926, the company name was changed to Superior Engine Co. to more appropriately describe the company’s new line of diesel engines. Therefore, it’s probably safe to assume that any Superior engine bearing the latter name was built after 1926.
Souvlin sold his first engine for oil field use to a Findlay, Ohio, organization that later became Ohio Oil Co., otherwise known today as Marathon Oil. Originally, all Superior engines were sold directly to the customer, but as the company grew so did the need for a distributor. Arrangements were made with the newly organized National Supply Co. to become exclusive sales agents of Superior engines to the oil industry. As both companies continued to grow, National Supply acquired another oil field engine builder -Spang, Chalfant & Co. – which was one of the oldest names in the American oil industry, dating back to 1828. The firm built two-and four-cycle gas engines and was also a leading manufacturer of steel piping.
During World War 11, Superior employed more than 1,800 men and women. It received the Maritime Commission ‘M’ award and Victory Fleet Flag for its record of building diesel engines for U.S. Liberty ships. Superior also built engines for Naval LST landing-craft vessels and for lend-lease to other Allied nations.
In 1950, Superior increased its involvement in the marine engine market by purchasing Atlas-Imperial Diesel Engine Co. of Oakland, Calif. Selling products under both the Superior and Atlas-Imperial name, the firm ultimately decided to clear up confusion about which firm produced what and changed its name to simply the Engine Division of the National Supply Co.
In April 1955, National Supply Co. sold its Diesel Engine Division to the White Motor Co. of Cleveland, which was among the leading manufacturers of large, heavy-duty trucks and tractors. The sale included an agreement that National Supply continue to distribute Superior and Atlas engines throughout the oil industry. Several years later, National Supply was acquired by the Armco Steel Corp. of Middletown, Ohio.
The Superior plant in Springfield became known as the White Diesel Engine Division. In the 1950s and 1960s, the company’s engines were used in almost every application possible: transportation, marine, defense, municipal and the oil industry. In the 1960s, the company gradually returned to producing gas engines with a new line of gas-fueled engine-compressor units. In 1964, Ohio experienced another oil boom not far from Springfield, and Superior engine-compressor units were installed.
With gas engines re-established as important products, the name was changed once again from White Diesel Engine Division to White Superior Division. When the company was purchased by Cooper Industries in the early 1970s, the majority of Superior markets were in the oil and gas industry, with some sales among municipalities and occasionally to government groups. Additionally, the division completely withdrew from marine diesel production.
I would like to thank Cooper Industries for kindly sharing information concerning the company’s history.