1889 2 HP Regan vapor engine
Manufacturer: Regan Vapor Engine Co.
Serial number: 271
Flywheel diam.: 30 inches
Flywheel width: 2-1/2 inches
If you walk through life listening for the quiet voices, sometimes something extraordinary speaks from the distant past. When this “something” appears, it is so unique, so different, that one cannot help but stop and listen, becoming part of its incredible history.
Dick Hamp’s 1889 2 HP Regan vapor marine engine is like this. Dick has always been deeply interested in early, first-generation California engines, and as far as we know, Daniel S. Regan built the first successful low-tension gasoline vapor engine marketed on the West coast.
Little known about Regan
Daniel Regan was a native Californian born in San Francisco. There isn’t much more information to be found regarding his life. The great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed almost everything in that city, and what was left of Regan’s life went up in smoke. What a shame that more has not been recorded on a man who dreamed of power in flywheels.
Serial number 271
I first saw the old Regan when Dick gave me the tour of his old iron. Dick removed a tarp and there in the grass sat the Regan, serial number 271. I was astonished. That was many years ago and as time rolled on, I often poked fun at Dick for restoring less desirable pieces while the Regan sat.
The fact is, the Regan had some major mechanical issues. The piston was frozen tight. The crankshaft babbitt was completely shot. The connecting rod big end was a cobbled up piece of junk from who knows where. The head plate had so many holes drilled and tapped in it for different spark plugs it looked like Swiss cheese. The main head was frozen so tight against the head studs that the studs had to be hand-cut through the gasket space to release the head. When the nameplates were removed most of the screws twisted off. The rocker arm was completely missing as well as its pivot shaft. Both valves were completely shot, the seats were bad and the ignition system nonexistent. It is no wonder Dick owned the Regan for more than 30 years before the task of restoration began.
Doing it right
Engines of great historical significance require careful thought behind the restoration process. Dick’s foremost desire was to bring the Regan back as close as possible mechanically but, at the same time, to preserve any trace of original finish and features original to the engine. I think the photos show how beautifully Dick has succeeded in his desire.
John Palmer is a great pal of Dick’s. Without John, the engine might still be in the weeds. John is an old-time machinist with old-time smarts and a shop full of the nicest American machine tools ever made. He is a master machinist who not only restores antique engines but also builds the most lovely scale engines imaginable. John was the only one who could do to the Regan what needed doing.
Extensive machine work
John did a tremendous amount of machine work as well as restoration on the Regan. He poured new babbitt, machined several new pieces including the big end connecting rod bearing, wrist pin and bearing, cam gear shaft, and head plate. He also re-machined the face of the camshaft, re-grooved the ring grooves, removed the frozen head by cutting off the studs, made new studs for the head, repaired the threads behind the nameplate, made all new valves and related pieces, ground the valve seats and much more. This was not all straight forward machine work either as there is some real oddball work required to restore a Regan. John did the impossible work, though, and everything he did works flawlessly.
A true team effort
One problem that arose was a missing rocker arm – what to do? Fellow collectors came to the rescue as Larry Snow sent pictures of his bigger Regan and Dick picked the dimensions off Anton Affentrager’s smaller Regan. This allowed them to make a pattern, and Dave Freitas at Sunset Foundry, Valley Springs, Calif., cast the new rocker arm in cast iron. It was then machined and aged to match the rest of the engine. We also made a new pivot shaft and retainers.
The ignition explained
Later Regans used a spark-saver which attaches to the rocker arm, completes the circuit on the compression stroke and allows ignition to take place. The Regan uses a pin protruding from the piston head which contacts an insulated electrode within the cylinder. When the pin on the piston contacts the insulated electrode during the compression cycle, it completes the circuit and energizes the low-tension coil. As the piston rolls over top dead center, the circuit breaks causing a spark. With this first generation, low-tension make-and-break, it is impossible to get a spark before TDC, and ignition is always retarded. However, the Regan runs quite well.
We recreated the ignition system as much as possible to the original configuration. That is not as easy as it sounds as there are no original ignition systems left to study. Fortunately, we had the body of the insulated electrode to give us clues and patent drawings did the rest.
There are a number of peculiarities built into the Regan. Most notably, it is a marine engine. Drive to the propeller shaft consisted of a large wheel which ran on the inside face of either one flywheel or the other. This determined propeller rotation and a lever arrangement kept it in place.
The Regan’s base has been modified by an angular cut so it presumably would better fit a small hull. Heavy mounting lugs are riveted onto the base casting. Why Regan didn’t make a new pattern for this base is beyond me. He did, however, modify the pattern to allow the cylinder to “sit off” the horizontal.
I noticed the crankshaft throws were pockmarked like a casting. The “tap” test with a ball peen hammer revealed a cast iron crankshaft. It surprised me as inconsistent with the otherwise high quality of the engine.
Internally, the head uses a strange shape for the combustion chamber. A baffle plate is fitted to partially block off the combustion chamber. It apparently helps to start the ignition process and stabilize the fuel burn.
Valuable then and now
Someone really valued this engine long ago and went to great lengths to make modifications that kept it in operation. There were a series of different ignition systems made for it as indicated by the different spark plug holes in the head plate. When found, the Regan had the remnants of a “wipe” point system indicating high-tension ignition. Someone had bolted a large, wheel-like object to the top of the piston using the threaded hole for the igniter pin. It appears to have been a vain attempt at increasing the compression ratio. The exhaust valve box had been welded together at least once from being frozen and split. Finally, one sad day long ago, the rocker arm fractured at its pivot point. There was no repair to be made after that and how the engine survived is beyond me. It served many faithful years in its duty judging by the amount of wear and repairs on it. Well worn and very tired, it was finally set out to pasture.
What a wonderful privilege it is to have been a part of the Regan’s story. Dick and John have done a world-class restoration in terms of maintaining originality and mechanical perfection. I am very sure that Daniel Regan would say, “Well done!”
Contact Lester Bowman at 175 N. Santa Ana Ave., Modesto, CA 95354 • (209) 527-4665 • firstname.lastname@example.org .
Contact Dick Hamp at 1772 Conrad Ave., San Jose, CA 95124.