Swap meet Ellis goes from junker to jewel
Company: Ellis Engine Co., Detroit, Mich.
Year: Circa 1913
Horsepower: 3 at 300 RPM; 6 at 1,000 RPM
Serial number: 968
Weight: 455 pounds
Flywheel diameter: 18 inches
Ignition: Spark plug and buzz coil with swipe
Additional info: Tank-cooled, two-stroke; reversible
In 2002, I finished rebuilding my storage shed, taking it from a 14-by-12-foot shed to a 20-by-21-foot shed with 56 feet of 2-foot wide shelving and a 9-foot garage door. Certainly that would be all the extra storage I would ever need. I soon found out it was not big enough.
For five or six years I had been wanting to attend the Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Assn. swap meet at the club grounds in Portland, Ind. But for every reason in the book, I always ended up missing it. But 2003 was going to be different, and in the end, I had a beautifully restored circa 1913 3-6 HP Ellis engine to show for it.
While moving all my things to the shed, I came to realize I had a lot of small lawn mower-type engines I would never do anything with. I decided it would be better to put those engines in the hands of collectors who would do something with them, and if I was to make some extra money doing it, that would be even better.
My first plan was to take what would be a pickup load from the shed to the garage, and Friday night after work load everything up and be ready to go Saturday morning. It soon became obvious I had more than one pickup load to take. Plan B was to use my enclosed trailer, as it is larger and I would not have to worry about the weather.
I arrived at the swap meet grounds early - a little before 7 a.m. There wasn't much movement at that time of day, but that was about to change. I could smell coffee perking and bacon frying. So before things really got going, I took a quick look around to see what was there. I saw a nice 1 -1/2 HP Sandwich, and if it would've had the correct ignition system, this would be a whole different story.
People came by my site and things got busy. At times during the day traffic would slow down enough so I could do a little shopping myself. And so it went all day. By late afternoon, things were really slowing down, and some people were packing up for the trip home. I didn't have much left to sell, but before I left I wanted to visit a vendor who had machine tools to see if he had anything I could use. I found nothing.
Walking back to my site, all kinds of thoughts were going through my head of things I would like to buy with the money I took in that day. I was almost back to my setup when I spotted an Ellis engine in the back of a truck.
I stopped to take a look and made small talk with the owner, who was from nearby Cleveland, Ohio. I had tried a couple of times in the past to buy an Ellis, but they had always been a little out of my financial reach. The price for the engine was written on a very small tag, and it was dancing in the wind so I couldn't read it. When it finally settled down, it wasn't a bad price. With the money I had taken in that day - and a little negotiation - I could afford this engine.
I told him I was interested in the engine and would like to give it a good look-over. There were some old repairs to the cylinder and cylinder head water jackets, and it was stuck tight. For the most part it was complete, and the fuel and ignition systems were intact. A little bent up, but there. We removed the cylinder head for a look inside. There were no obvious cracks in the cylinder, but the piston was stuck about an inch down from the top. It didn't look bad, but it didn't look that good, either. Even so, I was willing to take a chance. In no time at all, we were sliding the Ellis into my trailer.
Leaving the club grounds, I thought of how I had made more room in the shed, picked up a new engine to work on and still had enough money left to buy something to eat, plus pay for the gas home. I would have to say it was a good day.
I could hardly wait until morning to start taking the Ellis apart, but I wanted some pictures first. Wouldn't you know our camera would pick that day to stop working. I had to borrow a camera, so everything was on hold for a week.
Once I had my pictures, I got everything apart rather easily, followed by degreasing and sandblasting the cylinder and piston. I figured when the piston broke loose it would come out much easier over a clean, rust-free cylinder. Because this is a two-cycle engine, there are about seven different places to get oil on the sides of the piston. To free up the piston, all I did was heat up the entire assembly with a heat gun and put oil in all the different ports. After about three days, it came loose.
With the piston free of the cylinder I cleaned and honed the cylinder a little, and chamfered all the ports. There were some pit marks at the top and bottom of the bore, but it was still quite useable. Cleaning the piston, I was able to free up two rings, but I broke the top one. What I did not know at the time was that the top ring was stuck from carbon. Had I known that, I may have tried something different. So, I installed all new rings.
The old repairs on the cylinder and cylinder head had to be redone. They were poorly done and the welds were coming apart. I was able to use a small hammer and chisel to knock off the old welds. The hardest part of the repair was getting the broken parts completely back into where they came from. Naturally, I picked the hottest day of summer to do my welding and it took all day. I was happy when that job was done.
The only other big problem I had to overcome was the Ellis' Detroit force-feed oiler, which was missing one of its three pumps. I was hoping to find a pump or a complete oiler during the 2003 show season, but had no luck. My neighbor and engine buddy, Ed, found one for me at an auction in Pennsylvania. After making up some missing fittings and reworking the pump assembly, it was working like new.
With most of the repair work done and the missing parts found, I put the Ellis back together. When starting an Ellis, it is recommended to bump start only - there is no place for a starting crank when the work pulley is installed. The new piston rings were not seating well and the engine was a little on the tight side. To help things out, I spun the engine with an electric motor for about an hour. This helped, but I still needed a starting crank to get it running.
When it first started, it didn't have to run long to get hot - not much more than a minute or so. I shut it off and quickly put together a cooling tank from an oil drum I had kept for that purpose. With a cooling system in place, two things were brought to light: The Ellis was very loud running with only a straight pipe for an exhaust, and it made huge clouds of white smoke. It was almost impossible to see in the garage, even with all the doors open.
Everyone who owns a two-cycle engine knows they run much better under a load. I came up with a large exhaust fan from a greenhouse with blades of almost 5 feet. I ran the engine under the load of the fan to break in the rings. Cinder this load, it became more apparent I needed a real muffler. Even with ear protection, it was loud to the point of being aggravating. I had a picture of what the muffler looked like, but not what was inside. I did, however, build a muffler that looks good and works well.
Running under the load of the fan gave me the time to learn how to set all the different adjustments on the Ellis. After about six hours run time, I changed the lube in the oiler from 30-weight to two-cycle oil. This helped with the smoking problem i was having.
After about 12 hours run time, I took the engine back apart for cleaning and painting. I think I spent more time on painting and making up the trucks than repairing the engine. With the painting done I did the final assembly, which is always a fun time. John Wanat built the cooling tank for the Ellis and, as always, he made an excellent tank that appears and functions like the original.
I need to mention two collectors who took the time to help supply me with information I needed for my restoration project: Arvin Ellis from Pennsylvania sent me a copy of an Ellis owner's manual, which had a lot of good information on setup and adjustments and where not to put your fingers. Ellis Wendt of Wisconsin spent the better part of an evening with me showing me how to set up the fuel and ignition system on the Ellis. I thank them both for their help.
Contact engine enthusiast Paul Frasier at: 12234 Harris, Carleton, Ml 48117
Ellis: Running Basics
Ellis engines are not your typical two-strokes. Sure, they're valveless, ported engines pulling intake air through the crankcase and pushing exhaust through a port in the side of the cylinder; but that's where any similarity with a typical two-stroke ends.
Unlike most two-strokes, the Ellis doesn't draw its fuel through the crankcase along with the intake air. Instead, vacuum created by the piston on its upstroke pulls fuel from the fuel tank into the glass reservoir prominently situated on the front-left of the engine. As the piston rises, pressure pushes fuel out of the reservoir and into the fuel regulator at the front of the engine, where it is then fed into the cylinder.
The intake air is drawn in on the right side of the engine through the casting supporting the side-shaft governor, which is driven off the crankshaft. When the governor engages, it raises the sideshaft, which then closes off the intake air port.
Intake air drawn into the crankcase is pumped into the intake manifold on the front of the engine. Turning the brass handle mounted on top of the intake manifold regulates engine speed by exposing different-sized apertures, allowing more or less air to enter.
The ignition consists of a spark plug and buzz coil, with a swipe built into the brass timer at the top of the sideshaft. Pushing the timer's handle left or right advances or retards ignition, depending on which direction the engine is running.
Beautifully constructed and unnecessarily complex, Ellis engines failed to make an effective showing in the market. The Ellis was small for its size, and according to Paul Frasier, many customers refused delivery of the engine when it arrived, expecting a much more substantial piece of iron.