Now That Its Mine, What Do I Do With It?

| June/July 2001

  • Picture#1

  • Picture#1

516 S. Moreland Blvd. Waukesha, Wisconsin 53188

Grandpas are special people. Mine was a dairy farmer in northeast Iowa. Not only did he teach me how to bale hay and catch rainbow trout, he also introduced me to old engines. He had everything from small Maytags up to 10 HP hit-and-misses, but he liked the big engines the most. He never took them to any engine shows, but he was proud of them and was always willing to start them up if visitors stopped by. As a kid, it was always fun watching him tinker and run them.

I grew up and got married in 1978 and darn if my father-in-law wasn't interested in old tractors and engines, too. He restored an early Massey-Harris tractor and was ready to tackle a new project. He wanted to buy a hit-and-miss engine, so I talked with my grandpa, and he said he was willing to sell an 8 HP headless 1922 Witte that was in the project stage. In the fall of 1980, my wife and I drove from Waukesha, Wisconsin, to Decorah, Iowa, to bring back the Witte for my father-in-law. He soon had it sandblasted, primed and mounted on a cart. That's as far as he got, and he seemed to lose interest in it. He never got it running, yet the engine was fairly complete. It sat in his garage until he passed away in 1991 after battling cancer. Before he died, he gave the engine to me.

The Witte continued to sit in the garage for the next three years while I worked on a project of my own, which was finishing a restoration of an airplane. By the fall of 1994, I decided it was time to see what could be done to get this engine running. I talked with my grandpa, who was now in his early eighties, and he gave some advice on what the basics were. I knew I needed to find out if it was timed right and I soon learned it wasn't. Naturally, I couldn't find both timing marks, so I set it by guess, while observing the piston position and exhaust valve movements. The engine had originally been equipped as a kerosene/gasoline model and the original two-section tank that mounted on the water hopper was missing along with the water tank. The best I could do was get a pop or two from it. It was then that I realized this was going to take more than just timing to get it running. I wanted it restored correctly, but to make it completely original would require fabricating too many parts. I chose to make it a straight gasoline model.

After pulling the piston, I decided to have the cylinder rebored and the piston sleeved, along with new rings installed. It turned out to be more difficult than I first thought, because this model is headless. No local machine shop was willing to tackle this job. I finally found a company willing to do it, so with the help of my brother-in-law, we took the one piece cylinder/water hopper off and loaded it in the back of my minivan and off I went, driving the forty miles to deliver it for the reboring. It was 'only' about five months later that I got a call saying it was done. I guess they didn't view this as a high priority job. Even though it took forever, they did a great job. Now I could ship the piston out east for the sleeving and rings. As I was waiting for this to be done, I got word my grandfather had died. I had really wanted him to be able to see that engine run, but it wasn't to be. He always wanted updates on how the restoration was going. I wished I had started this project sooner.

It was now August of 1999, and I was getting close to having the engine ready. I ordered a reproduction gas tank that looks like the pictures I found in an old, reprinted Witte (pronounced Witty) manual. It also showed me the correct tank placement and fuel line fittings. The Wico mag had been checked over several years earlier, and every time I tried turning the flywheel, I got a good, healthy spark. I also learned it was best to try starting this model with the back-kick method. It was now time to see if all this effort and money was going to pay off. With the help of my oldest son, Will, and Ron Nettesheim, whom I met at an engine show in Sussex, Wisconsin, we were ready to try starting this big, old engine.

I have to admit, those big flywheels were a bit intimidating. I didn't want anyone to get a hand or piece of clothing caught in moving parts. My son and I provided the manpower, so we swung the flywheels against the compression, while Ron stayed close to the throttle valve on the mixer. It snorted and ran for a short five seconds. I was happy to finally hear some life in it and without a muffler, it echoed pretty good in the garage.

We felt confident we would have it running soon, but as hard as we tried, we couldn't keep it running. By this time, the sweat was pouring off of us, and I was getting frustrated. I couldn't figure it out. Everything was either reworked, overhauled, or a new part. I was beginning to envision this engine sitting in the front yard with red geraniums planted in the water hopper!

After a few more hours of tinkering, I finally thought I knew why it wouldn't run. The magneto would spark for about twenty times in a row and then it would stop dead. Sometimes it worked fine and then it wouldn't spark at all. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever see this engine run. It was frustrating, because I wasn't sure if there were other problems, too. Could it be a mixture problem, or was it still not timed right? I just didn't know for sure. Not being a mechanical whiz, I decided to ship the mag out for overhaul, but by the time I got it back, the warm fall weather was now cold winter and I didn't have a heated garage. Besides, I had just changed jobs and I didn't have the time or the passion to work on it in the cold. The Witte would have to wait until spring.

Father's Day, 2000, arrived. The mag was back on the engine and it sparked like new. I ordered and installed a new throttle and performed some other adjustments to this cantankerous old engine. If it hadn't belonged to my grandfather and my father-in-law, it would have been sold for scrap metal long ago. It would either run now, or I was through working on it. Because it was Father's Day, my family and I drove to visit my mother-in-law and several of my wife's sisters and brothers and their families were there, too. The engine was still stored in the same garage and it was now the twentieth year since it arrived.

I asked my brother-in-law if he'd like to help me try starting it. His eyes lit up and we walked out to the garage and the rest of the family members decided to tag along, too. With one good push of the flywheel it started, and low and behold, it continued to run! It was the sweetest sound to hear that hit-and-miss pound out its rhythm. My mother-in-law was very happy to see it finally run, and everyone thought it was fitting that it finally ran for the first time in many years on Father's Day.

Throughout the rest of the summer, I spent time learning how to make this engine start and run smoother. It's now almost completely restored, and I'm hoping to take it to a few engine shows this year. It really is a sweet running engine. I've also learned that this is a wonderful hobby and I've met some great people in the process. I'm looking forward to buying and restoring some more engines. I just hope my next project won't take quite so long as this one has. If anyone out there has any questions about headless Wittes, I'd be happy to help if I can.


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