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

By Staff
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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

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

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

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