The origin of The Universal Motor Company
John D. Termaat, from Motor Boat Magazine.
7964 Oakwood Park Ct. St. Michaels, Maryland 21663
The principal players in our drama were Louis J. Monahan and John D. Termaat. Monahan was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1876, the son of John and Mary Monahan. Termaat was born in Holland in 1867. He came to Oshkosh as an immigrant and became a 'successful photographer. The two men shared an interest in mechanical things.
Living on Lake Winnebago, they saw the need for power boats for fishing and recreation. From 1898 to 1900 they experimented until they felt they had a practical engine design. In 1901 they began to build engines, one at a time, in a small shed. In 1902 they organized the Termaat and Monahan Company to produce engines, still on a small scale. The range of engines in 1906 was made up of 1? HP to 4 HP single cylinder engines and 5 to 8 HP two cylinder engines. Termaat & Monahan engines were all two-cycle. Quite a number of the single cylinder engines still exist. Characteristics are four round holes in the flywheel disk, a grease cup on the end of the crankshaft for the rod bearing, and a small wet surge chamber bolted to the exhaust port.
In 1906 the men accepted outside capital, and the period of 1906-1913 was a period of steady expansion. The 1907 catalog shows a much wider range of engines, still all two-cycle:
Bore & Stroke
3 x 3?
3? x 3?
4? X 4?
4? x 4?
5? x 6
4? x 4?
4? x 4?
5? x 6
One can see that they used seven different cylinder sizes. I conclude that the engine line just grew like Topsy, with not enough standardization for low manufacturing costs. Exception are the 4? x 4? cylinder which was used in 2, 3, and 4 cylinder models and the 5? x 6 cylinder which was used on 2 and 4 cylinder engines. These models may have been newly introduced in 1907.
A Termaat & Monahan advertisement in the Sept. 10, 1910 issue of Motor Boating states that they then had 20 different sizes, from 2 to 120 HP. I've no idea how they achieved 120 HP. The ad shows a racing boat with their 36 HP model B (there had been no model letters in 1907).
With considerable outside capital, Termaat and Monahan no longer had control of policy. The majority of the directors wanted to abandon engine manufacture and build machinery. Therefore, both Termaat and Monahan left the company, though they retained some stock ownership.
There were other marine engines that look remarkably like Termaat and Monahan designs. Detroit and Wright are examples. That may be the result of copying, buying castings from Universal Foundry, or perhaps the design and tooling were sold in 1912.
Enter the third player in our drama: E. Homer Fahrney. He was one of two sons of Dr. Peter Fahrney, the 'Patent Medicine King.' E. H. Fahrney was born in 1876, educated in Chicago public schools and Mount Morris College. He entered his father's business in 1895 at age 19. E. H. Fahrney and his brother E. C. Fahrney inherited the family patent medicine fortune, estimated at two million dollars, a real fortune in those times. Both brothers established summer homes in the Oshkosh area, E. H. on Lake Butte des Morts and E. C. on Lake Winnebago. E. H. had his home in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, and he was president of the Peter Fahrney drug Company. Both of the brothers bred fine dairy cattle at their summer estates. There is an indication that E. H. was interested in things mechanical, as he had a machine shop at his summer home. No doubt he was an early Termaat & Monahan customer.
In 1913 or 1914 the three men organized and incorporated the Universal Motor Company with Monahan president, Termaat vice-president, and Fahrney secretary-treasurer. Their objective was to produce a modern four-cylinder, four-cycle marine engine with the smoothness and flexibility of automobile engines. Monahan was the designer, as he had been for the T&M engines. They called the engine the model C. I helped to restore one of them for the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum a few years ago. It was a four cylinder L-head engine with battery ignition and had serial number C-1268. Bore and stroke were 29/16 x 41/16. The engine was rated 9-12 HP at 1200 rpm. It had only two main bearings. The reverse gear was integral though its housing was not sealed; the gears were grease-packed for lubrication. The starting crank was as in the figure, except that it had no chain cover; no doubt the Museum's engine was built before 1924. There were priming cups. The water pump was gear-type. A plunger oil pump was driven by an eccentric on the camshaft; it supplied oil to troughs in the crankcase into which scoops on the connecting rods could dip. The carburetor was a Mayer, made in Buffalo, NY. The model C is a neat-looking, smooth running engine.
During WWI, Universal built a stationary version of the engine coupled to a 4 kw DC generator and it was used by the army to power portable machine shops. After the war, the unit was sold commercially as a farm light plant and as a standby marine generator.
A year or two after Universal Motors was founded, Universal Foundry Company was formed to supply castings. Robert Ziebell was president, Monahan vice-president, and Arthur Ziebell secretary-treasurer.
Tragedy struck in 1920 when Louis Monahan died quite suddenly. He was only 43 years of age. The cause of death was pneumonia following influenza. From his obituary we learn that Monahan had inventions for other things than engines. His latest was a device for dispensing air and water for automobiles at street curbing. The device kept the air hose up out of the street by suspending it from an arm of a crane. There were several of these in Oshkosh with more to be installed. Another invention was a new type of corn cultivator. At one time he was associated with a Mr. Dichmann, and they developed a machine for making grass twine. With C. J. Pope, an employee, he secured a patent on a process for making artificial milk from soy beans. That couldn't have pleased Wisconsin dairy farmers.
Monahan was a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Society of Automotive Engineers. He was a member of the Oshkosh Association of Commerce and of its industrial committee. He helped organize the Elks Fife and Drum Corps and played in the group. He was commodore of the Oshkosh Power Boat Club. He was a member of St. Peter's Catholic Church, the Knights of Columbus, and the Rotary Club.
It appears that he had never married. The obituary mentions only his, mother, three aunts and a cousin. In his obituary he was treated as a man of great local importance.
A new factory was built in 1927. Engineers were hired and a line of 1, 2, 4, and 6 cylinder engines were developed. 1927 was the year that Termaat retired at age 60.
Universal Motor Company managed to survive the Great Depression but production was mostly of replacement parts during those years. E. H. Fahrney died suddenly of a heart attack in October, 1935. He was 59 years of age. He was sole owner of the Universal Motor Company but still was president of the Peter Fahrney Drug Co. with his home in Oak Park, Illinois. He must not have spent much time at Universal. He was survived by his wife Marian, a son Peter, and daughters Mary and Myrtle. His Chicago obituary predicted that the daughters would inherit the patent medicine fortune. He was a member of the Chicago Athletic Club, Union League, and the Oak Park Country Club.
Ralph Klieforth, who had been general manager, purchased the company from the Fahrney estate. Klieforth was the father of the famous Universal Atomic Four, which became the most popular auxiliary engine for small sail boats. It was a lightweight four-cylinder L-head engine. It owed quite a lot to the original model C, having the same 29/16 bore and the same cylinder centers, though the stroke was reduced from 41/16 to 31/8. Like the model C, it had a two-bearing crankshaft. It was rated for speeds up to 3500 rpm where it produced 35 HP. In most installations, speed was seldom over 2000 rpm. The Atomic Four was produced from 1949 through 1985.
The business was sold to Medalist Industries in 1961. Universal is still in business, converting small Japanese tractor engines for sail boat power. They are designed to easily replace the Atomic Four, with identical mountings and output shaft location.
John D. Termaat died in 1950 at the age of 83. His wife had died in 1942 and they had no children. His obituary was short and on a back page. By 1950, Oshkosh had nearly forgotten John D. Termaat.
Now we must backtrack to the 1906-1909 era. Like many others of that time, J. D. Termaat and L. J. Monahan experimented with an automobile that they called the T.M. After Fahrney joined them to finance the venture, it became the T.M.F. According to the Standard Catalog of American Cars and The New Encyclopedia of Motorcars, the 1906 version was designed by Alton Ripley, a company employee. The car was a typical high-wheeled motor buggy of that time with an air cooled engine. Serious production was not carried out, . but a few were assembled for local use. The redisigned car, the T.M.F. of 1909, was also a high-wheeler. The Badger Manufacturing Company was formed in Oshkosh to produce the car, but the project did not survive more than a year. There is a statement by Wendel that the Universal marine engine was built in the Badger Manufacturing Company shop.
Wisconsin is the Badger State, so the badger name was used in other automobile ventures. There was a Badger steam car built in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1901, a Badger four wheel drive car in Clintonville, WI in 1909 (Wisconsin engine), and a Badger car in Columbus, in 1910-11 (Northway engine). These seem to have had no connection with Termaat and Monahan.
There was another car venture by Termaat and Monahan, however. The 1914 Ziebell cyclecar was designed by company draftsman Arthur C. Ziebell. The car is described in detail in the Standard Catalog of American Cars. I have mentioned Arthur Ziebell earlier as secretary-treasurer of Universal Foundry Company. The car had a four cylinder water cooled engine that may have been the forerunner of the Universal Model C marine engine. The Ziebell never saw serious production.
There were other builders of marine engines in Oshkosh which should be researched. These include: H. C. Dolman Co., United States Motors Corp., Universal Products Co., H. Norman Co., and Union Iron Works. I know that H. C. Doman was a very early builder of marine engines, being incorporated in 1893. That company eventually became the Doman Division of Universal Products.
There was a small single-cylinder Doman engine with overhead valves and having some model T Ford parts. It was later built by US Motors as the Model OK-1. Sears Roebuck sold it as the Motorgo. Gray Marine Motor Company in Detroit built a mirror-image version of it as well. These engines are popular with collectors.
My thanks go to Mara Monroe of the Oshkosh Public Library for the obituaries and Gerry Lombard of Bakersfield, California for the automobile data.
'The Universal and Before,' by J. D. Termaat, an article in the April 10, 1924 issue of Motor Boat Magazine. 1907 Termaat & Monahan catalog in the library of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, St. Michaels, MD.
Obituary of Louis J. Monanan, The Daily Northwestern, Feb. 3, 1920.
Obituary of Elmer Homer Fahrney, Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, Oct. 8, 1935.
Obituary of John D. Termaat, Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, Nov. 20, 1950.
Personal letter dated 1987 from Alois T. (Louie) Grill, retired from Universal in 1975 as sales manager. Began employment in 1927.
The New Encyclopedia of Motorcars, edited by G. N. Georgano.
Kimes & Clark, Standard Catalog of American Cars.
Wendel, C. H., American Gasoline Engines Since 1872.