Just Ask: 1928 Fairbanks-Morse 80 hp 32B-12 Diesel

By Staff
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The 1928 80 hp Fairbanks-Morse 32B-12 2-stroke diesel at the Almelund (Minnesota) Threshing Show grounds.
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The 80 hp F-M’s fuel control lever. A plate (missing) covers the lever housing. Prime is at full left, run at center position and stop at full right.
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The access hole to the F-M’s exhaust burial vault.
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A younger and slightly slimmer Matt Horstman back when he could still climb into the burial vault for inspection and cleaning.
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“Fairbanks-Morse” is prominently cast into the base of the 80 hp engine, as it was on all of Fairbanks-Morse’s large engines.
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Matt Horstman with the 80 hp Fairbanks-Morse diesel.
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Looking at the engine, the exhaust pipes dominate. Combustion air is drawn into the crankcase through the covers on the base of the engine.

Matt Horstman would have liked to have been a farmer. But the 40-year-old from Chisago City, Minnesota, realized that farming didn’t seem very profitable. But as luck would have it, his next-door neighbors were gas engine enthusiasts, and through them he kept his hand in farm-related enterprises. “They collected old tractors and old gas engines, and I enjoyed watching them work on them, and learning,” Matt says.

Early start

Butt Matt wasn’t sitting back, either. As a sixth-grader he bought his first tractor, a 1950 John Deere A. “Then in seventh grade I bought my next tractor, a 1940 John Deere B.” The old iron gene was already at work.

Although his family moved away, his old iron desire remained, and when he met up with the old neighbors again, Howard Olson and his sons Kirby and Wayne, that pretty much did it. “I started to get into gas engines with them again, not necessarily for collectibles at the time, but for the history of the gasoline engines,” Matt says.

When he was 16, Matt began attending the Almelund, (Minnesota) Threshing Show. “I discovered if you hang around a threshing show, they’ll put you to work,” Matt says. “I kind of did everything, helping with the sawmill, threshing, firing the Russell steam tractor, just mixing and mingling with the collectors, helping people, getting to know them. That’s how I got involved. They’d say, ‘Give me a hand here,’ or ‘Help me out here.’”

That led to working with a pair of Fairbanks-Morse engines when he was 18, a 2-cylinder 1928 Fairbanks-Morse 32B-12, and the 4-cylinder Fairbanks-Morse 32E-14 300 hp diesel engine. Both are 2-cycle engines. “Under the supervision of ‘Dr. Bill’ Osmer and Wayne Olson, I went from being an oiler, or ‘grease monkey,’ as everyone called it, to actually starting the 80 hp engine, checking on it, babysitting it, taking care of it, talking to people about it. Basically, maintenance of the engine fell to me.”

Today, he is one of the main people working with the show’s 1928 80 hp Fairbanks-Morse 32B-12 engine, finding unique ways to involve show-goers, including looking at someone in the daily audience and saying, “Would you like to start this engine?”

Engine history

The main purpose of engines like the 80 hp was for power generation, Matt notes. “Every small town in America had its own power plant. This one came from Worthington, Minnesota, and when it was finished making electricity there, it was moved to a Frederic, Wisconsin, sawmill.”

Retrieving it from that sawmill was a project, as it had been buried in the ground. “The guy who bought it had to jack the engine up 10 feet until it was even with the ground, where he could slide it out.”

Its new life in a pole shed was not very useful. “An engine that size requires a substantial foundation to bolt it down to or else it will jump around when it’s running. Lacking that, in 1997 the owner sold the engine to the Almelund Threshing show, where it now sits on about 12 yards of concrete.” Wayne Olson and “Dr. Bill” Osmer were instrumental in creating a plan to set up that big engine, Matt says. “They did all the paperwork, groundwork and footings,” Matt says.

There were two different ways to exhaust the engine – out into the air, or down into the ground and out. The Almelund people decided to go through the ground using a burial vault, which acts as the muffler for the engine. “After all the information and prints were drawn up, a vault company was given the specs to make the vault. We had it specially made with four holes, two for exhaust pipes that go into the burial vault, one hole in the side out to the stack, and the other hole to pump out water. I was 19, and my contribution was to suggest the hole in the burial vault to make it easier to get the water out. I used to be thin enough to crawl down through that hole and clear out the water. The company had no problem with any of that. I don’t know of anybody else that has something like that,” Matt adds.

Starting the engine

Matt runs the engine for an hour or so at a time during the Almelund show, then shuts it down for oiling and other needed maintenance and to add interest and excitement to show-goers who want to see the machine run.

“There’s not a lot of movement on a big engine like this, except for the flywheel. Small hit-and-miss engines have the crankshaft and connecting rods exposed, the governor, the igniter, and there’s a lot of movement with the valves, rocker arms and so on, which is why I like to show the start-up process with this big engine, which generates more interest and a lot of questions instead of just running it all the time.”

The process goes like this: Before restarting the 80, Matt oils the engine, especially the three main bearings. He greases what’s needed, checks for water in, and makes sure the attending 1919 Fairbanks-Morse Z 3 hp engine has pumped the air pressure in the starting tank up to the 200psi required to start the 80 hp diesel engine.

The 1919 F-M 3 hp Model Z engine has special meaning for Matt, as it belongs to him. “It was sitting in a building on the property, so when they were setting the 80 up, they needed an engine to run the air compressor, so they dragged it over, bolted it to the floor, added a Fairbanks-Morse flywheel to it, and hooked it up to the air compressor.” All without asking Matt. “I didn’t mind,” Matt says, “because it wasn’t being used for anything, anyway. Plus, it means everything in that building is Fairbanks-Morse, with the exception of the air tank.”

With the air tank at 200psi, Matt opens the petcocks, then takes a bar and rolls the huge flywheel over to the starting line. During this, he’ll tell show-goers about the exhaust run through the burial vault. “The first reaction from people is kind of a gasp,” he says. “‘Was it a used vault?’ some people will ask. And I tell them no, the only person that was ever in it was me. That was back when I was skinny enough and could crawl down through the hole to clean it out.”

Next, he prepares the glow plugs, which have recessed holes in them. “It used to be hemp rope was stuck in there and lit, and both plugs were put in the engine and screwed down. We use lighted cigarettes, put them in the plug, and screw them into the engine. They are the catalyst for combustion, an additional way to get the diesel fuel to explode under compression,” Matt says.

The valve to the air tank is opened and the control lever is placed from the run to start position. And the engine starts to turn over. “It usually takes about 30 revolutions to bring it up to rpm. Once that happens, I pull the lever back to run. Once it’s up to speed, I cut the air off, moving the control lever from start to run and the engine starts to run. After that you just rely on compression to burn the diesel.”

But Matt likes to throw a monkey wrench into the works at times, so to speak. “At that point I might shut the engine off and go through the motions again so they can watch the process again, and see that a lot has to be done until it can be started. People like to see that,” Matt says.

“I like to get interaction with the public on starting the engine. I like sharing the engine with people and showing them, ‘This is how you do it.’ It’s a unique opportunity for them to see how one is started, and for the general public it’s definitely not something they see regularly. I say to people, ‘If you stick around long enough, I’ll put you to work.’ After everything is ready, I’ll say ‘Do you want to start it?’ People are surprised, and will say, ‘Really? I can do something like that, start this thing?’ ‘Oh yeah,’ I say, ‘you just take this lever, push that button down, shove the control lever forward, and when I tell you, pull the lever back.’ That’s it. It starts. You get more crowd participation that way. So I shut the engines down every so often to do that.”

The rings on the 80 hp are worn, making it more temperamental if it’s a cold start, the first of the day. “You can get massive amounts of diesel in if it doesn’t start right away, so it’ll make a bigger explosion, and you can hear if it’s not running correctly because it’ll make a banging noise with an excessive amount of diesel in it,” Matt says.

At the beginning

Matt emphasizes that he is not the only one who works with the 80 hp Fairbanks-Morse diesel engine. “There are several people that look in on it,” Matt says. “One is a guy we call ‘Jimmy Fix,’ a master of anything that’s made. He’ll start the engine up a weekend or two before the show and get all the bugs out, making sure that after it has set for so long that it works.”

Because the engine doesn’t hold a prime, one of the most difficult aspects after the winter is to manually pump diesel up into the injectors, first from a ground fuel tank up to the fuel pump, then from the fuel reservoir up on top up to the injector. “To get it primed, we unscrew the top where the pipe goes into the injector, roll the engine past the timing mark, and take turns pumping. With every manual stroke of the off/run/prime lever on the injector pump only a little squirt of diesel comes out, maybe pushing it up half an inch. A half inch per stroke. Hundreds of strokes are required to get enough diesel up. It takes a lot of forearm muscle to move it back and forth. That’s the most labor-intensive part about getting the engine ready to run. The process is repeated for each cylinder.”

In the meantime, a water hose begins filling the 250-gallon cooling tank, at least an eight-hour project. While that is happening, workers start at the bottom of the engine and work their way toward the top, reassembling lines, inserting plugs, checking the fuel system, and everything else on the engine. Water has to be pumped out of the burial vault, all the water cooling lines have to be reconnected to the engine, and there are a lot of rubber hoses and pipe clamps to assemble that are removed to prevent freezing during the winter.

“There are a lot of things on the engine that we pull at the end of the season to make sure all the water is out of the jacket as well as the water pump itself. One year we had to have some repair done on the water pump because water had been missed in the winterization and the pump had a crack in it. Jack Frost got in it and busted it out and we had to have it fixed. We only realized that last year when we were filling up the cooling system, and water was coming out the water pump,” Matt says.

The engine manual lists the lifespan of the engine at 80,000 hours, but there is nothing on it to indicate how many hours it’s been used. “I don’t think it’s a really rare engine, because there were a lot of them out there so I think there are still others out there. Fairbanks-Morse still makes parts for the engine.”

Matt, a new member of the Early Day Gas & Tractor Association Branch 1, says if a person wants to get involved at a threshing show, all they have to do is ask. “There’s so much to do at the shows. It takes more than one person to start these engines or run them. It takes a lot of people to do it, so if you ever want to start doing any of this kind of stuff, all you have to do is ask.”

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