This story starts back in the mid-1970s, when our good friend and Gas Engine Magazine columnist Glenn Karch offered to sell us a 25 HP Superior oil field engine. Glenn had recently removed the engine from an oil lease in Sullivan County, Ind., about 80 miles from where we live. The engine had pumped oil on that lease for over 50 years. We bought it and a second, identical parts engine.
Glenn partly disassembled the engine so it would be easier to move, and with the aid of a borrowed crane truck he delivered the engine to our house. Mounted on its original 10-by- 10-inch wooden skids, the engine looked to be in good condition, needing mostly a cleanup and reassembly.
After unloading the engine, we covered it with a tarp and tried to determine the best way to tackle an engine of this size – the flywheels are 6 feet in diameter, and it weighs 6,500 pounds. We needed to get it into the workshop so we could work on it, but lacking equipment large enough to move it, it just sat there. It seemed we might have bitten off more than we could chew.
Fast-forward about 20 years. It was killing me seeing the Superior sitting outside. A bulldozer operator once moved it when we built a new barn, but otherwise it was just sitting. Its tarp had long ago disintegrated, and the elements were not doing the engine any good.
It was about this time that my son, Isaac, was looking for a 4-H Americana project, which is where kids display an original antique or something they have restored. Isaac was about 11 or 12 at the time, and his eyes fell upon the Superior sitting out behind the barn. Maybe this was the motivation we needed to get it restored.
We used a couple of old farm tractors and manhandled the block and flywheels onto our flatbed trailer. We then took it to an industrial sandblasting company where they sandblasted it and gave it a coat of industrial metal primer.
After getting it back home from the sand blaster, we unloaded it in our barn. We got busy on other projects, and a few more years slipped by before my son again expressed interest in the Superior. It was the spring of 2002, and with Isaac’s continued interest in the Superior we committed to getting the engine ready for the 4-H fair in late July. The ‘we’ in this case would be Isaac, me, my dad, Curtis Kinney, and our good friend and neighbor Lester Alumbaugh.
The first thing we had to do was get it mobile. Several years prior, we had purchased some heavy iron wheels and axles originally used on a threshing machine. We retrieved these out of the weeds and looked them over. We had also picked up some heavy, 10-inch I-beams about 18 feet long. We narrowed the axles, cut the beams to length and, using a picture from an Oil Well Supply catalog that Russell Farmer (of Oil Field Engine Society fame) had sent us, we built a cart to put the engine on. The cart alone was a monumental job, but it turned out very well.
With the cart done, we moved the engine block off the skids and onto the cart frame (with the wheels and axles removed). Using pipes as rollers and long boards for leverage, we were able to move the engine fairly easily. We kind of felt like the Egyptians as they moved those giant stones when building their pyramids. With the block on the cart, we then moved the flywheels in line with the engine. By rolling them up onto 2-by-4-inch boards and rolling them back and forth, each time raising the boards by 2 inches, we were able to get the flywheels and crankshaft high enough to mount them onto the engine. Once that was done, we used jacks and cribbing to raise the engine and cart high enough to put the wheels and axles on the cart. Finally, our almost 25-year-old problem of mobility was solved.
At the same time we were building the cart, we also cleaned and repaired individual parts for the engine. There is nothing small about this engine – the piston is 12 inches in diameter (taller than a 5-gallon bucket), and the connecting rod is about 4 feet long. Even the valves are the size of small dumbbells.
We needed to remove the surface rust from the cylinder bore, but not having a 12-inch hone, we improvised. We found that a plastic 5-gallon bucket was just smaller than the engine’s bore, so we cut the ribs off the top of the bucket and bored a hole in the center of the bucket bottom. We then fastened a 1/4-inch piece of all-thread in the hole, and using 3-M spray contact cement we fastened eight sheets of sandpaper on the sides of the bucket, overlapping each piece by about 50 percent. We chucked our ‘hone’ into a 1/2-inch drill and tried it out. Our homemade hone took less than 15 minutes to make and worked like a champ. Using lots of WD-40 to lubricate the hone, we cleaned up the cylinder bore in no time.
We managed to remove the original rings from the piston, and after a good cleaning we reinstalled them on the piston. Installing the piston and connecting rod went fairly well, but it was quite an effort for the three of us to manhandle it into place – just lifting the piston or rod is all one man would want to do. The valves only needed lapping, and the original bearings were good, as well.
Before we knew it, we were looking down the barrel at final assembly. As Isaac cleaned, primed and painted parts, Curtis and I put them on the engine.
Finally, with the engine together it was time to give it a try. We got our 1934 John Deere Model B tractor out, put a belt over the flywheel and spun the Superior over. Once everything seemed to be working okay, we turned on the propane gas, let it fire, and with a little adjusting it started running on its own. What a sight after so many years! We were so surprised how quiet it was – it hardly emitted any noise while running without an exhaust pipe. After letting it run for a few minutes, we shut it down. It was time to clean it up and finish painting.
After painting the engine (we went with blue to make it stand out – it had traces of both blue and green paint on it) and getting
it ready to go, we loaded it up and took it to the Vanderburgh (Indiana) County 4-H Fair, where Isaac received the Grand Champion award. The judging was on Saturday, and the fair started on Monday. It rained on Sunday, but on Monday we thought we’d have some fun and start the engine. We hooked up a tractor and belt to the flywheel, got her spinning and turned on the gas. Guess what? She wouldn’t run. Occasionally the engine would fire, but never more than once or twice. We tried everything we could think of and finally determined the magneto had gotten wet and was firing intermittently.
By the end of the week, we still couldn’t get it to run, so we headed to the annual Antique Steam and Gas Engine Club show at Boonville, Ind., (about 20 miles away) and hunted up Elden DuRand. Elden has developed an electronic-ignition unit for old engines, and after tracking down Elden and looking over his units we decided to buy one and give it a try. We got back to the Superior, rigged up a crude timing wire and within 20 minutes had the engine running like a watch. Finally!
We decided we needed an easier way to start the engine, so after the 4-H fair we mounted a two-cylinder Hercules industrial engine to the back of the engine cart. A small, solid-rubber tire is fixed to the output shaft on the Hercules. The Hercules has a hand clutch, and by turning a steering wheel connected to a threaded rod we can move the engine/wheel forward, contact the Superior’s flywheel and turn the engine over. We later learned how to start the engine by hand, but we still leave the pony engine on the cart for stubborn starts.
We took the engine to the Portland, Ind., show and then to the White River Valley show in Elnora, Ind. At Elnora, Elden helped us fit his electronic ignition inside the case of the Superior’s Wico R1 magneto. Now it looks original, but it throws a huge spark every time. We still need to rig up a better cooling system and do a few other minor things, but overall we’re very pleased with the engine and have gotten many compliments on it.
While we worked on this engine, our long-time neighbor Lester Alumbaugh came by almost every evening to give advice and lend a hand. Les’ health had not been too good for several years, and he took frequent breaks or worked from a chair. Even so, he was as proud as any of us when we got it running. Sadly, Les passed away a few weeks later. Les will be missed as a supporter, advisor and friend during our future projects.
4-H is a great youth organization, and projects like this provide a wonderful opportunity for kids to learn skills they otherwise might never develop. With this project, Isaac learned to use a cutting torch, braze, arc weld, spray paint and use the laws of physics to move heavy iron. He didn’t become an expert at any of these things, but he got some exposure to some new skills. And the quality time spent with my son was great, too.