The 42-Year Itch: Fairbanks-Morse Model NB

By Staff
article image
by Charles Wise
Bob Gill’s and Gene George’s 12hp 1913 Fairbanks-Morse Model NB, back together and ready to run 42 years after they acquired it.

The year was 1976. The United States was celebrating its 200th birthday, Gerald Ford would lose the presidential election in November to Jimmy Carter, Sylvester Stallone’s movie Rocky would win best picture at the Oscars, and in Paducah, Kentucky, Bob Gill and Gene George were on the search for antique gas engines.

The 12hp FM Model NB in the process of restoration.

Bob and Gene had known each other since ninth grade, and worked together. Gene was just starting to become interested in engines at the time, though Bob had been collecting since 1968 (see GEM, June/July 2014). Early in the year, one of their coworkers had mentioned that his wife’s grandfather had two engines for sale near Burna, Kentucky. Due to bad weather and other commitments, Bob and Gene weren’t able to follow up on the lead for a couple of months.

engine laying in grass next to wooden slats

When they finally did they found that the engines, a 10hp IHC M and a 5hp Economy, had been sold for scrap just a few weeks prior. Before they left, Gene thought to ask if the man knew of any other engines around, to which he replied there was a large Fairbanks-Morse just down the hill in a collapsed shed. Bob admits that he expected the engine to be a Model Y oil engine, but as they unburied the engine they soon found out he was wrong. “We didn’t know exactly what it was, but it most definitely was something we would like to have.” Was it for sale? Well, it actually belonged to the man’s son. After a 20-mile trip to meet the son, a price was agreed upon and the engine was theirs. They returned to retrieve the 4,900-pound engine in June with Bob’s 1965 Chevy pickup with an A-frame, chain hoists and come-alongs. They dismantled the engine to make things easier, but it was still a difficult task that took them all day. “I think back, how in the hell did we do that – young and full of piss and vinegar and determination,” Bob now jokes.

1913 Fairbanks NB

Elderly man on blue overalls and a brown jacket and black gloves standing by the large old rusty engine.

The engine they purchased that day was a 1913 Fairbanks Morse Model NB. The NB was the throttle governed version of the popular Model N hit-and-miss engine. Both models were phased out of the Fairbanks-Morse line by 1916, according to engine historian C.H. Wendel. This specific engine was at one time used to run a “log washer” in a fluorspar mining operation. Fluorspar is a mineral used in making hydrofluoric acid, as well as certain microscope and camera lenses. Log washers were basically two logs with metal blades that would rotate against each other in water to separate the fluorspar from clay and dirt after it was dug. Bob related that after World War II, fluorspar rose to $400 a ton and northern Kentucky happened to be one of the few areas blessed with fluorspar deposits. The 10hp M IHC that Bob and Gene missed originally ran a water pump for the log washer, while the 12hp NB ran the log washer itself. Eventually, Mexico started selling fluorspar for $27 a ton and killed the market in the United States, ending the usefulness of the NB and M in the operation.

A close-up of the igniter.

I think all collectors can sympathize with the next part of this story. Back at their shop, the 12hp Fairbanks kept getting pushed aside for smaller, easier projects. This went on for 42 years, with friends and fellow collectors (the author included) occasionally asking when they were going to get to that project. In recent years, Bob would reply that he’d get started when he found a cart big enough to hold the engine. Last year, Bob found a suitable cart for sale in Missouri on Facebook, and now he had no excuse but to bring the 12hp back to life. “Then came the fun part of rounding up all the parts – nothing was together,” Bob notes. “It was one of them you couldn’t wait to tear apart, but you wait to fix,” Gene comments.

The 12hp engine’s fuel pump features a lever for hand priming.

Bob ended up finding everything but the high-crown bolts, the cam follower, the governor throttle rod, and the exhaust pushrod. Bob’s son Rob was able to machine the missing bolts. They also own a 22hp “Standard” Fairbanks-Morse (an earlier version of the model N), which had the same cam follower, only taller. They had Can-Do Foundry in St. Anne, Illinois, make a new casting off the 22hp cam follower, cut it down to size, and braze it back together.

Newly constructed casting that was made.

When Bob decided to tackle the 12hp NB after 42 years for storage, he found a few of the parts “misplaced,” including the original cam
follower bracket. They had a new casting made from the cam follower on their 22hp, cut it down to fit the 12hp, and brazed the pieces back together.

Left to right: Bob Gill, Gene George and Rob Gill with the 12hp Fairbanks-Morse NB at their annual

Gene machined the cam follower casting and Bob did the brazing. Giving credit to his friend, Gene laughs and says, “I only did 1 percent of the work, but he (Bob) did 99 percent.” During the repairs, the exhaust valve guide broke and had to be brazed by Bob as well, and an old freeze crack in the cylinder was repaired for them by fellow collector David Booher. The engine slowly came together over the fall of 2018, with the goal being to have it running by the annual Gill-George “Crank-Up” in December.

The Sumter magneto that bob plans to use on the 12hp NB. The gear was machined by Steve Summers, who passed away in February 2019.

Bob holding an air pump
Bob’s NB was missing its original starting air pump , so fellow collector Jerry Puckett gave him extra parts he had. Bob is currently working to get the missing parts recast. Note the small lidded trough by Bob’s left hand, which is for a charge of gasoline that is forced into the cylinder and atomized by the pump before the match starter is used.

The first start-up of the engine was on Nov. 3, 2018, and by December the engine was tuned in and running well, though it needed a few finishing touches: They still needed to install a cooling tank, they wanted to install a magneto, and they wanted try to set-up the original match-starter system on the engine.

A little girl oon a pick shirt with white pants with pink striped standing on the old engine in the spot where it was found.
Sam girl all grown up in a blue shirt and overalls sitting on the engine.

All Fairbanks-Morse N and NB engines came equipped with a match-starter and hand air pump to aid in starting. The match-starter system originally used a “strike anywhere” wooden match to help ignite a charge of gasoline to start the engine, with the air pump used to build up quick compression. The air pump has a small trough on the side for the charge of gasoline – this helps atomize the fuel as it’s pumped into the cylinder. When Bob and Gene found their 12hp NB, parts were missing off the match-starter and the air pump was missing. Another collector, Jerry Puckett, gave them most of an air pump years ago, and Bob is working on trying to get the missing parts recast. Bob was able to borrow a match-starter from friend Dick Brown to machine the parts needed to finish their match-starter, though it is now impossible to find the correct “strike anywhere” matches that work with the system. Bob played around with toy cap gun caps and even actual shotgun primer caps as replacements for the matches, but has yet to find a suitable replacement.

Father and daughter posing in front of the almost restored engine.
Daughter and father standing behind the large engine

All collectors know how rewarding it can be to finally finish that long-time project – especially after 42 years! It’s a testament to the dedication to our hobby, and all of the help that went into finishing this engine shows what a great community this hobby cultivates. On a sad note, while Gene was able to finally see the engine running in December, he became ill just a few weeks later and passed away on Feb. 26, 2019. He will be missed by his friends in the gas engine hobby.

Contact Charles Wise at (660) 221-6133 • or via email.

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