By Staff
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The gears, as well as most of the parts, can be easily purchased or manufactured.
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A modified engine oiler serves as the fuel reservoir.
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A full-size working replica of Henry Ford’s first gasoline engine made by John Bailey from plans provided by Leon Ridenour.
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A full-size working replica of Henry Ford’s first gasoline engine made by John Bailey from plans provided by Leon Ridenour.
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One of the fun details on John’s engine is the buzz coil ignition with the Ford script burned into it.

In 1893, a 30-year-old machinist from Detroit, Mich., was
learning about a new technology, the internal combustion engine. In
a backroom shop at the Detroit Electric Illuminating Co., he and a
few of his co-workers made a crude working engine. On Christmas
Eve, 1893, he took the experimental engine home to show his wife.
Clamped to the kitchen sink using the electric light socket for
ignition power, his wife Clara controlling the fuel dripping into
the intake mixer, Henry Ford started not only the little engine,
but his own path to becoming an automotive and industrial icon
known the world over.”

– Leon Ridenour

Back in August of 2003, I visited the Rusty Wheels Engine Show
at Hope, Ark. Among the many displays was a rather odd looking
machine that would be easy to mistake for something other than a
gasoline engine. It had a sign that said “Henry Ford’s First
Gasoline Engine.” Thinking it was a just a demonstration model that
surely didn’t actually run, I simply did not pay much attention to
it. But the image of that engine was burned into my memory.

Over the next few years I thought about that engine from time to
time. Somewhere along the line, I learned that what I saw was
actually a full-size working replica of Ford’s first internal
combustion engine. I searched the Internet and was unable to find
any information on it. Then one day I was reading the classified
ads in the back of Gas Engine Magazine and there was an
advertisement for plans to build one. Once more I dismissed the
idea, since at that time I was heavily involved in another
restoration project.

Then one night a friend of mine called. In our conversation,
Ford’s engine came up. He said, “You know Bo Hinch built one?” No,
I did not know that. Bo only lives a few miles from me so the next
Saturday I was on my way to his shop to see his engine and that’s
all it took. I was bitten. I knew I had to build one. By this time,
I had finished the restoration I had been working on and I needed
another project.

The man with the plans

Leaving Bo’s shop, I went back to my house and started searching
through my GEMs until I found the ad for the plans to build the
engine. I called the number in the ad and Leon Ridenour answered
the phone. I told him I wanted to buy his plans to build Ford’s
first engine. We struck up a conversation that immediately earned
my respect for him. His primary concern was not that I wanted to
buy the plans, but to be sure I knew what I was getting into, and
that I had the right tools and skills to complete the project. Had
I not, I’m convinced he would have discouraged me from buying the
plans. Money wasn’t the issue here.

After a short discussion, he was satisfied I had what would be
needed to build the engine. He asked for my address so he could
send the plans to me. Reaching for a credit card, I said, “How do
you want me to pay you?” He said, “Just send me a check when you
get the plans. And by the way, there are a couple parts that might
be hard to find that I’ll include with the plans.”

Several days later the plans arrived at my house. Along with the
drawings was a DVD that I watched immediately, several times. Then
it was off to the lumber yard to buy some of the plumbing fittings
that I would need to get started.

This began about a three month process to duplicate Ford’s first
internal combustion engine. I began this project with a little bit
of apprehension as I was very new to machine work and my mini-lathe
and mill were limited in its capabilities. There were also a couple
parts I felt I just didn’t have skills to make, but I had a secret
weapon. I knew my neighbor was an accomplished machinist and had
connections with a machine shop that he works with regularly. I
knew I could count on him for help.

I followed the plans and DVD explicitly. Leon shows each step in
detail. But it is important that anyone attempting this project
know some of the basics, such as the principles of the internal
combustion engine, interpreting drawings, basic lathe and milling
machine techniques, and silver soldering.

The details

Many of the parts can be bought over the counter. The combustion
chamber is a 1-inch pipe T. The mixer is a 1/2-inch check valve.
The exhaust valve is built into a 3/4-inch stop and waste valve.
Special care must be taken to insure that the exhaust valve seals
properly. The cylinder and rod are seamless tubing. The main
bearing frame and crank arm are made from a 1/2-inch plate. The
crank and cam gear are readily available and part numbers are
included in the plans. I bought the gears from a local industrial
supply company and the cam is easily made on a grinding wheel. The
flywheel should weigh between 10 to 14 pounds and be 12 to 14
inches in diameter ­- I found one at a flea-market. The fuel
reservoir is a modified engine oiler.

The piston is the most machine intensive part to make. But it
too can be made with machines as small as the mini-lathe and
mini-mill. It took me two tries.

Assembly of the parts is straight forward. The DVD gives detail
instructions on how to assure proper bearing alignment, crank and
cam gear alignment, and timing. Here again is where an
understanding of the basic principles of the 4-cycle internal
combustion engine is very helpful. Instructions are given for
several different ignition systems, including the original piston
strike igniter. I chose to use a buzz coil ignition. Turns out that
I had an original buzz coil with the Ford script logo burned into
it. It is a great compliment to my engine.

Starting it up

The day finally arrived for me to try and start my engine. I
primed the mixer with starting fluid as per the instructions,
flipped the switch on and turned the flywheel. Lo and behold it
popped on the first turn. Honestly though, this was just kind of a
teaser. You must carefully calibrate the fuel drip from the oiler
to keep from starving the engine for fuel or flooding it. But once
you get the drip right, it runs great. Of course, you can only let
it run for a minute or so as it has no means of cooling.

I can truthfully say that this has been one of most rewarding
projects I’ve ever done. It was a perfect opportunity to learn a
whole lot more about machine work. I was, and still am, very much a
novice. But, I know a lot more now than I did before I started this
project. One of my most rewarding experiences with this project is
the relationship that I established with Leon. We exchanged phone
calls a number of times over the duration of this project. He
helped me over a number of hurdles and always let me know that his
main concern was that I finish this project successfully. And I
did. Thank you, Leon.

Leon Ridenour lives in Knoxville, Tenn., and can be reached at
(865) 584-9759

Contact John Bailey at Watch video of the engine at

Gas Engine Magazine
Gas Engine Magazine
Preserving the History of Internal Combustion Engines