California Rarity: 3hp Frisco Standard Stationary Engine

By Staff
article image
by Richard Backus
Earl Wacker’s circa-1901-1905 3hp Frisco Standard at the 2018 Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.

Manufacturer: Standard Gas Engine Co., San Francisco, CA
Year: Circa 1901-1905
Serial No.: 452
Horsepower: 3hp @ 400rpm
Bore & stroke: 4-3/4in x 5-1/2in
Flywheel: 26in x 4-1/4in
Ignition: Igniter w/battery and buzz coil
Governing: Throttle via belt-driven horizontal flyball governor
Cooling: Tank
Weight: 900lb (approx.)

Frisco Standard stationary gas engines are a rare sight. Manufactured by the Standard Gas Engine Co., San Francisco, California, Standard engines – particularly their marine engines – were popular on the West Coast, but it seems that very few made it over the Sierra Nevada mountains to the central or eastern parts of the U.S.

A 1902 Standard Gas Engine Co. catalog illustration of a single-cylinder stationary engine.

The company was established around 1900 as the Standard Machine Works, and in 1901 built its first engine, a single-cylinder marine engine similar to the engine featured here.

Rapid growth led to reorganization and a reincorporation as Standard Gas Engine Co., in 1902. Initial offerings were single-cylinder marine engines available in 3hp to 9hp sizes. Designed by former Union Gas Engine Co. machinist Peter Morhdieck, the vertical sideshaft engines featured mechanically actuated intake and exhaust valves, and incorporated Morhdieck’s unique throttle governor design. Morhdieck’s engine and governor designs were not patented until 1906, although the applications for patent were made in 1903.

Another illustration from the 1902 Standard Gas Engine Co. catalog, this one showing a 2-cylinder stationary engine.

By 1902, Standard had introduced a 2-cylinder version, with 3- and 4-cylinder versions following. By 1905, apparently prompted by labor union issues in San Francisco, the company was making plans to expand and move across the bay to Oakland, which it finally did in 1906 following the disastrous April 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Focused on the marine industry, Standard appears to have made few engines for stationary duty. Judging by surviving stationary engines, most if not all such engines were built prior to Standard’s move to Oakland.

A teal stationary engine at a Farm Show.

As a result, surviving stationary Frisco Standards are rare even on the West Coast, a fact that made the appearance of a 3hp stationary Frisco Standard at last year’s Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, more than a little surprising.

Mt. Pleasant Frisco Standard

Teal restored engine circa-1901-1905 3hp Frisco Standard

So how did a Frisco Standard end up in Iowa? Enter California engine enthusiast Earl Wacker of Penngrove, California. Penngrove, a small farm town once known for chicken and egg processing and a former stop on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, is less than 50 miles north of San Francisco, where the Frisco Standard was made. From what Earl has been able to discover, with the exception of last summer’s trip to the Midwest, the 3hp engine has likely spent its entire life in Sonoma County, California. Earl brought the engine east to display it at the 2018 Tri-State Gas Engine & Tractor Assn. show in Portland, Indiana. The 2018 show was Aug. 22-25, and with Mt. Pleasant the following Labor Day weekend, Earl decided to stop in Iowa on his way back to California and show the engine at the Old Threshers Reunion.

Although he doesn’t know its exact year of manufacture, Earl’s certain that his engine, serial No. 452, was built before 1906. Earl knows of another stationary Frisco Standard, serial No. 799, that has documentation showing it was running in 1906, and it very likely was built even earlier. Knowing that Standard didn’t make its first engines until 1901, and assuming the company followed standard sequential numbering, it seems reasonable to assume that Earl’s 3hp stationary was built sometime between 1901 and 1905.

Earl had known about the engine for some time before acquiring it. According to Earl, the previous owner was the great-grandson of the original owner, and further, was related to famed botanist Luther Burbank, who lived in nearby Santa Rosa. Whether there’s any connection between the engine and Burbank is unknown.

Teal restored engine circa-1901-1905 3hp Frisco Standard

“He was a real good friend of mine,” Earl says of the Standard’s former owner, who was an avid engine collector. “He was like the mentor of engines for me. I used to ask him the stupidest questions in the world.” When his friend passed away some years ago, Earl asked his widow about the engine, and ended up buying it and a rare Samson engine, too.

As Earl tells it, it didn’t take much to get the engine running. Earl says that when he got it, it looked very much as it does today. “It didn’t run when I got it, there was all this stuff at the bottom of the gas tank that looked like resin. I spent a full day cleaning the tank. I didn’t want to damage it, so I spent a day reaching in with different tools, breaking out the stuff in the tank, and cleaning it out.” Happily, the engine didn’t have any major mechanical issues, nor was it missing any parts. “All I really had to do was clean it,” Earl says, and he’s clearly pleased with how well it’s running now that he’s had time to work with it. According to Earl, local collectors familiar with the engine say it’s never run better.

Teal restored engine circa-1901-1905 3hp Frisco Standard


Starting the engine is aided by a compression release incorporated into the camshaft and the exhaust valve rocker arm roller. The camshaft is driven off the crankshaft and runs vertically up the side of the engine. At the cylinder head, it passes through two bushed extensions cast with the cylinder head, one at the top of the cylinder head and one at the bottom. Riding between these two bushed extensions is the actual cam, a separately machined piece that’s pinned to the shaft.

Teal restored engine circa-1901-1905 3hp Frisco Standard

The cam has three lobes: one for the intake, one for the exhaust and a third for starting. The intake lobe acts on a roller fixed to the intake rocker arm. The exhaust lobe likewise acts on a roller on the exhaust rocker arm. However, the exhaust rocker arm roller is adjustable and can be moved vertically to one of two positions. When the roller is in its lower or running position, the exhaust lobe strikes it, fully pushing against the rocker arm and opening the exhaust valve. Placing the roller in its upper or starting position with the provided lever moves the roller out of contact with the exhaust lobe and in contact with an auxiliary lobe. This lobe is described in Morhdieck’s August 1906 patent (No. 827,810) for the engine as a “supplementary exhaust cam.” It lifts the exhaust valve and reduces the charge of gas in the engine to make starting easier. As soon as the engine fires the exhaust rocker arm roller is moved back to the normal running position and the engine fires under full compression with a full charge.

Further aiding running is an adjustable air feed for the mixer, allowing the operator to pull warm air from around the cylinder jacket in cold conditions or cool air from the base of the engine. “I keep it at about half-and-half, it seems to like it there,” Earl says.

Teal restored engine circa-1901-1905 3hp Frisco Standard

A make-and-break igniter with a battery and buzz coil supplies the needed spark, and ignition can be easily advanced or retarded during starting or running via a three-position lever at the top of the cylinder head that changes the position of the igniter actuator arm, which is driven off an eccentric at the top of the camshaft. Moving the lever to the right retards ignition, moving it to the left advances ignition.

The Frisco Standard is throttle governed. A belt-driven, horizontally mounted flyball governor controls the opening of the engine’s unique and somewhat complicated fuel/air intake. A mixer sits at the base of the engine, with an intake pipe running up to the casting that incorporates the governor and the fuel/air regulator. The mixer, such as it is, takes care of initial fuel/air intake. Fuel is gravity fed. Housed in the center of the casting for the governor/regulator is a rotary valve, controlled by the governor. When the engine slows below governed speed the governor shaft, acted upon in one direction by a spring-loaded adjustment shaft and in the other by the governor, moves linkage connected to the rotary valve to rotate the valve to increase the fuel/air charge. When the engine meets or exceeds governed speed the governor shaft moves the opposite direction, limiting the fuel/air charge. “It’s a very fine adjustment,” Earl says, adding that he thinks the design was “way ahead of its time.” A primer cup on the top of the intake manifold further aids starting. “It will not start without being primed,” Earl notes.

Teal restored engine circa-1901-1905 3hp Frisco Standard

As Earl demonstrated at Mt. Pleasant, properly primed and rolled through, the Frisco Standard starts relatively easily, and runs very smoothly, a surprise given that, according to Earl, Standard engines of this type were not balanced in any way. The massive flywheel no doubt helps.

Standard ending

Standard Gas Engine Co. appears to have been particularly active after its move to Oakland. In 1916, the company became a manufacturer and distributor of Southwark-Harris 2-stroke diesel engines made by Southwark Foundry & Machine Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the same year purchased Corliss Gas Engine Co., Petaluma, California.

Teal restored engine circa-1901-1905 3hp Frisco Standard

Standard was active in the West Coast engine market until about 1930. In 1931, William Hughson of Standard worked with Charles Winslow to further develop Winslow’s monovalve diesel engine, but after that, little is heard of the company. It’s likely Standard fell victim to the Great Depression, although the company was apparently still listed in the Oakland, California, telephone directory as late as 1944.

Standard Gas Engine Co. may be long gone, but fortunately, collectors and engine enthusiasts like Earl Wacker keep the brand alive, sharing the products of the one-time leading West Coast manufacturer and inspiring continuing appreciation of the company’s unique place in gas engine history.

Teal restored engine circa-1901-1905 3hp Frisco Standard

Special thanks to West Coast engine historian Jack Alexander for providing factory images and information on Standard Gas Engine Co., much of which can be found in his book The Regan Vapor Engine: The Beginning of California’s Gas Engine Industry.

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