Gas Engine Magazine


R.D. #1 Box 86, Locke, New York 13092

In 1987 I set out to learn as much I could about an engine I
acquired that summer. The person selling it said he thought it was
a Maytag.

The engine was mounted on a lawn mower and was covered with a
heavy layer of everything that had filtered down upon it from the
caved-in barn under which it had rested since about 1950.

After scraping away much of this crud, I found a brass tag which
proudly proclaimed that this engine was a Utilimotor No. U15899
built by the Johnson Motor Company of Waukegan, Illinois.

The mower was an F & M with the year 1935 stamped on it. It
was probably a ‘kit’ on which the purchaser mounted the
motor of his choice.

I had the same questions running through my head that most of us
engine nuts have at the time we have a new ‘find’: what
year was it built, what color was it, and how many were made?

In the time that has passed since then, all I have found out
about it for sure is that it was dark green, and that it was built
between 1927 and 1934.

What I did learn about though was the company that had built

I have noticed a number of times that people have asked
GEM’s Reflector about Johnson Motor Company and the answer has
been the same- nothing. Let me share with you what I have

There were four Johnson brothers whose interest turned to the
internal combustion engine. They were: Julius (born in 1886), who
was a machinist; Louis (1881), the designer; Harry (1884), the
thinker and planner; and Clarence (1895), the mechanic.

In 1903 Louis and Harry built their first engine in a shed
behind the family home in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Since they lived right next to the Wabash River it was a marine
engine of 2-cycle design that developed about 3 HP at 350 rpm.

In 1904 they built their second engine, also with a single
cylinder and 2-cycle, with a 5 inch bore and 5 inch stroke.

1905 was the big year for the Johnsons. They were ready to offer
their engines for sale. All were 2-cycle inline engines.

Engines with a 3 inch bore and 3 inch stroke were built with 1,
2, and 4 cylinders.

Engines with a 4 inch bore and 3 inch stroke were also offered
with 1, 2, and 4 cylinders.

The line shaft in their little shop was powered by their
original 1903 motor which had been converted to hit and miss

By 1908, in need of more space, they moved to a brick factory
building at 1602 Hulman Street in Terre Haute, where they
immediately roared into production of their massive ‘V’
engines designed for aircraft and racing boats. These engines were
2-cycle, water cooled with a 5 inch bore and 4 inch stroke, and
very light. It came in four sizes: V-4, V-6, V-8 and V-12.

In 1910 they built America’s first single wing airplane and
powered it with a V-4.

In 1911 they built their second airplane with a tricycle landing
gear (the first had been a tail dragger). The frame of the machine
was the radiator. It was called the Johnson Aerial Motor. A model
of this craft is in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington,

In 1912 the company was named the Johnson Brothers Motor

Among the most famous racing boats to be powered by the Johnson
‘V’ engine was the ‘Black Demon III.’ It was never
beaten in a race and set many speed records. It was powered by TWO

On Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913 disaster struck! A storm that
brought about tornadoes and flooding destroyed the south side of
Terre Haute with the loss of many lives. The Johnson factory was in
the center of the devastated area. Nothing was saved.

The Johnsons were out of business. They never again built the
big engines.

During the winter of 1914-15 Clarence Johnson, working at home,
built a lightweight, air cooled, opposed twin engine that fired
simultaneously. Two-cycle, of course, with a 2 inch bore and 1?
inch stroke.

Sounds a lot like an engine that another company built in 1936,
doesn’t it?

To test this engine, Harry and Louis helped Clarence mount it on
a bicycle. It worked great and the Johnsons were back in

The only problem they had to overcome was that the magneto
wouldn’t hold up at speed. They needed something different.

They were approached by a young man named Dick Oglesby. Dick was
an inventor, a magneto inventor.

He had assigned his patents to the Quick Action Ignition Company
of South Bend, Indiana and he was out to sell his magnetos. He
offered the Johnsons four magnetos to try on their engines.

A representative of Quick Action then went to Terre Haute to see
how things were going. He was very impressed by the demonstration
he was given of the motor bike and asked the Johnsons to move to
South Bend.

Quick Action Ignition Company was a successor to the older
companies of Knobloch-Heideman and Miller-Knobloch.

Mr. Knobloch was the builder of the magneto for the Wright
Brothers Kittyhawk aircraft. It was then headed by Mr. Warren

The Johnsons did move to South Bend and opened the Johnson Motor
Wheel Company. In January 1918 Johnson Motor Wheel and Quick Action
merged, with Warren Ripple named as president of both operations.
Quick Action patents became Johnson patents as well.

The magneto that was first built for the Motor Wheel engine also
had a new customer. Maytag started using it on the ‘fruit
jar’ and continued to use it or license built copies until the
last Maytag was built.

I don’t know how many times I have read in reply to a query
that the Johnson Utilimotor was a ‘cheap imitation of a
Maytag.’ How can this be if the Maytag was half Johnson anyway?
Before you Maytag folks yell too loud, send for Patent Nos.
1,279,750, 1,300,637 and 1,390,376. Facts is facts!

By 1921 the Johnson Motor Wheel Company of South Bend, Indiana
had built over 17,000 units and had set racing records of up to 58
MPH on a half-mile dirt track, but sales were falling off.

Henry Ford was selling his model ‘T’ for only $370.00
and the Motor Wheel was no longer profitable.

The air cooling fins on the Motor Wheel twin were replaced with
a water jacket and a lower unit was built for it. The Johnsons were
ready to get back into the water with outboard motors.

The Motor Wheel was sold to Edwards and Krist of Chicago, who in
turn sold it to a British company, where it became the

At Johnson, magneto manufacture continued for Maytag and
Fairbanks Morse.

The name of the Johnson Motor Wheel Company was changed to
Johnson Motor Company. Julius Johnson left the company in 1918 and
was replaced by Warren Con-over, his brother-in-law. Johnson’s
new outboard motor was named the model ‘A’ and was offered
for sale in 1922.

Throughout history, the sellers of merchandise found that one of
the best ways to show off their wares was by entering their
products in nose to nose public contests. The winner of each
contest always got the sales. The loser either went out of business
or went home and improved on his product for the next contest.

From the time that humans found ways to get from one place to
another without the use of their own feet there have been races.
Tractors have had their trials, so too have boats and motorcycles.
These competitions caused the rapid development of these products
and quickly blew away the chaff. This, then, is why racing was
never far from the Johnsons.

In 1922 a high performance carburetor was designed and patented.
The competition at that time was still using simple mixers.

In 1923 the Model ‘J’ was built. It was exactly one half
of the model ‘A’ and, therefore, one half of the old motor
wheel engines. This engine would one day become the Utilimotor.

It is not known when the first Utilimotor was built, and until I
hear of one with a South Bend nameplate on it we cannot go earlier
than 1927. The model ‘J’ was the first outboard to have
Johnson’s new patented anti-cavitation plate cast into the
lower unit. No outboard motor today is without this plate.

In 1925 the P-30 was built. A real race winner!

By 1927 sales had exploded to the point that the South Bend
plant could no longer hold the Johnson Motor Company. Warren
Ripple’s family owned property in Waukegan, Illinois and a new
factory was built there. The K-35 was introduced. It was now The
Johnson Motor Company of Waukegan.

In 1928 a new factory was opened in Canada. The K-40, P-40, and
TR-40 were brought on the market.

At Waukegan, work on the Utilimotor continued. As I said before,
this little engine was an adaptation of the model ‘J’ power
head. From what I have seen, it would seem that Johnson was never
satisfied with the Utilimotor. I have never seen two that were
exactly alike. It never really progressed out of the developmental
stage. The early ones used the same Quick Action magneto and
flywheel as Maytag.

One of the first big changes was the use of an iron flywheel
with the use of a Wico type ‘F’ magneto. This magneto is
interesting in itself in that it was built using both Wico patents
AND Johnson patents. It was a joint venture, and the only place I
know of where both the Wico patent numbers and Quick Action patent
numbers share the same space is on the Johnson Utilimotor equipped
with the type ‘F.’ The type ‘F’ was used heavily by
Briggs and Stratton. Utili-motors were built in two models after
the introduction of the type ‘F’ magnetos. They were the
U-11 foot start and the U-13 hand start.

Changes continued on the Utilimotor in the area of carburetion.
Simple mixers were first used and finally progressed to the use of
the Johnson patented carburetor.

Choke systems went from a slide gate to an automatic choke that
consisted of a spring and rod connecting the foot start pedal to
the slide gate. Each time the pedal was depressed the choke would
close. Since the Utilimotor did not have an anti-flood valve, as
did the Maytag, I have never seen one of these engines with this
feature intact. The final move was to an automatic style butterfly
choke operated by cable.

The last Utilimotor was built in 1934 when it was replaced by
the ‘Iron Horse.’

The tooling for the Utilimotor was sold to the Jacobson Company
of Racine, Wisconsin. In 1928 the Johnson Motor Company was
‘riding a wave.’ They were the largest manufacturers of
outboard motors in the world.

It was decided that they would also start building their own
boats and sell them as matched units with their motors. The
world’s first inboard-outboard stern drive was also being
prepared for these boats. Timberland and manufacturing facilities
were purchased and then the bottom fell out. The Stock Market
crashed and sent the world spinning into depression. Johnson Motor
Company was over-extended and had to cut back immediately. The
boats would have to go and so would the outdrive unit. Only four of
these units are known to exist today. Three are in museums.

As the depression deepened, Johnson Motor Company slid closer
and closer to receivership but was saved from that fate by being
bought by Outboard Motor Company, headed by Evinrude, in 1936.

The new company was named Outboard Marine Corporation (O.M.C.)
which is a thriving business today.

Johnson Motor Company continued as a division of O.M.C. under
the leadership of Clay Conover, the Johnsons’ nephew, until his
retirement in the 1950’s.

The ‘Iron Horse’ continued to be built by O.M.C. until
1949. Some of these engines were fitted with Evinrude nameplates
and put on the first production Lawn Boy lawn mowers. The ‘Iron
Horse’ was the only 4-cycle engine ever built by Johnson.

The three Johnson brothers who were still with the company in
1935, Louis, Harry and Clarence, all slipped quietly into
retirement before the merger was finalized.

Louis passed away in 1963, Harry in 1967 and Clarence in 1976.
Julius passed away in 1974.

  • Published on Dec 1, 1989
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