Johnson Brothers Company Motor Wheel

By Staff
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P.O. Box 701, Carthage, Missouri 64836-0701

I would like to share my story of this little gas engine, in
hopes the story will interest other gas engine collectors and maybe
even stir a few memories for some of the ‘older folks’ who
had one of these engines.

In the winter of 1914 the Johnson Brothers Motor Company of
Terre Haute, Indiana, saw the need for an inexpensive means of
transportation and, since the main form of horseless transportation
in the early 1900s was the bicycle, the Johnson Brothers designed
and built these gasoline engines for the purpose of making
‘motorized bikes.’ The Johnson Brothers Motor Company
completely built these engines, but the magnetos would not operate
properly at high speeds. Dick Oglesby, an inventor from South Bend,
Indiana, offered his magnetos to the Johnsons to try on their
engines and the perfect match was found. The Johnson Brothers moved
to South Bend, and there they formed the Johnson Brothers Motor
Wheel Company and started full production of these gasoline

The engines were 1 HP, opposed cylinder, 2 cycle, 2′ bore
with 1 stroke, two flywheel magnetos, one magneto for spark to fire
both cylinders at once, and the other magneto for a bicycle
headlight (3 volt); bronze bearings and float feed carburetor and
weighed out at around 25 pounds.

The engine came with a rear wheel unit consisting of the wheel,
hub tire, shock-absorbing spring sprocket holder, wheel sprocket
and chain, handle bar controls for choke, throttle and engine
shutoff, a three quart gas tank and gas line, and all necessary
fittings to adapt the engine and rear wheel unit to any 26′
bicycle. This complete unit was named the Johnson Motor Wheel. To
make a motorized bike, the bicycle rear wheel was removed and the
Johnson rear wheel unit put in its place, the engine placed on top
of the rear mud guard and secured to the bicycle frame and the gas
line connected to the carburetor, the engine controls fastened to
the right side handlebars, the pedal and engine chains hooked up
and adjustments made, the gas tank filled and, away the
‘motorized bike’ wentall this in less than thirty

The controls on the handlebar for the engine consists of two
stacked levers and cables. The bottom lever, when held to the far
left position, operates a cable and rod which holds open the two
engine exhaust valves and, at the same time, makes contact with the
engine ‘ground out’ wire to the magneto to keep the plugs
from firing. The bottom lever was held in this position in order to
pedal the bicycle to prepare for starting the engine. When a little
speed was established, the bottom lever was released and this
allowed exhaust valves to close, the magneto to give spark and the
engine to start.

The bottom lever was also the throttle. The further to the right
it was moved the faster the speed. The top lever on the handlebar
was the choke. When the lever was at the left the carburetor choke
was open and when turned to the right gave full choke to the

Because there was no clutch between the engine and rear wheel,
it was necessary to stop the engine each time the ‘motorized
bike’ had to stop moving. This was accomplished by moving and
holding the bottom lever on the handlebar to the far left. This
‘killed’ the engine and left it freewheeling with no
compression. This would seem to be a real ‘pain,’ but once
the engine was warm it would usually restart on the first
revolution of the engine flywheel when pedaling the bicycle.

My Johnson engine was purchased at a farm auction in the summer
of 1996 by a gentleman who in turn sold the engine to me for a very
reasonable price. There was the engine only, which had been mounted
on a makeshift stand with a homemade cooling fan placed over the
flywheel. I was able to obtain an instruction book for the Johnson
Motor Wheel and with this booklet, set out to reproduce, as close
as possible, using four pictures of the bicycle or rear wheel
portion, the rear wheel assembly, shock-absorbing assembly, wheel
sprocket, wheel stand, engine mounts, control levers for assembly,
etc. I placed the ‘Motor Wheel’ and engine on an early
1960s Schwinn bicycle, having only to modify the bicycle by welding
the shock-absorbing supports on the rear wheel hub. The rest was
fabrication, trial and error and installation with no further
bicycle modifications necessary. I would like to find a much older
bicycle on which to place the ‘Motor Wheel’ but I am still
on a tight budget so this will come at a later time.

I ‘kind of know’ how the Johnson Brothers felt when
designing these Motor Wheel units from scratch. I enjoy tinkering
and I thoroughly enjoyed this project. I realize my work is only a
reproduction of the Johnson Brothers quality work and am in hopes
that wherever I show this engine and bicycle that people who see it
will like what they see, not for the work done on it by me, but by
the ingenuity of people to have designed and built these units some
80 years ago.

I placed an inquiry in the January 1997 issue of GEM seeking
information on the Johnson engine, and I thank Lloyd Warren of
Davie, Florida, and Ervin Birzer of Santa Barbara, California, for
sending literature; Randy Walker of Brookfield, Massachusetts, for
sending an instruction book for the Johnson Motor Wheel, and
Patrick Zeller of Paxico, Kansas, for providing me with the Johnson
Motor Wheel gas tank. Thank you to ABF Graphics of Carthage for the
professional ‘re lettering’ of the gas tank; Allen Jennings
(Jennings Bike Shop) and Mark McCoy, both of Carthage, for
supplying the Schwinn bicycle; Jack Chandler (Magneeders) my friend
and neighbor who helped me through this project; and my wife
Glenda, who lets me ‘play’ with my engines and doesn’t
think it’s weird for a 50 year old man to have a bicycle with
an ‘engine’ on it.

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