10 St. Charles Place Midlothian, Texas 76065
Electricity, which we daily take for granted, was considered a
dream and luxury to rural families between 1900-1935. The
day-to-day chores of washing clothes, pumping water, sawing wood,
reading by coal-oil lamps and trips to the outhouse were soon to be
The ‘affordable’ Delco-Light generator powered electric
lights (32 volts DC), electric motors, and provided power for
running water. The Delco-Light advertisements and literature
(written in part by a Mr. Carroll) strongly implied that families
growing without electricity were doomed to—-, ‘a childhood of
ignorance, disease and hardship.’ The sales literature is
excellent, factual, and very persuasive.
Delco-Light was a subsidiary of General Motors during the late
teens (1918). Charles Kettering of Dayton, Ohio, who invented
automobile self-starters, held many patents in the design of the
The model 860 (850 watt-32 volts) was the first Delco produced.
The generator was installed in the home basement, anchored to a
large concrete foundation. Due to noise and exhaust, many
generators were located in outbuildings, along with an arsenal of
16 two volt batteries. These glass-jar batteries were rated 80
amp-hr or 160 amp-hr. Other Delcos were offered in 12 volt/110
volt, up to four cylinder, and ability to start on demand. Delco
offered a complete line of generator plants, appliances, and water
systems to meet everyone’s needs.
My interest in Delco-Light systems started as a teenager in
1969. I was reading an article in a Rural Electric Co-Op magazine
featuring an old-timer who used and collected Delcos. I’ve
purchased four units in the last 10 years and finished the
granddaddy 850 watt last year. I am working on completing a 600
watt Delco, which is one-third the size. The 850 watt Delco was
built in 1919, an early model with one gallon fuel tank, serial
number 73879. The Model 600 was built in 1923. That date is stamped
on the engine.
I found the Delco in 1992 at an Oilfield Electric Motor Shop in
Abilene, Texas. The unit was complete and had been protected from
time for 30 years by a lean-to shed and a metal tub. The owner was
‘going to restore it when he retired’ and claims it
hadn’t run for the better part of 50 years. I pestered him for
four weeks to get him to sell it, let alone price it! Finally, he
said ‘I’d better sell it to you so I won’t have to be
bothered with both of you! At least I know you will restore it.
Send me a picture when you get it finished!’
I started restoration in 1992. With the help of ‘Dr.
Delco’ (Wayne Spharr of Avella, Pennsylvania), a GEM
advertiser, I found parts, service manuals and good wisdom. I did
need a starting crank, but Wayne wouldn’t sell me one! He said
a crank is best displayed ‘safely’ out of reach on a wall.
I believe he talks from experience! Wayne and his wife are
wonderful people. I enjoyed touring his collection of things never
to be found anywhere on earth.
The Delco is a ‘self-starting’ air-cooled, four-stroke
OHV engine. The engine is primed on gasoline and runs on K-1
kerosene quickly. A lever on the electric control panel allows the
‘generator’ to act as a ‘motor,’ thus
‘cranking’ the engine. Once the engine fires and runs, the
lever is released; an electromagnetic coil ‘holds’ a set of
contacts to send voltage to the ignition coil32 volt. It also
‘shunts’ the starting windings and energizes the
‘field’ for DC electric generation. (Took me a little while
to figure this out!)
Once running, the generator will charge the batteries at about
15 amp rate. I use three lawn and garden 12V batteries in series,
enclosed in a portable case.
The Delco was designed to shut off automatically when the
batteries were fully charged. An amp-hour meter on the control
panel works like the electric hour meter on the outside of houses
today. A wheel ‘disc’ rotates to turn a gear-driven clock
hand. The disc will rotate counterclockwise or clockwise, depending
whether you are generating or drawing from the batteries directly.
When generating, the clock hours will rotate to ‘full’ and
a set of contacts open. The coil ground is interrupted and the
engine stops. Ideally a set of batteries will be fully charged on
‘boiling’ when the engine stops. (Check once a week.) As
the battery supply is used up, the hand rotates the other
direction. One could estimate battery life by observing the
position of the hand on the numeric clock face and the ammeter
needle. An 80 amp-hour battery set would provide eight hours of
usage at a 10 amp discharge.
The Delco was well engineered mechanically for use as well as
serviceability. The long stroke engine ran 1200 r.p.m. The engine
crankcase provides an ‘oil bath’ air cleaner to ensure
clean air intake to the fuel mixer. This ‘modular’ engine
allowed servicemen to replace or repair major components quickly to
prevent customer downtime. Removal of three nuts would allow the
generator, control panel and armature to be removed. The crankshaft
was supported with two Hyatt roller bearings, eliminating need for
a support bearing in the generator housing end.
The flywheel (access to crankcase), head, and cylinder were
easily removed as well. A detailed repair manual allowed even a
novice to expertly maintain and trouble-shoot the light plant.
Why don’t we still use Delcos today?? Simple … we have
small families today. The large families of the ’20s and
’30s provided a mechanical gene pool, where at least one family
member inherited a genius to keep the Delco running when it pitched
a fit! Many Delcos were abandoned due to high maintenance costs,
and families switched to Roosevelt’s REA during the Thirties.
Also, many units were scrapped (recycled) during WWII, which marked
the end of a satisfying relationship.
I guess I’m a bit old fashioned. I love to hear the Delco
chug along merrily, lighting Christmas tree light displays and
reminding new generations of the past. Since I joined the North
Texas Tractor and Gas Engine Association I made the Comanche,
Texas, ‘Pow-Wow’ on October 24, 1994. Excellent show! I
displayed a Maytag 92 engine and a Briggs & Stratton. I’m
finishing a McCormick-Deering ‘LA’ 1-2 HP.
My wife and son now have the gas engine bug. We hope to have the
’53 flathead-powered Ford F-100 pickup finished and ready to
‘trailer on’ to other shows next season!
Thanks for allowing me to share a great hobby with others!