SPECIAL ELECTRIC HOT ROD

By Staff
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Trip mechanism for the igniter that looks like a factory piece.
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John Hamilton’s 1899 6 HP Fairbanks-Morse Type T Special Electric, bought off a farm in Ness County, Kan. Although it was highly modified and dirty, it looked solid, turned free, didn’t have rust and it was an upright – a major selling point for John.
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Briggs & Stratton fuel tank
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John got some help from his son, Mike, to reinstall the flywheels. Both were a little nervous about dealing with the split hub on a 440-pound flywheel.
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John found a brass engine nameplate on eBay for $18, delivered. Even though this cylinder did not originally have a plate, it was too nice to omit.
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A small L-bracket was made to hold the oiler to the outside of the crankcase and another small tube was added from the bottom of the oiler to the hole in the crankcase, making sure that the end of the tube touches the plate inside the crankcase.
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A copy of an old ad showing the complete farm and home electric system offered by Fairbanks-Morse.
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John’s wife, Arelene, standing with the finished engine. On the base, John typed out the engine’s history then had a sign company make a vinyl press-on sign, thus preserving the history with the engine. It’s in Oklahoma now, awaiting some fine tuning and a proper trailer or cart.

In early 2004, a neighbor, Bob, was visiting me and saw
some of my engines. He said he had his father’s engine, which I
should take. It was an IHC LB 3-5 HP. Soon after I picked it up, it
was putt-putting just like new. When Bob heard it, he said I needed
to go to Kansas and get “the 6 HP Fairbanks Special
Electric.”

As I was trying to sell a 6 HP IHC M, I declined. But then he
mentioned the magic word – upright. Shoot – another long trip and
another restoration, just when I was trying to clean out the shop.
Bob’s uncles, the owners, wanted their engine to go to a good home.
If I could bring the LB back to life, mine was a good home.

In September 2004, I picked up Bob and we drove to my brother
Sam’s house in Stillwater, Okla. We transferred to his Dodge
3/4-ton diesel and heavy trailer. Who knew what we’d find? In
another five hours, we were in Ness City, Kan. The brothers came to
the motel to visit us. “Do you have four-wheel drive?” Uh-oh – it
had been raining on the limestone powder the county puts on its
roads. It is as slick as melting ice and called “smear.”

Fifteen miles of two-wheel drive smear later, we walked into the
shed and saw the engine. Although the Fairbanks was highly modified
and dirty, it looked solid, turned free, didn’t have rust and it
was a big upright. One uncle used his large bucket loader and a
logging chain to load the engine on Sam’s trailer. Another 15 miles
of smear, and we were on our way home, white knuckles and all.

Back to the beginning

Back around 1899, a farmer in Ness County, Kan. bought this 6 HP
Fairbanks-Morse Type T Special Electric engine. He used the engine
until the mid-1930s to power a line shaft for a grinder, lathe and
air compressor in his farm shop, making many modifications to the
engine.

Weather in western Kansas can be severe and at some time the
cylinder froze and was replaced. The head was probably replaced,
too, because there are supposed to be serial numbers on both
pieces. Only the cylinder is stamped, and the number there begins
with the letter “O,” which would not have been an original issue.
There has been discussion on the Internet about this type of serial
number, but it is all supposition. Also, this cylinder never had
the cast brass nameplate.

During his ownership, the farmer replaced the hot tube and
igniter with a spark plug and a magneto from a Hart-Parr 15-30. The
mixer was replaced by an aftermarket Schebler D carburetor, which
was widely advertised in the early 1900s for this type of
application. A Chevrolet water pump replaced the original, and a
Madison-Kipp 50 oiler from the Hart-Parr replaced the Michigan
manifold oiler. The igniter trip mechanism was modified to trip the
oiler.

Also, the crankshaft was reversed in the crankcase, blocking off
the original rod bearing lubrication. The original type mechanism
with a dedicated oiler dripped into a lipped plate bolted to the
crankshaft. As the crankshaft turns, oil is spun to the rim by
centrifugal force, which pushes it through a tube into the rod
bearing. A kind of pressurized system in 1899! This is unique to
the Special Electric as the regular T just used splash
lubrication.

A lot of little parts such as the fuel pump, mixer, hot tube and
water pump were lost in the process of the changes. A large tractor
clutch pulley was mounted for the shop. In reversing the crankshaft
to original configuration, I found the pulley would no longer work,
so it has been set aside as heavy and unnecessary. The top of the
piston had broken off and been rewelded, the valve stems had rotted
away because of mud dauber nests, and the intake valve guide was
broken off inside the head.

Around 1936, the farmer sold the engine to a neighbor, who
hooked it to a grinder and promptly put out one of his eyes. The
engine sat idle for a while until this man’s sons got out of school
around 1937 and decided to open a machine shop. They farmed in Ness
County and ran the machine shop powered by the engine until
110-volt Rural Electric Assn. power came in 1946. At that time, the
45- or 46-year-old engine was put to rest. It obviously has spent
most of its life under cover, because there was only minor surface
rust.

A tall task ahead

When Sam got the engine to Waxahachie, Texas, it weighed in at
1,860 pounds at the feed mill. We removed it from the trailer with
two cherry pickers, one piece at a time. We’d take something off
with one picker, slide it to the edge of the trailer then pick it
up with the other picker. Everything came loose and the job only
took a couple of hours. Now what to do? Clean it and leave it as it
was? Polish and paint everything? Replace missing parts and restore
it?

This was a big project for us. The flywheels weigh 440 pounds
each, and the piston and rod are close to 40 pounds. After
everything was laid out and we had reproduction parts manuals, we
took stock.

The Special Electric was made with heavy flywheels and
throttle-governed to turn a generator. The regular hit-and-miss “T”
with lighter flywheels and hit-and-miss ignition is called the
“Jack-of-All-Trades.” These big flywheels are slightly domed for
use as the pulley, and there are special guards over the governor
gears in case the belt falls off. All of these special parts were
intact.

What was missing were the original electric and fuel systems.
Over its life, the engine had worked hard then sat unattended for a
long time. As there was no finish, a lot of light rust and many
missing parts, leaving it in its old working livery was not a
reasonable restoration option.

A complete restoration would have provided a very unusual and
desirable engine but replacing all the parts would have been very
expensive. Because we know all of the history of this engine and
how it was used and by whom, there was a third option in this case
– a hot rod! After all, if you replace the exhaust, carburetor and
ignition on your car it is called a hot rod. This engine spent most
of its life with aftermarket and adapted parts handling most of its
functions. We decided to leave as much as possible in place and
replace only what had to be replaced.

• Fuel system: The Schebler D carburetor was advertised in Gas
Review magazine around 1915 to replace inefficient mixers on
stationary engines. Dykes Automotive manuals have a complete page
on this carburetor. Since it was a period piece, it was kept. This
saved looking for a fuel pump because the Schebler is gravity fed.
It looks good, too. The owner had made an adaptor out of a Model A
Ford carburetor base so it just bolts on. The original rod from the
governor controls the carburetor. The original mixer was unique to
the Special Electric, and required a fuel pump and a lot of
plumbing. I adapted a Briggs & Stratton fuel tank by making a
bracket to hold it to the head bolts above the carburetor.

• Ignition system: Originally, the engine was equipped with both
a hot tube and an igniter.

The Hart-Parr magneto and spark plug modifications from the
1920s were pretty crude, so Sam found the proper igniter. A friend
and I designed and made a trip mechanism that looks like a factory
piece. During the start-up process, I made an L-bracket from a
barbecue grill to hold the igniter. The wire was attached to the
spark plug and it was placed so that the trip mechanism worked the
spark. It worked for the test, but the plastic button and hardened
steel tripper probably would not have worked well over time. This
is an easy fix for any spark plug engine. You can disguise the
mechanism in a special box and fool anyone.

• Cooling system: The original water pump had been replaced by a
1930s Chevy water pump working with a 55-gallon drum. The local
radiator shop boiled the cylinder and head overnight and removed a
lot of debris. That’s probably a good plan for any engine that does
not have babbitt on the parts to be boiled. We will use a small
water tank bracketed above the cylinder, operated by thermosyphon,
for engine shows.

• Lubrication: The Madison-Kipp was too new for the engine and
its wobblers were stuck. I missed the proper Michigan 5-place
manifold oiler on eBay, but had a bunch of matching oilers. The
engine took six! The missing crankcase lubrication system was made
from a round disc of 18-gauge steel. The edge was rounded into a
lip over the end of an anvil and a small tube soldered to the top
to meet with the hole in the crankcase. It bolts to the side of the
crankshaft web. A small L-bracket was made to hold the oiler to the
outside of the crankcase, and another small tube was added from the
bottom of the oiler to the hole in the crankcase, thus making sure
that the end of the tube touched the plate inside the crankcase. It
looks identical to the original setup.

• The head: One of the valves sat open and both valves were
rusted almost through near the head. An earlier Gas Engine Magazine
contained my article on making your own valves (“The 25 Cent
Valve,” January 2005) and I could have done this. However, a swap
meet in Fredericksburg, Texas, turned up a new pair so we took the
easy route. At some time, the head had received a blow and the
intake valve guide was broken off. This defied my best efforts but
a nearby machine shop did a complete valve job and replaced the
guide for $100.

Finshing touches

Most of the real work was just clean-up and paint. The Ness
County area has a lot of limestone, and the dust mixing with an
oily engine turned into concrete. It would not scrape or sandblast
off, but cleaned right up with a pneumatic descaler from one of the
junk tool catalogs.

There was not a trace of original paint anywhere, even though
every bolt was taken off. An early FM could have been red but dark
green might have been the color, too. Model A Ford engine paint is
close enough for a Fairbanks-Morse. It is dark green and best of
all, available. Two quarts did the job.

I also found a replacement for the brass engine nameplate on
eBay for $18, delivered! Once in a while, you get lucky. Even
though this cylinder did not have a plate originally, it was too
nice to omit.

A lot of cleaning and fabrication, and everything looks good.
Compression is almost too good, and it is easy to set timing with
the trip mechanism we made. All of the brass looks good, too.

So where are we? It’s not original, but it’s close to how it was
used through most of its productive life up into the 1940s. Since
the carburetion and ignition have been modified, I’ll just call it
a hot rod. Leaving it as it was wasn’t a realistic option and
restoring it to original would not have been representative of its
productive life. The history is preserved with the engine. It’s in
Oklahoma now awaiting some fine tuning and a proper trailer or
cart.

Contact John Hamilton at 910 W. Marvin Ave., Waxahachie, TX
75165; a.p.hamilton@att.net

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