There can be very few engine collectors who don’t dream of
finding an unrestored engine, preferably in its working location.
This month’s article originated from this question:
For the last six years, since we moved out to the country, my
husband has gotten the kids and me to ask everyone we know with a
barn if they have any old engines. This included dodging ornery
bulls and digging through years’ worth of scrap metal. After
six years, we’ve gotten two old saws and two old tractors, but
no engine. My question is, has anyone found a ‘barn fresh’
motor in the last decade? Do they still exist?
As usual on this internet mailing list, there were lots of tips
and advice from around the world in the quest for original engines.
Less common was that I asked the contributors to the discussion if
they minded sharing their information with the readers of
GEM.’ Luckily, I got the go-ahead, so here are some
ideas worth trying when you need another engine to add to your
I was under the impression when I started this hobby that I
started too late and that all the engines had been collected before
my time. Well, like a few others have said, just keep asking and
sooner or later one will show up. My Petter, KA Stover, Lister and
portable shearing plant were all what I would guess you call barn
Ya know, I go along with the comment that ‘I got in too late
to have or find anything.’ Well, I sorta agree with that but am
finding out that it seems that once you find one, you will find a
couple more. I know of several engines that are in buildings, but
trying to get in touch with the owners is something else. One
person will tell you go and get it for free and then you find out
that they never did own it! I have also left calling cards stapled
to fence gates to get the attention of the owner and even left
letters but to no avail. Most people you run into when doing the
hunting will at least let you look, but there are some that
don’t trust you at all, and won’t even talk to you. I guess
some people have better luck than I, but I’m not giving
It’s been awhile since I got a barn or farm fresh engine,
but I’m sure that there are still lots of them out there.
They’re just not as easy to find as 10 or 20 years ago.
One of the main things is just getting out and talking to people
and letting people know what you’re looking for. Having photos
of what you’re after is a big help, as a lot of people have no
idea what you’re talking about if you say ‘hit and
miss,’ ‘sideshaft,’ or even ‘flywheel’ engine.
Once a person knows what you’re after they might remember
seeing one somewhere.
It helps a lot if you’re willing to drive up to a
stranger’s house and tell them what you’re looking for.
When I was in the seed corn business, every time we had a field
day I put an engine in the back of the pick up. After refreshments,
I would start it up. Got several leads from farmers in attendance.
I remember particularly an Amish man who told me about one over at
the buggy shop under a work bench for $45. It was a Taylor Vacuum
Pick a nice Saturday not in planting or harvest time, drive to
any farming community with a town square, park your open bed pickup
on the square with a hit and miss engine in the back and be
I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ve thought several times
about taking one of my engines that run and just parking beside a
busy road with the engine running to see if anyone stops to talk.
Sort of like using an engine as bait to find people curious enough
to stop and see what you’ve got. Has anyone done this and were
you successful in getting another engine?
I visualize a pickup truck parked along the road with a 4′ x
8′ sign mounted on the back… ‘OLD ENGINES ADOPTED.’
Hey, it might work!
I have made many such posters, and rotate fresh ones on the
doors here at work at well . After being given a running demo, they
always stop to look at the posters on the way back to the car.
Newspaper ads too!
Hits are few and far in between. But time marches on. Somebody
dumped a mag/ignitor JDE 1.5 at work this summer for a mere . . .
oh, never mind!
There is a little bit of confusion in this thread between
‘barn fresh’ and ‘in the wild.’
Barn fresh engines might actually run with a gasolene IV or
maybe a coil. I really think we are talking about ‘in the
bush’ as opposed to already in the collector pipeline. And come
in every state of decay and decapitation any truly sick engine man
could hope for.
I guess you’re getting the picture that the ‘barn
fresh’ ones are still out there. Let me add two other
observations on how you’ll get the ‘barn fresh’
First off, read the auction notices in your local papers. EVERY
Learn to read those notices ‘creatively.’ The folks
writing them up often haven’t a clue what the item is, so the
description is sometimes pretty far off. Also learn to spot the
sorts of things that often will be in a barn with old engines . . .
flat belt driven equipment, for example.
When you get to the auction, prowl around. Peek and poke in the
nooks and crannies. Lift up tarps, move things. I once got a GREAT
old water pump for a couple of bucks by waiting till near the end
of the auction and asking the auctioneer, ‘Hey, what about this
rusty old lump here?’ Got it for $5.00. Often what we prize
most looks to be unsaleable so is left behind the barn. I’ve
also found prizes in the scrap pile at an auction. I got another
water pump that was tossed in with a couple of big generators. The
buyer was a scrappie who wanted the copper. After the lot sold, I
asked him if he’d take $10 for the old pump. You could see the
mental calculation of Scrap Value = $1.50, Hmmm. $10 = Nice Profit.
‘Done,’ he sez. We were both happy. Also as an aside, when
you’re evaluating a ‘barn fresh’ engine, if the piston
and bore are bone dry, it likely will have ZIP for compression. A
few squirts of oil will make all the difference, so don’t
immediately write off an engine with no compression as needing a
lot of work.
And while we’re talking about evaluating ‘barn
fresh’ engines at an auction, be VERY careful when checking an
engine over. Some of the smaller parts might be stuck. When you
start pulling the flywheels over, you’ve got enormous leverage.
It’s VERY easy to snap a rocker arm trying to push in a stuck
valve. DON’T pull the flywheels until you’ve determined
that the other bits are free.
The second way I’ve gotten ‘barn fresh’ engines is
by exhibiting at ‘non-engine’ shows. These are shows where
90% of the ‘traffic’ past your exhibit is
‘civilians,’ folks who haven’t a clue what this stuff
is or what it does. BUT, ‘Grandpa had one of these and
we’ve still got it in the barn, garage, cellar, fencerow, etc.
He’s long gone, would you possibly be interested in
Just remember one thing, you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs
before you find your princess. But she’s out there, so pucker
I find that the main attribute needed to find engines is
persistence. Follow up any lead no matter how unlikely.
I got my favourite hot air engine from a remark in the pub and
three years of detective work and persistence.
I heard of a 4 HP Southern Cross diesel at Broken Hill (NSW)
that the guy said needed quite a bit of work. I asked how much $$
and the answer1 slab of beer. Sounds great so I packed my rations
and off I went (600km round trip). Well, on the way out the middle
of nowhere, I passed this huge really old looking farm house and 57
stand shearing shed! I decided to drive in and ask if they had any
old engines they may sell. The answer was yes – it was an XA Cooper
‘You have it,’ he said, ‘its no good to me.’
So it pays to just drop in every now and again. The guy said to
come back past on the way home and he would help me load it, and I
left to get to the other farm (another 30 minutes up the road)
where I found the Southern Cross pulled down into a million bits
and sitting in a rubbish bin with the flywheel on the ground beside
it. I couldn’t see the crank anywhere until I tipped the junk
out of the bin and I found it, broken into three bits! I just drove
300km for a boat anchor!
I thanked the guy, gave him his beer and headed back to the
other farm, where the farmer said to me, ‘I have had a look
around and there’s a couple more if you want them (for free,
just load em up).’
I left there with five engines.
So don’t think that there are no engines left to find, you
just gotta get off the main roads and start to do a bit of real
scouting. I don’t think that you can tell too many people
you’re interested in old iron.
Of course, there are not many genuinely ‘barn fresh’
engines like these about, but keep looking, asking and talking to
people. A good network of contacts is very useful. Finally, bear in
mind our motto: ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t
Just to let you know how it was collecting engines way back
when, here are the first 11 that I picked up in 1973 in my southern
Indiana travels. All were ‘barn fresh.’
3 HP Fairbanks Morse Z – Free
1 HP Hercules -$50
3 to 5 HP IHC LA-$15
1 to2 HP IHC LA-$10
1 HP Economy – $25
1 HP IHC M – Free
1 to 2 HP IHC LB-$25
6 HP Thermoil – 2 sacks of seed corn
1 to 2 HP IHC LA-$35
2 HP ARCO-$10
2 HP Atlas ‘King Bee’ – 2 sacks of seed corn
In three years time I picked up 125 engines all out in the
countryside. My, how times have changed.
Someone added a cautionary note:
I have to tell you about walking or driving up to someone’s
house. Be careful! The last time I did that I was looking down the
barrel of a gun. It don’t happen often but it does happen.
And for the lady who asked the original question?
These ideas have been terrific. My daughter is in a 4-H pony club
that participates in a lot of local farm fairs. What a great idea
to show an engine also! We’ve tried parking the engine at a
yard sale and got a couple of interesting leads. Definitely worth
trying ’cause y’all are proof that it can work. Thanks for
all the great input!
So, maybe there aren’t many genuine ‘barn fresh’
engines available these days, but you can have fun trying to track
one down, and as in so many areas of this hobby, perseverance and
patience should bring some results.