The Crown Motor Works

By Staff
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The two surviving engines, 1 HP at left and 1/4 HP at right.
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ONE HORSE POWER CROWN ENGINE
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Crown Motor Works was one of many small firms engaged in the
mechanization of America in the early decades of the 20th century.
The airplane and the telephone were, in practical terms, still in
their infancy, while vacuum tubes for efficient radio broadcasting
was still a struggling technology. But the internal combustion
engine was fast becoming an industrial mainstay as the century
progressed.

Electricity was still not widely available in rural areas, so
small gasoline-powered engines were sought by many people for
powering machines and equipment. To satisfy this need, small
manufacturing companies popped up across America, especially in
areas surrounding large, industrialized cities. Elgin, Ill.,
situated 40 miles west of Chicago, was one such spot, and this is
the story of one of those small, early-1900s firms; the Crown Motor
Works, of Elgin, Ill.

One Horse Power Air Cooled Gasoline Engine Complete, Ready to
Run $35.00

Early History

From all indications the Crown Motor Works was one man’s
dream, a part-time spin-off that lasted for perhaps a little more
than a decade or so, and a venture that was, in the end, never a
commercial success. It was a venture that appears to have been
carried out quietly, almost confidentially, by the quiet,
unassuming man who was my grandfather, Arthur Henry Van
Wambeke.

Arthur Henry Van Wambeke was the grandson of Constantine Van
Wambeke, who, at the age of 17, emigrated from Belgium to America
in 1856, settling in Moline, Ill. His second U.S.-born son,
Heinrich (who later went by the name Henry), grew up in Missouri.
Henry and his first wife, Fannie, had eight sons and one daughter.
Arthur, the eldest son, was born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1880. Some
time around 1892 Henry and his family (including his younger
brother, George) moved to Chicago. A year or so later Henry and his
family settled in Elgin, while George stayed in Chicago, where he
set up an Auburn auto dealership around 1914.

In Elgin Henry established a grocery store, first on Congdon
Avenue, and later in the front of his home on the southeast corner
of Jefferson and Hill streets. This is where all the ‘Van’
children grew up, and all nine helped in the store during their
school years. Arthur attended Columbia Grammar School and Elgin
High School, graduating (?) in 1898. His first regular employment
was as a draftsman. In 1904, at age 24, he married Clara Larkin,
and the same year he began what was to become a life-long career as
a pattern maker at the Elgin National Watch Co., where he worked
until his retirement in 1949.

Surviving HP engine. Note tape measurer. This was a tiny
engine.

The surviving 1 HP engine, Lunkenheimer carb clearly visible, as
is chain-drive sprocket.

Arthur became a highly skilled craftsman for his day, and during
the years 1906-1908 he and his father Henry and several brothers
built and sold motorized wagons under the banner of ‘Van Motor
Wagons.’ Basically horse-drawn wagons converted to motor power,
Van Motor Wagons were assembled in a barn behind the family store
in Elgin using two-cylinder air-cooled gasoline engines, steering
wheels, and other parts Henry and his sons sourced for their
construction. The Van Motor Wagon Co. built and sold about eight
vehicles, most configured as delivery wagons, before going out of
business shortly after 1908. A photo of one of these early
motorized vehicles, perhaps the last one made, survives.

It was during this time that Arthur’s interest in designing
and making small gas engines developed. Some time around 1909 he
began making engines, calling his new company Crown Motor Works. As
best we can tell, production of Crown stationary engines was a
part-time activity carried out by Arthur from his basement shop,
first in a home on Preston Avenue, and later, after about 1911, in
his large two-story home at 1112 Bellevue Ave. in Elgin, where he
lived until 1953. His engine-building activity ran from about 1909
until 1925, during which time he continued in his pattern-making
profession at the Elgin Watch Co..

Crown Engines

Arthur’s Crown engines were small, simple gas engines
intended for a variety of light-duty services. Of two-cycle design,
they were air-cooled, had integral heads and were spark plug
ignited.

They were of single-cylinder (usually vertical) design, and
incorporated a heavy cast-iron base or legs for mounting. Arthur
designed the engines working out of his home shop, where he also
made his own drawings and the wooden patterns used to make sand
molds for casting the various engine parts. The iron castings
included the cylinders (with integral heads), crankcases (with
integral bases or legs), flywheels, pistons, etc. He had sand molds
made and castings poured in a local Elgin foundry. Final machining
and assembly of the castings and other parts (such as the cylinder
bores, piston walls, ring grooves, wrist pins, crankcase bearings,
crankshaft journals, and rod bearings) was done in his home
shop.

According to the sparse company literature that survives, Crown
Motor Works customers could order engines in just about any form,
from drawings and castings to complete, ready-to-run engines.
Arthur would even machine the parts for customers who wanted to
finish and assemble the engines themselves. He also provided
accessory parts for his engines, such as carburetors, spark coils,
spark plugs, batteries, wire, switches, gas tanks, pulleys, fans,
mufflers, and oil caps. Engines ordered as completed units were
assembled and test-run by Arthur before being packed and shipped to
customers.

Drawing for Crown HP engine, presumably done by Arthur Van
Wambeke

Arthur used dry-cell, battery-powered ‘jump spark’
(spark plug) ignition systems consisting of a vibrating-reed spark
coil. A timer contact bar attached to the flywheel hub rotated with
the flywheel, rubbing past a contact point on the crankshaft hub.
Ignition timing (spark advance) was adjustable by rotating the
contact bar or its rub ring. One version of the timer contact bar
has a heavy weight acting as a centrifugal governor to limit the
engine speed. The governor is adjustable by a spring-loaded tension
knob on the flywheel hub. Arthur’s literature also states a
‘ball type’ governor as available on some Crown
engines.

All Crown gasoline engines were fitted with cast-bronze
Lunkenheimer carburetors. The carburetor has an adjustable needle
valve to control fuel-flow into the throat of the carburetor and a
throttle valve to adjust airflow through the carburetor. The
carburetor is gravity-fed from an external tank. A spring-loaded
poppet valve in the carburetor allows fuel to meter into the throat
when the piston is on the up stroke, maintains crankcase pressure
during the downward stroke of the piston in the two-cycle engine,
and shuts-off fuel flow when the engine is not running. Crown
engines could evidently be run using natural gas instead of
gasoline, but no clear indication of the fuel-metering device used
for natural gas is found in the surviving literature of the
company.

I have found no indication that Arthur either sought or obtained
any patent or trademark protection for his engine designs, or for
any particular features of his engines. Further, it is not known
how many engines Crown Motor Works made or sold. No sales figures
have survived, and I have been unsuccessful in locating anyone
besides family members who know anything about the Crown engines.
As of this writing only two of his engines are known to exist.

The Crown Motor Works was, from all indications, a total
service, one-man operation, and no doubt a labor of love. According
to the recollections of his eldest son, Don (now deceased), and
eldest daughter, Ruth (now 94 years old), the demands of family,
Arthur’s lack of promotional and marketing skills, and the
relentless competition by other more sophisticated engine designs
that came onto the market, meant that Arthur couldn’t keep
Crown Motor Works going at a profit.

Some time around 1925, after about 16 years of part-time
operation, he quit making Crown engines, continuing his career as a
pattern maker for the Elgin Watch Co. until his retirement in 1949.
After retirement Arthur continued providing pattern-making services
from his home shop for numerous other industrial customers around
Elgin right up until his death in 1965 at age 85.

Engine Specifications

Available records indicate three different engines were made by
Crown, sized at HP, HP and 1 HP. Critical specifications appear in
the table above (See Table 1).

Two versions of 1 HP Crown engines are described in the Crown
pamphlets. This size engine appears to have been produced in two
different configurations. A horizontal-cylinder version may have
been the first 1 HP unit marketed by Crown Motor Works, and may
even have been made by another company in Elgin, the Elgin
Manufacturing Co., and merely marketed by Crown Motors. In this
version of the 1 HP motor the carburetor is mounted on the wall of
the cylinder, not on the crankcase as with all other Crown engines
described here. This horizontal engine also has a sight-glass oiler
fitted to the cylinder, and a fuel tank sits atop what is probably
a battery box next to the cylinder head. A second version of the 1
HP Crown Motors engine was a vertical-cylinder version, and was
featured in what I believe to have been the most-recently printed
Crown Motor pamphlet, along with the HP unit. Both the 1 HP
vertical engine and the HP vertical engine have carburetors mounted
so they are aspirating the engine through a connection in the side
of the crankcase.

It appears there were several different versions of the HP
engine. Minor variations were in the crankshaft length (to
accommodate differing flywheels and power-takeoff drums), and in
the flywheel spokes (straight versus fan blade) and type of
governor mechanism utilized.

Only one version of the HP engine is evident from a surviving
blueprint, a set of patterns and one nearly complete engine (less
carburetor and timer mechanism). It appears from notations made by
Arthur on a surviving blueprint of the HP unit that some minor
modifications to it were being considered when work on it
stopped.

Table 1: Crown Engine Specifications

1 HP

HP

HP

Bore

2.5-inch

2.0-inch

1.25-inch

Stroke

3.0-inch

2.0-inch

1.0-inch

Horsepower

1

()*

Rpm

400-1200

600

?

Weight:

with single flywheel

55 lbs

35 lbs.

~8 lbs

with dual flywheels

75 lbs

?

?

Dia. of crankshaft

1-inch

-inch

7/16-inch

Dia. of pulley (or sprocket)

3.0-inch

2.5-inch

1.0-inch

Dia. of flywheel

10-inch

8-inch (or 10)

5-inch

Main bearing(s) material

babbit

babbit **

iron

Connecting rod material

bronze

bronze

iron

Piston material

iron

iron

iron

Governor

adjustable

adjustable

none

Ignition

jump spark

jump spark

jump spark

Timing

adjustable

adjustable

adjustable

Fuel feed: gasoline carburetor

gravity

gravity

gravity

Price:

Complete engine

$30.00

$24.00 (30.00)

?

Castings & drawings

$10.00

$6.00

?

Castings & carburetor

?

$8.50

?

Machining of castings

?

$10.00

?

Carburetor (Lunkenheimer)

?

$3.00

?

Spark coil

?

$3.50

?

* One Crown brochure indicates power rating of hp at
1200 rpm.

** One version of HP engine has replaceable bronze main
bearings.

Surviving Crown Engines

At least two Crown engines have survived into the 21st century,
and these are shown on page 25 as they looked in December 2001.
They are both two-cycle, air-cooled, single-cylinder vertical
engines. The 1 HP model stands about 19 inches tall and weighs 53
pounds as shown. The smaller engine, thought to be a HP model, is
seven inches tall and weighs seven pounds as shown. Both of these
engines are in my ownership, and I have stored and protected them
for over 35 years.

Both engines are constructed of cast iron for cylinders,
crankcases, and flywheels, and steel for crankshafts, assembly
screws, and keyway keys. Surviving literature for the 1 HP engine
says it has a drop-forged crankshaft with ‘high grade Babbitt
metal’ bearings, a bronze connecting rod and a piston featuring
‘three perfect fitting rings’ (verified by my observation
of three rings when looking into the exhaust port). A red,
plastic-like insulating material is used for the timer insulating
ring, and cast bronze is used for the governor arm on the 1 HP
engine.

The surviving 1 HP unit is complete with a bronze Lunkenheimer
carburetor (marked ‘ R.H.’) having an integral -inch NPT
pipe thread nipple for connecting it to the engine’s crankcase
casting. Also included with the engine accessories surviving from
Arthur’s operation is a New York Coil Co. vibrating-reed spark
coil (weight 2.25-lbs.), and a Champion Ford spark plug (with -inch
NPT pipe threads with a pitch of 14 threads per inch).

The 1 HP engine shown is in excellent condition, and was last
run about 53 years ago by me, when I was a teenager! I remember at
the time verifying the engine’s ability to run in either
direction, because when I had it running that day and slowed it
down too much (with the timing set incorrectly) it would backfire
and start running in the opposite direction!

The HP engine is currently missing a carburetor (it needs one
with a 3/8-inch pipe thread nipple connector)
and a spark-timer mechanism (a drawing of the timer is depicted in
the upper right corner of the surviving blueprint).

The surviving patterns appear to be made of a fine-grain,
light-colored wood, and are comprised of many different pieces,
individually formed then fitted together. The portions of the
patterns that represent the actual cast metal part to be made are
painted black, whereas the core-portions of the mold are finished
with varnish (or shellac?). The two halves of the cylinder and
crankcase patterns are joined with slip-fit brass pins to align the
two halves of each mold pattern. In a sense, these are beautiful
little works of art.

The patterns are in excellent condition, despite being about 80
years old, and I wonder if, with a little touch up, they could be
used to build a HP Crown engine. Is anyone out there
interested?

Crown Motor Works Literature

Some printed literature that Arthur had produced describing and
promoting his Crown Motor Works engines survives to this day. It
consists primarily of several small, folded pamphlets (listing
engine specifications, prices, etc., for the HP and 1 HP units),
and two working drawings. One drawing is a blueprint of the HP
motor, and the other is a black-on-white, photo-reduced drawing for
a HP motor. It’s clear from the pamphlets and drawings that Van
Wambeke made a HP motor, but no example is known to remain.
Presumably, Arthur drafted both of these drawings himself, although
neither is signed or dated – typical, I think, of his modest
style.

I believe it possible that the HP engine may never have been put
into production beyond a prototype model. This speculation is
suggested by two things: first, the small engine is not described
in any surviving Crown Motor Works pamphlets; and secondly, the
original blueprint drawing of it has some lightly sketched-in
modifications marked in red pencil in Art’s hand, suggesting he
was contemplating some minor design modifications to the engine at
the time he stopped working on it.

Personal Notes and Recollections

A.H. Van Wambeke, or ‘Gramp’ as I knew him, was my
mother’s father. My father’s dad died before I was born,
and as such Gramp was very special to me. My Gramp’s activities
as an engine builder took place many years before I was born in
1932, so I learned about it only much later, and I never knew the
full story (and still don’t know a lot!) until I started
researching this article.

After Gramp’s death in 1965 I acquired his two surviving
cast-iron engines and the one existing set of wooden patterns
(which he made for the smaller of the two surviving engines). I
also obtained two drawings and several pamphlets, and have
preserved the engines and literature for many years. I also
occasionally made notes after various chats with my mother, Ruth
Van Wambeke (Nash), and an uncle, Donald Van Wambeke.

An early Crown HP engine, featuring an extended crankshaft with
the flywheel mounted on support base.

My mother recalls how as a girl during grammar school
(1914-1922) Arthur (her father) built engines in the basement of
their home on Bellevue Avenue in Elgin. She said that in those
early days before electricity was available, Arthur used one of his
engines to power a lathe and another to power a vacuum pump. The
pump provided their large, two-story house with a centralized
vacuum-cleaner system, with pipes leading from the pump and
canister in the basement up through the walls above to outlets in
every room of the house, which she and her mother used for
housekeeping chores! She also said that a miniature automobile that
Arthur built for his kids (we know it was built before Christmas of
1911), and which is depicted in many heirloom snapshot pictures of
the family taken in those years, was powered by one of his Crown
engines. The little car is no longer in the family and we don’t
know what happened to it.

After a long and productive life of 85 years, Arthur Van Wambeke
died in his sleep one October night in 1965 after having spent the
day working in the basement shop of his post-retirement home at 11
Commonwealth Ave. in Elgin. The day before he died he was working
in his shop on a wooden pattern for a local Elgin industrial
customer. The customer never claimed the beautiful,
varnish-finished mahogany pattern, and that pattern, plus many of
his tools, two of his engines, and other artifacts – including
photos, documents, and even a short oral-history audio tape I made
with him in his shop in 1964 – have survived and represent his
life’s work. These are cherished mementoes of a gentle, loving
family man. He had five children and 12 grandchildren, and was a
great dad and Gramp to all of them. As a master patternmaker and
early engine builder, Arthur Henry Van Wambeke and his Crown Motor
Works was a mere tiny – but important – participant and contributor
to the complex drama of early 20th-century industrial growth in
America.

If you know of any existing Crown engines, or have any
information relating to Crown engines or the Crown Motor Works, or
to any engines that you think may have been made by Arthur Van
Wambeke in Elgin, Ill., but marketed or sold under a different
trade name than his, you are invited and encouraged to contact
me.

Contact Doug Nash at: 32906 Avenida Descanso, San Juan
Capistrano, CA 92675, (949) 493-4260, Fax (949) 240-0213, or
e-mail: dnash32906@aol.com

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