The Saga of a Novo Engine

By Staff
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22 Tyler Road, Lexington, MA 02173

Novo engine 80842 seems to have begun its long life on October 9, 1922, at which time the main hopper casting was poured. In an age when time was not so important as now, iron castings were routinely allowed to age for six months. The engine was finally completed in Lansing, MI about March 20, 1923, at which time it was sold to H. Brewer & Co. of Tecumseh, MI for incorporation in a cement mixer. The latter was purchased by Gustaf Brehm & Henry Werking & Co. and used in the construction of various town buildings and schools in Cadillac, MI until 1933 when Gustaf sold it to his brother, Edward, my grandfather. He had a farm about six miles from Cadillac. It was on that farm that, as a teenager, I was employed for a number of summers early in WW II. I got to know Novo engine 80842 on several occasions while mixing cement for various projects around the farm. It was used only at two to three year intervals, and in the intervening time just sat grumpily in a barn. Trying to get it running after an idle period was an exercise in itself. The weak point of the engine was always the Wico magneto. Although I have seen many Novo engines at shows in the last several years, I have never seen another with a type AX. In fact, I have never seen another type AX at all, but more about that later. The routine to get it started always included cleaning the plug and then cranking, cranking, cranking. If I had taken the time at age 15 to learn what I know now at age 62 (about that old engine, that is), I could have saved untold hours of sweating, swearing and screaming at it. But that is the insight that comes with age. On a family farm in those days we were expected to get the job done, not to enlighten the world.

In the intervening years, after growing up, serving time in the US Navy, going to college and getting married, I did visit the farm from time to time. The cement mixer, with Novo engine 80842 aboard, was always lurking back in the shadows in the barn. My grandfather passed away, and the farm went to my uncle. He used the cement mixer on rare occasions until 1950, when Novo 80842 refused to cooperate at all. My uncle, being a practical man with little patience for anachronisms from the past, removed the cylinder and hopper assembly and used one of the flywheels as a pulley. I should mention that he could not easily just remove Novo engine 80842 and discard it because it was geared to the barrel of the cement mixer directly. (Figure 2 shows said gear being removed from the crankshaft with much difficulty.) When he wanted to use the cement mixer, he would simply run the tractor up to it, and belt the flywheel to the tractor power take-off pulley. A practical and appropriate solution. A couple years later my uncle decided that farming was no longer a good way to make living (if indeed it ever was in that country). The cement mixer was torn down for metal for another and more lucrative project he had in mind. Why Novo engine 80842 didn’t end up in the scrap yard at that point I may never know for certain, but I suspect it was because it was easier just to set all 375 pounds of it out of the way back in the barn.

In 1985 I saw my uncle, now long retired and wintering in Florida, for the first time in many years. By then I was a retired grandfather myself and had discovered old engine restoration as a hobby. In the course of discussion about the ‘good old days,’ he allowed that the engine from the cement mixer was still more or less complete and still in the barn in Michigan. Would I like to have it? Three years later in September 1988, after considerable cajoling, he crated it up and sent it to me here in Lexington, MA.

By this time I had had a little experience with these old machines and had restored a 1? HP John Deere from the same farm and the same uncle. At the time, I thought that project was a lot of work, but aside from a need to rebuild the magneto, it was a lark compared to Novo engine 80842. Although a rusty, dirty mess (which was expected), it was more or less complete when it arrived. I removed the hopper and cylinder assembly to find the rod bearing cap and the magneto armature in the bottom of the crankcase, along with a couple of quarts of greasy water. The spark plug was gone, and a mouse had built a nest in the cylinder on top of the piston. The piston was free, and all moving parts were there except for some magneto parts. The intake valve was missing the keeper and the spring, but it was free. The exhaust valve not so; it was frozen in a half-open position. A little penetrating oil would fix that, thought 1 naively. Measuring the bore showed the engine to be the 3 HP version.

After each use of the cement mixer, the cleaning procedure had been to hose it down with water, including the engine. After thirty years or so of this haphazard process, the residual cement dust had hardened in places into ?’ of rock-hard concrete. I chipped it away with a chisel, square millimeter by square millimeter. But where it was so coated, the underlying metal was almost free of corrosion. Indeed, much of the original paint was still there. The cement dust had also mixed with the oil and grease on the external moving parts and never had been cleaned off, but there too the fine cement dust acted much like talc in oil and provided the lubrication that was often neglected when the engine was in service. Thus, the wear on the exposed parts was not so bad as I had expected it to be. Replacement of some shafts was all that was necessary. The cast iron gears and cams were worn some, but not badly so.

About Christmas 1988, most of the hard work was done. The entire base casting, the flywheels, and all the running parts had been cleaned and prime painted. But the exhaust valve was still stuck. Nearly every day in the intervening several months I had oiled it, pounded on it, sworn at it and prayed to it. I should mention that removing the valves was not to be thought of. They are mounted in cages threaded into the cylinder casting. The cages had long since rust-welded to the cylinder head. One day, while persuading it none too gently, the valve moved about .002′. I had looked at it so often and for so long that I could spot that little movement with no trouble. After several more hours of pounding and twisting on the valve stem, I had it free. With success in sight, finishing up the cleaning and painting of the hopper and cylinder assembly was now almost fun.

Meanwhile, said Wico AX was still a mystery. Inquiries directed to the usual sources in GEM had yielded no information. Literature for the Wico PR showed it to be a related type, but it still differed from the AX I had to deal with. I easily determined that the coils were sound, but while it had sat in the water in the crankcase, the armature had rotted away until about 30% of the metal in the laminations was history. I was hopeful that there might be enough iron still remaining for it to work. However, I did not have a clue as to the make up of the mechanism that actuated the moving points. I purchased replacement points for a Wico EK in the hope that they would serve. Finally, having located nothing about type AX, I faced up to the fact that there was no hope for it but to design something that might work. When it was finished, much to my amazement it did.

Then on Easter Sunday of 1989, the engine was complete, painted, and mounted on a cart. When I tried to start it, I found that during the time I was stewing about the magneto, the check balls in the fuel pump had stuck. The fuel pump had to be disassembled and cleaned up once again. Novo engine 80842 was not about to give in so meekly. After several more hours of tinkering, fuel was in the carburetor and there was spark at the plug. It fired after about four revolutions of the crank, for the first time in almost forty years. I had it running-sort of-after a few minutes, but it took several hours of fiddling with this and that to get it running well. Finally, it ran smoothly at about 350 rpm, firing each twenty or so revolutions. Golly, did I feel good!

But the saga is not yet at an end. Novo engine 80842, always unforgiving, was not ready to give in completely. After  a couple weeks of running it from time to time, the valves had seated, and the compression was at a more or less normal high. The ever marginal Wico AX no longer could fire the plug even with a small gap. I took the magneto to the annual engine meet in Orange, MA where I knew there were folks who recharged magnetos as a service for engine buffs. On reassembling the magneto, I found that the armature return spring no longer had the strength to pull the armature away from the now much stronger magnets. I had used an automotive valve spring to replace the missing original. After searching through the spring stocks at the local hardware store, I found one that was stiff enough and almost the right size. To make it fit required reworking all the parts I had dreamed up previously. After a day or two it was done, but Novo engine 80842 was not yet quite over its snit. It still ran poorly, firing only irregularly. An automotive timing light showed the spark to be weak and erratic. The problem was traced to my design for the missing parts. I had assumed the points would be adequately grounded through the springs and nuts and bolts that had held the points assembly to the moving armature. And indeed the ground was quite good enough until the whole thing got oily. A copper ground strap solved that problem. Novo engine 80842 finally gave in and runs very well indeed.

At least for now.

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