Unusual Engines

By Staff
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Robert Geiken stands with his 5 HP Aermotor engine. This was only made for two years by the Aermotor Co. of Chicago, the same company that built Aermotor windmills. '
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'Left: Geiken shows off the rare Ypsi engine, made as a school project by teenagers in Ypsilanti, Mich. Only a few of these little engines are known to exist. '
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'Geiken sits with his Dean Electric engine, which was only built for the Elyria, Ohio, firm by St. Mary’s Machine Co. of St. Mary’s, Ohio. This gearless 2-1/2 HP machine, serial no. 3948, was built around 1910. '
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'This extremely rare engine is a 6 HP Oshkosh manufactured by Oshkosh Mfg. Co., Oshkosh, Wis., in 1911 or 1912, the only two years the company existed. It does not have a tag, stamp or any other marking other than “Oshkosh” cast in the hopper. '
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'Left: Some people believe Secord & Orr Co. of Jackson, Mich., never produced any engines at all, and the little information available helps keep that belief alive. However, here is proof in the form of a 1912 4 HP S&O engine, serial no. 1456. '
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'This gearless Weber engine, patented in 1901, was manufactured by Weber Gas Engine Co. of Kansas City, Mo., and is numbered 7960. '
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'The 5 HP Stickney shown here carries serial no. 13372, and was built in 1912. '
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'This 4 HP Wogaman Sure-Go was built in Greenville, Ohio, in 1908. For more information on the Wogaman engines, see pages 6-9 in this issue. '

Robert Geiken of Hastings, Minn., has always
been intrigued with the thinking employed at the turn of the 20th
century to create different designs to make an internal-combustion
engine work. “You wonder if some guy didn’t lay awake in bed all
night, thinking about how he might build a better engine, the
mechanics and actual thought that went into these different

Or certainly different or unusual engines. The urge for
uniqueness has led 55-year-old Robert on a quest to find oddball
gas engines for his collection.

Engines like his L. E. Spear, a 1-1/2 HP horizontal engine; his
Oshkosh 6 HP, which is extremely rare; his Ypsi engine, made as a
school project; or any of his gearless engines, like a 4 HP Wogaman
Sure-Go, (1908, serial no. 490); a Weber, (1901, serial no. 7960);
or the St. Mary’s gearless manufactured for Dean Electric Co.
(circa-1910, serial no. 3948.) This accounting barely dents
Robert’s unique collection.

Oddball Beginnings

About 25 years ago, Robert’s interest in gas engines was tweaked
each time he visited one of his neighbors, a collector of antique
gas engines. “They intrigued me, so I’d watch them running and talk
to him. I used to play with restoring cars, and he kept telling me,
‘You need to get into antique engines. Those cars take up too much
space.’ It piqued my interest. I thought the old gas engines were
fascinating. They’re simple enough that you can work on them if you
ask a lot of questions from the people who know what they’re doing
– the older guys who have been around a while.”

So in 1981, Robert succumbed, and bought three engines from the
neighbor – a 1-1/2 HP Sattley, a 3 HP McCormick-Deering Μ and a
1-1/2 – 2-1/2 HP McCormick-Deering LA. The latter engine Robert
gave to his dad as a Christmas present, which hooked his father.
“He liked the idea of going to threshing shows with us, so he set
up a little trailer to haul his engines with, too.” Robert says it
was a family affair, with his father, his wife and their

He has found engines in every possible way – through word of
mouth, swap meets, farm auctions, other collectors, trading, buying
or a little bit of both. Once, he and a friend even bought an
entire estate from Wisconsin, selling everything except what he
wanted, and ending up with some working capital. “I took that slush
fund and bought some others,” he says.

Getting engines from non-engine people can be a challenge. At
the Central Hawkeye Gas Engine and Tractor Assn. Swap Meet in
Waukee, Iowa, a flea mart guy had an enclosed trailer with an
unusual engine in it. “He had a fictitious price tag on it,” Robert
laughs. He and Robert negotiated off and on for a day, until
finally the dealer called his wife and afterwards negotiated with
Robert until they got together on a price. That was the unusual
Ypsi engine, which was a high school shop project in Ypsilanti,
Mich. Young machinists cast parts, machined them and put the parts
together with machine screws – no bolts or nuts – to build the
engine. This rarity is one of perhaps four engines built. Robert
says he’s come up with other oddball engines more than once at the
Waukee show.

Oddball Incorporated

Most of the engines in Robert’s collection are unique and
different. One is the St. Mary’s gearless engine marked for sale by
Dean Electric of Elyria, Ohio. This gearless 2-1/2 HP machine,
serial no. 3948, was built about 1910 by St. Mary’s Machine Co. of
St. Mary’s, Ohio.

“I bought it from a Minnesota friend who was selling it at the
Waukee show. I had told him to give me a last shot on it, and he
did.” Robert bested the other bids, and had the unusual engine.
“One thing that makes it unusual is that part of the exhaust blows
out the side of the engine and pushes the arm down to actuate the
exhaust valve.”

A 3 HP Victor engine was once used in what is now an old
Colorado ghost town. It was manufactured by Alamo Mfg. Co. of
Hillsdale, Mich., about 1912. Secondhand information that came
along with the engine says his Victor (serial no. 10710) was kept
in a building, which points to its good condition today. “It’s got
a lot of nice paint striping on it. It didn’t deteriorate, and it
looks good yet today.” A lamppost was cut off to make a water
cooler, but the engine and skid are original.

Of all the unusual engines Robert owns, his favorite is the L.
E. Spears, made in Northfield, Minn., of which only one other one
is known, “and we’re not positive of that. We’ve just heard that
there’s another one in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) area
somewhere, but I don’t know who has it and I’ve never seen it.”

“I’ve had hundreds of engines, and I’ve gotten the ones I’ve
really wanted,” Robert says. Other favorites include a 1/2 HP New
Holland and a Stickney engine built in St. Paul, Minn. “It’s a neat
engine; not super rare, but just odd-looking.”

Like any long-time collector, Robert harbors a few regrets about
past engines. “I had a couple of 1-1/2 HP Associated gas engines I
probably should have kept, a Johnny Boy and a Busy Boy.” The Johnny
Boy was hopper-cooled, the Busy Boy air-cooled.

“They were cute engines and good runners, but at the time, I was
selling engines off to raise a little extra cash, working to buy
another engine, because sometimes the engines you want get spendy.”
Four or five years later he realized he should have kept the
Associated engines. “But when you’re in the hunt, you have to part
with something to pick up another one.”

Anatomy of New Hollands

Though Robert didn’t really intend to get heavily into New
Holland engines, it just kind of happened. “The New Holland is a
neat-looking engine that appeals to me, and I always liked the
unique look of the 1-1/2 HP New Holland engine because it has the
single flywheel, with either a high base or a low base. I always
liked that unusual-shaped hopper.”

Then he ran into a 2 HP for sale that he figured he should have,
followed by a friend who asked if he was interested in a 5 HP New
Holland, and when Robert heard how well it ran, he bought it. Then
a friend got divorced and had to sell some engines, one of them a
1/2 HP New Holland. And so it went, so now he’s only two short of a
complete set, missing the 4 HP and the 3 HP. “The 3 HP is very hard
to find because it was made very early, very few were made, and
then the company changed and went to a 4 HP.”

New Life

Robert says he has so many engines in different states of repair
and restoration that he wonders if he’ll ever get them finished.
“They need to be gone through and rebuilt and fixed up. Some do
run, but they need to be bored and have new rings put in. Some I’ve
run with a temporary fuel tank just to see how they work. Then
there are some lying around here in pieces, like a 1/2 HP inverted
Elgin, which was running when the governor let go on it.”

One of the most challenging parts of restoring engines, Robert
says, is when you have to make your own parts, springs in
particular. “Winding my own springs is challenging,” he says.
Sometimes it takes six, eight or even ten painful, time-consuming
windings to get it just right. It requires creating a mandrel with
grooves in it around which the wire will be wound. “I usually do
that by hand, turning the chuck under the lathe slowly to wind the
wire around it I always go more than you want, and when you release
the spring it actually grows because it was been wound so tight. If
you want a 1/2-inch inside diameter spring, you probably have to
have the mandrel turned down to a 1/4-inch or 3/8-inch, depending
on what diameter piano wire you use. You can’t just go to the
hardware store and buy this spring,” he says.

The Show’s The Thing

One of Robert’s joys is showing his engines, simply because it’s
fun and he meets so many people. “I like to visit with people. They
ask a lot of questions, so it’s fun to enlighten them when you
can.” Older folks come up misty-eyed and say they remember they had
a certain engine on their farm when they were growing up. In fact,
Robert says that’s how he’s gotten tips on where some engines are.
“Somebody I’ve been talking with will say, ‘You know, dad had one
just like that. I think it’s still in the grove behind the house,
or maybe it’s in the milk house because that’s where we threw
everything after we quit milking.'” In fact, Robert has a
non-collector cousin who has six engines squirreled away in an old
granary, but isn’t ready to part with them.

Robert gets all kinds of reactions from the general public about
his engines. “The biggest thing they say is, ‘It doesn’t fire all
the time. How come it just sits there for a while, then goes
“poof,” and then there’s no more noise?’ They want to know why and
how come and how does it do that, so I get to explain how a
hit-and-miss engine works.” To show how the engine has to fire more
often when it’s overcoming a load, Robert presses on the flywheel
to provide some resistance.

So people can get a better idea of how the engines really work,
Robert will shut them off and how all the mechanisms works so they
can understand why and how it operates, including things like “why
there is only one push rod and one rocker arm – because the intake
is atmospheric. Sometimes I get in discussions with
engineering-type guys who really understand things, and once they
ask a question and I answer it, they immediately understand what’s
going on.” But for most spectators, it’s still a learning process
about farm gas engines.

Today, Robert stores many of his engines in the cedar-lined
engine house on the Little Log House grounds near Hastings, Minn.
“A few friends and I used to show our engines at the Hastings
Riverbend Auto Club Show, set off from the car show. One time a
friend I grew up with, Steve Bauer, said he had the perfect place
to have a threshing show out in the country.” He held the event as
an appreciation for farmers who patronize his John Deere
dealership. With the engines out in that field, so many people came
that bathroom lines were backed up for half an hour. From that, the
rest of the area was built up, until today there is a building for
engines among the many other buildings on the property.

“I’ve bought and sold hundreds of gas engines to refine my
collection into one with unusual pieces. I like them because there
probably weren’t many made, sometimes because they probably weren’t
a very good engine, unlike McCormick-Deering, John Deere, Stover or
Fairbanks-Morse, all of who built hundreds of thousands of each of
their engines.” He notes that none of the companies that made odd
or unusual engines sought to copy other engines, so they have a
different look to them.

“To the general public, our collection of farm engines is just a
barn full of noisy engines. We collectors don’t see it that way at
all,” he laughs.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of
several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact Bill at:
Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; e-mail:

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Preserving the History of Internal Combustion Engines