Iowa collector focuses on engines that worked around patent restrictions.
Give Travis Benner your old, your odd, your unrestored antique gas engines that yearn to run again — and they will. The Blue Grass, Iowa, elementary school teacher’s growing collection is full of rare engines that show the innovation that drove manufacturers to come up with new features to skirt existing patents.
The 46-year-old recently added several of these weary engines to his collection, and the engines also happen to be well-traveled: His 1928 7 HP Blackstone engine began life in the factory of Blackstone & Co. Ltd. of Stamford, England. It was then installed in a distillery in Belfast, Ireland, and was imported to Nebraska before finally finding its new home with Travis.
The 1906 3-1/2 HP Hagan Reliable engine that just joined the collection, built by Hagan Gas Engine & Mfg. Co., Winchester, Kentucky, ran a line shaft in a machine shop in Florida, came back to Kentucky, immigrated to Canada, traveled to Pennsylvania and finally to Travis’ collection in Iowa.
Travis grew up on a farm where he was always interested in mechanical things, and the women in his life have had a noticeable influence on his engine collecting. “On the farm I was forced to be handy and fix things,” he says. “I grew up with old tractors and equipment that would be used regularly, and we had to keep our equipment going, so I learned to appreciate vintage and older mechanical things.”
After getting married, Travis expanded on his interest in historical things by attending farm shows, where he enjoyed seeing how farming has changed over the years. “To me, there’s an elegance to these older machines,” he says. “I appreciate the styles of the designs and see the art that was created. I learned to appreciate how manufacturers sought to design new ways to get around the different patents and get the same job done.”
Travis’ wife’s grandfather had small engines that were sold when he died. One was a 1930 Fairbanks-Morse Model ZD. To Travis’ surprise, his mother-in-law, Kay, bought the ZD back and gave it to Travis as a Christmas gift. “That was my first engine and I still have it,” he says. “I am so very grateful that she recognized my interest in this old iron.”
After that, he realized how fun it was to tinker and run his own engine, and it spiked his interest in having more. He started saving to buy engines, but his space was limited so he had to be picky. So he waited and sought out engines that were more unique and mechanically interesting, looking particularly for engines with odd features.
Because of its mechanical oddities, Travis thought a Hagan engine would be right at home in his shed. Finding one for sale was a challenge, but he eventually learned of an available Hagan. “I never thought I’d have a chance at that engine,” he says, “but in early 2013 I made the deal and went and picked up the engine at the Coolspring, Pennsylvania, show.”
Norm Parrish, an earlier owner, had mounted the engine to a drop frame cart similar to one offered by Hagan. The next owner, Wib Meyer, put the engine on a smaller cart, which used less room and was easier to transport.
Travis’ wife, Terri, heard about the man who had bought the drop frame cart from Wib. “She anticipated my desire to put the engine back on that drop frame cart and bought the cart without me knowing.” Travis says, “I was floored, stunned and so pleased that she had done that. She knew it was my intent to make the machine look like a correct period-piece.”
Travis cut down the riveted cooling tank, mounted the battery box, changed brackets for the gas tank, switched out the plumbing to make it look old, and used old true dimensional wood cut on a large sawmill so the wide saw blade pattern was visible.
Travis learned to raise the gas tank a couple of inches with two small wooden boards underneath so the brass chain that carries fuel for the engine would more easily supply the right amount of fuel. Otherwise, the engine didn’t run as well because the fuel level in the cast housing dropped.
Then Travis mounted it on the drop cart correctly — and fairly easily, as all the bolt holes lined up with the cart that it had sat on before. Within a week of being brought home, the Hagan Reliable was ready to be taken to shows.
Travis was attracted to the 1906 Type B 3-1/2 HP Hagan Reliable engine because of its design; it had been made to circumvent the patents of the period. “It has unique mechanical features that are really odd so they wouldn’t have to pay patent royalties,” he says.
One of these features is a cross shaft with two cam lobes running under the crankshaft. As the cam turns, driven by a gear meshed to the crankshaft, the lobes drive a paired rocker arm back and forth, which rocks a shaft under the engine connected to a rocker arm at the front operating the intake and exhaust valves. It’s an odd and unique design, Travis says.
“Another unique feature is that three bolts anchor the igniter to the front of the cylinder instead of two as with most other engine manufacturers,” Travis says. “Another machined, triple-bolted casting mounted directly on top of the front of the cylinder allows access for the machining and installation of the valves.”
According to Travis, the most unique feature on the Hagan is the brass chain that carries gasoline up and into an intake housing along the front of the engine. This chain dips into the fuel held inside a casting at the level of fuel in the fuel tank. Air sucked past the chain carries fuel into the engine. Adjustments to the intake housing allow the air flow to be controlled. Priming the chain and housing with the priming cup often helps start the engine.
Another unique mechanical feature of Hagan engines is the 45 degree angle keyway cut. “It would seem more difficult to cut the keyways in the crankshaft, flywheels and pulley on that angle instead of the traditional ‘straight’ broached fashion, but that is what Hagan did,” Travis explains. “I am not aware of any other engine manufacturer who cut their keyways like Hagan. Even today, keyways are broached ‘straight’ or perpendicular to the axis of the round shaft.”
The machine is headless, Travis says, making it trickier to machine as they were building it.
Travis’ Hagan Reliable, serial no. 428, is only one of 10 of this size known to exist. Approximately 20 Hagans of various other sizes are also around; 14 Hagans are in one man’s collection.
Hagans used a letter designation for their horsepower, Travis says. Size A was rated 2 HP, B at 3-1/2, C at 6, D at 9 (later at 10), E at 14 and F at 25. Hagan also built 2-, 3- and 4-cylinder engines, multiple cylinders identical to the single cylinder, mounted on a common base. Three 2-cylinder Hagans are known to exist: a DD (20 HP), an EE (30 HP) and an FF (50 HP).
Hagan engines are throttle-governed. “They can be made to run slow and steady,” Travis says. “My Hagan has a leathered-covered friction heel on one side of the engine that drives the water pump on the other side. The water delivered to the cooling tank is diffused by a drilled ‘shower head’ casting to help with heat dissipation.”
Travis’ Hagan originally ran a line shaft in a machine shop in Florida, and when the shop closed it sat outside for a long while.
Carol Adams rescued the Reliable, which was sold to Doug Sather, who did some restoration. Paul Cox and Norm Parrish from Kentucky bought it next, with Norm continuing the restoration. He unstuck the engine and made patterns for the water diffuser above the cooling tank, a water pump and the bracket for the friction mag. Norm also installed the engine onto the drop frame cart.
The Hagan Co. offered a whiskey barrel or a more expensive riveted tank for cooling water on their drop frame cart. That cart used cut channel bolted to metal backing plates, but none of this style are known to exist. The Economy-style drop frame cart is very similar and was chosen as it was close to the original design.
After Norm completed the restoration, the engine was sold to Wib Meyer in Canada. It became the feature engine for the 2012 Tri-State Gas Engine & Tractor Assn. Show in Portland, Indiana. After that, the Hagan Reliable was traded to a collector in Pennsylvania. That’s how Travis got the engine.
The flywheel face is 2-3/8 inches with a 31-inch diameter. It has a 5-inch bore and 6-inch stroke. It is igniter-fired with a battery and coil, but the engine can be run using the friction magneto, which is driven off one flywheel.
Because Travis knows the serial number of his circa 1928 7 HP Blackstone engine — 167002 — he was able to find out some history of the engine from an Englishman. “Fortunately, the Blackstone records have been preserved,” Travis says, “so if you know the serial number, the year it was made and facts about that engine are still available.”
The engine was commissioned by a distiller in Belfast, Ireland, that used a waterwheel to power their equipment and wanted to modernize. They commissioned an engineering firm from Ballyroney, County Down, Ireland, to install an engine as a backup. Blackstone had just come out with their spring-injection engine but offered to build an earlier style engine from existing parts for less money.
After the engine was installed, the water level didn’t fluctuate as much as had been feared, so the engine was hardly ever used — it would periodically be started and run for 10 minutes. Each month an engineer verified that the engine was still in good working order.
Eventually, the distillery went out of business, and the Blackstone got imported to Nebraska where, after many years, a collector offered it for sale. Travis found out about it, called and made a deal to purchase the Blackstone.
The Blackstone came on a cart that was barely sufficient to get the engine around. Travis searched for a proper English cart to make the Blackstone look period-correct, as well as safer to haul to shows. Later, he got the correct Blackstone muffler pot and added it to the cart. Meanwhile, he made up a riveted copper cooling tank but other than that, Travis says, “it was in great condition mechanically, really fantastic shape.”
Travis took it to shows and learned about it in the process. “There is a lot of click and clack to the engine,” he says. “There’s a gate valve right before the hot bulb chamber that opens to allow the compressed fresh air charge to mix with the kerosene vapor for ignition. The Blackstone also has a mechanical air intake and exhaust along with an eccentric-driven fuel pump.”
The Blackstone’s flywheel face is 3-5/8 inches with a 36-1/4-inch diameter. Bore and stroke are 6-1/8 by 10 inches, and it runs on kerosene with a hot bulb ignition. It has a governor on the end of the sideshaft, which allows a cam to push and deliver more fuel. The hit-and-miss engine has a balanced, weighted crankshaft and runs very quiet with the large pot muffler. Travis says you can hardly hear it hit.
Among Travis’ other engines, he also has a 3-1/2 HP McVicker of undetermined age. He had been trying to find one because of their unique mechanical design and a friend finally put him in touch with another collector in Indiana. “But he didn’t want to sell it,” Travis says. “I was patiently persistent, and he finally agreed to sell it to me. I was told it ran a machine shop or wood shop line shaft, but I can’t be completely certain.”
Made by Alma Mfg. Co., Alma, Michigan, the McVicker wasn’t running well when Travis bought it. The igniter would intermittently short out, so he fixed it up and got it to run.
“It’s odd how [Alma] got around patents,” Travis says. “They came up with an unusual design for opening up the exhaust valve. It’s a gearless engine that has two ports drilled through the cylinder.” He goes on to explain that as the fuel charge is ignited by the piston trip igniter the piston is driven back. Close to the end of the throw, one of the two ports in the cylinder is exposed, allowing part of the expanding charge to escape and drive a second, smaller piston down, mechanically moving a lever arm that operates the exhaust valve. The main engine piston drives forward, expelling the burned charge. When the exhaust is driven out, a milled passageway along the skirt of the piston lines up with the remaining spent exhaust that drove the smaller piston, allowing it to escape out the second port through the side of the cylinder. This is piped to the exhaust and on to the muffler.
Travis adds that the McVicker carries serial no. 3034, with flywheels 3-1/8 inches in width and 26-1/4 inches diameter, and a bore and stroke of 5 by 6 inches. It is a piston-tripped, igniter-fired engine with an eccentric driven fuel pump.
Travis says his focus is on trying to “unrestore” engines and make them look as original as possible. “Anything to make them look authentic and preserve any original paint is what I try to do,” he says. “I also really enjoy taking different engines to the shows I attend. Every year I keep track of what engine I take to each show and try to bring something different next time for the guys who are regulars.”
Travis says nothing is more gratifying than completing a restoration or fixing a mechanical issue to make a piece of history run again. “There is quiet satisfaction to finding out what is wrong with an engine and fixing it,” he says, “then displaying at shows and sharing these mechanical marvels with others. There is so much from the past to appreciate.”
And, of course, the people. “Some of the finest people anywhere are displayed next to you at a show and are always willing to lend a hand and help someone out,” Travis says. “I hope to be able to do the same for others.”
Travis collects and restores engines to appreciate the history behind them, and the innovation that drove many manufacturers to come up with new features. “There is beauty and style in so many of the designs,” he says. “Engines are really art in a mechanical form.”Contact Bill Vossler at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369 • email@example.com