The Joys and Falls of Powell Engine Power

Josephine Robert’s nephew acquires a Powell engine – along with all of its quirks.

engine

The Powell engine was a heavily built and rather over-engineered engine with a big cylinder head and large exhaust valve (claimed at the time to increase efficiency).

Photo by Josephine Roberts

Content Tools

Readers of previous Farm Collector articles might recall meeting my nephew. Damian Roberts is a stationary engine enthusiast and owner of two Lister stationary engines previously featured in Farm Collector. He’s now bought a far more rare engine: a Powell.

Any self-respecting stationary engine enthusiast living in Wales will have heard of Powell engines, as Powell was one of only two manufacturers in Wales ever to produce an engine. Apart from Powell, the only other Welsh company producing engines was Williams of Rhuddlan, and their engines are more rare than hen’s teeth. Given that Powell didn’t produce engines in huge numbers, engines from that manufacturer are also scarce today.

It’s often the case that the rare and collectable machines are those that were never particularly good in the first place and weren’t produced in vast numbers. The Powell engine is no exception. Although Damian has wanted a Powell since he first found out about them, he is the first to admit that they aren’t the best.

“They have a reputation for being really cumbersome and very sensitive to adjust correctly,” he says, “and there are some common faults that really put people off. So whilst the engine attracts a lot of attention at shows, it seems that not every collector wants to actually own one!”

Roots of iron dating to the 1700s

The roots of Powell Bros. go right back to 1784, when a Mr. Richard Jones set up an ironmongery business at No. 6 Town Hill, Wrexham, North Wales. The business was then passed on to his son, John Jones, and then to John Jones’ nephew, Evan Powell. Then, in the 1870s, two sons of Evan Powell, namely John Evan Powell and Robert Jones Powell, formed Powell Bros. Ltd. and began producing agricultural equipment with the help of their sister, Mary Powell, who acted as the company secretary.

The brothers expanded into a site near the Great Western Railway station, which then became known as the Cambrian Works and became Wrexham’s most successful foundry. Adverts in 1879 state that the company was selling chaff cutters, root pulpers, mowers, horse gears and oil cake mills.

The item that gave Powell Bros. their real fame was their potato digger. In 1887, this horse-drawn digger underwent trials at Stephen Fairburn’s farm in Gosford and was awarded first prize. The prize was £20, not a huge sum of money, but all the same it was an award, and that gave Powell greater recognition. The potato digger became known as the “Newcastle Digger” and an example in excellent condition can be seen at the Bersham Museum in Wrexham.

Undone by motorcycles

By the start of World War I, Powell decided to produce an oil engine, with the idea of providing power for all of the barn machinery that the company was selling. During the Great War, however, the company was required to produce munitions, which meant that their plans for producing an oil engine had to be shelved until the conflict was over.

In 1918, the Powell oil engine went on the market, and a range of engines varying from 2.5 hp to 10 hp was sold to power farm machines, elevators, timber saws, water pumps and even sausage makers, and of course to generate electricity. Examples of Powell engines are occasionally seen in shows and rallies in the U.K., but they are by no means a commonplace sight.

As part of their expansion program, the ambitious Powell brothers also started to produce motorcycles during the 1920s. However, they failed to compete with the larger names, and the company went into receivership in 1927.

What went wrong?

So what exactly was wrong with the Powell engine? Was it a poor product, or was its lack of success simply down to bad timing or poor marketing on the part of the company?

It seems that the Powells were very successful when it came to producing barn machinery and agricultural equipment, but perhaps engines were a little out of their comfort zone. Some authorities suggest that fewer than 4,000 Powell engines were built, but rumours exist to suggest that many of their engines were returned to the company due to faults and then melted down and re-built to make more engines. So it might be the case that nowhere near that number were actually in existence.

When researching small and long-lost companies like Powell, it is very difficult to find much information relating to individual products and production numbers. Often much of the information is based on rumour or words passed down from people who once worked there, but who are no longer alive. Stories like these can’t be corroborated and aren’t always accurate.

The products built by these lost companies exist in the hands of just a few keen collectors, and had it not been for those enthusiasts, then little would exist to say that the company ever existed. But as it is, I think most stationary engine collectors would agree that Powell engines are a bit – um, how do I put it politely? – quirky.

Trouble substantiating claims

One rumour about Powell engines is that the company was reprimanded for producing engines that weren’t of the horsepower they were marketed as being. For instance, if one farmer owned a 4 hp engine and found it weak, he would talk to a neighboring farmer who also owned a 4 hp engine who found his quite powerful. They would compare notes and eventually an independent standards inspection was demanded.

It is suggested that Trading Standards inspectors found that the company’s engines varied in power, despite what was written on the casing, and from then on, in the interests of honesty, the company was required to test each individual engine’s horsepower and rate it accordingly.

This could be the reason that so many differently rated engines exist. One can’t be sure whether this is actually true or not, as stories spread so easily, regardless of whether they are true, but this is not the only allegation that is made about the inadequacy of Powell engines.

Keeping a relic original

Whilst collectors of unusual stationary engines are justifiably proud to own one of these unusual Welsh-built engines, most will also tell you that they are rather temperamental engines to run. It would be fair to say that they are a touch over-engineered, in that they are a heavy and cumbersome engine, but over engineering isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course.

There are far worse faults to have, and Powell engines do seem to have some of those, too. For instance, the carburetor is quite crudely made. Some people adapt their Powell engines by fitting a Lister D carburetor. Damian prefers to keep his Powell engine original, where possible, so he hasn’t done this. Besides, as he explains, “If you do go down the route of adding a Lister D carb, you have to then raise the fuel tank above the level of the carb in order to allow it to gravity feed, and I would rather not adapt the engine unless I absolutely have to.”

There’s a lot to be said for keeping a machine original, even if it does take a bit of work to get it running correctly. When Damian bought the engine, it was misbehaving, and given there are several reasons as to why an engine like this might not run correctly, it was a slow process of elimination to find the exact problem.

“Initially,” he says, “I didn’t know whether to alter the fuel mixture, whether to alter the throttle position, or whether to alter the advance and retard on the magneto.” And of course it’s no good trying all three options at once!

Loud and clear

The Powell engine takes a while to really warm up, and given that it is extremely loud, Damian can’t usually get away with running it in the street where he lives, so opportunities to tinker with the engine have been limited, and it took some time to sort out the teething troubles. Eventually Damian realised that by retarding the timing, he could improve matters, and things improved again when he succeeded in getting the governor working properly.

It seems that the previous owner (and possibly the owner before him, too!) had experienced difficulties, and steps that had once been taken in a bid to improve the running of the engine were now confusing the matter. An incorrect spring had been fitted into the flyball governor, which meant that the governor was unable to shut the throttle down.

It was a slow and frustrating process for Damian, trying to get to the bottom of the problems. It meant working through each option individually, and that could take a few hours at a time, due to the need to give the engine a really good length of time to warm up and settle into a rhythm before starting to make adjustments and observations.

During this period of trial and error, Damian brought the engine up to my house on a trailer behind his old Land Rover as he wanted somewhere to run it for a good few hours without sending his neighbors insane. I’ve heard plenty of stationary engines and have never found the noise to be an issue. But the Powell really does have an extremely loud beat. It’s one of those engines that would work well as the percussion section for a band, the like of which we sometimes see on YouTube with a bunch of chaps with guitars, fiddles and banjos standing alongside a loud and rhythmic tractor. The only problem was that the Powell wasn’t very rhythmic, but what it lacked in rhythm it certainly made up for in noise.

Fussy about the formula

Even today, when Damian has got the Powell running a whole lot better, it is still high maintenance compared to other engines. “You can’t leave this engine alone for a minute until it warms up,” he says. “There are too many adjustments to make. But when once it’s hot and settled into its load, it will run steadily all day.”

Damian has found a fuel mixture that works well for the Powell. Unlike some old engines, the Powell is quite fussy on fuel. The engine has to fire up on petrol, and then once it is warm, after about 15 or 20 minutes, it can be turned over to run on a paraffin-type fuel. The exact type of paraffin used in the days of Powell engines isn’t easily available today, so people tend to make up their own versions, often varying their recipes slightly. One commonly accepted recipe that seems to work is 2 gallons of kerosene (also known as central heating oil) mixed with 1 liter of petrol.

Ultimately, running a Powell engine is not an exact science. There is science involved, but at the same time one had to really know the quirks of these engines. Damian knows a collector with a Powell engine that refuses to run on anything but petrol. “That makes it expensive to run,” he says.

A slightly ominous guarantee

Damian is lucky to have a copy of the original handbook for his Powell engine. Inside, the company’s guarantee states that the engine is of the horsepower rated on the engine, and that if, after a month, you have any problems with it, that you must write to the company and an expert will come out to see it and, if necessary, arrange for its return. One wonders how many people did experience problems and return their engines.

Damian’s Powell was built in 1922 and is rated 4-1/2 hp with an rpm of 500. The serial number is simple to understand. It is 2213, with the 22 relating to the year and the 13 being the production line number for that year. It was sold new to a farm in Pwllheli, North Wales, where it worked grinding cereals, and chopping straw and turnips for cattle feed. It is thought to have worked for about an hour a day, but never on a Sunday, as Sundays were when the owner, Mr. Jones, went to chapel.

In 1970, vintage machinery enthusiast Gwynfor Williams bought the engine and restored it. Damian bought it from Gwynfor and now uses it to power a generator. Damian and his partner, Rosie, take the engine to shows throughout Wales and northwest England. These days Damian likes the funny little ways of the Powell engine, and it’s always fascinating to meet another Powell engine owner to compare notes with, as so few exist, but also because most other owners also have their tales to tell of their own issues with the running of Powell engines! FC


Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at pheenie@talktalk.net.