BEFORE & AFTER

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Western engine

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RESTORATION OF THE MONTH

A restorer and collector learns from an old Western

Robert Critz says that, in restoring his 94-year-old, 25 hp Western engine, he learned how to be mechanically inclined.

For some people, this might not be much of a statement. We might expect a steep learning curve for those who've never wallowed in the innards of engines. Robert, however, has been working on vintage engines since he was 12. The Western engine just offered him some new challenges.

'It's just engineered differently than other engines I've worked on,' Robert says. 'Everything's mechanical and it's really critical on timing. If the timing isn't just right, it isn't going to run. It's its own animal.'

Robert, an Escondido, Calif., resident, wanted to restore the Western because of his affinity for California-produced engines. Western engines, made in Los Angeles, gained popularity in the early 1900s and were used mostly for water pumping in basins and mines. Many of the old Westerns found today are still discovered in, and rescued from, the mines where they worked for years. Others are found abandoned in barns. Robert didn't have put on his detective hat to search out-of-the-way places for his engine, but did have to use his powers of persuasion.

'A friend of mine got the engine in a trade,' he remembers, 'but he didn't want to restore it. It was already disassembled and partway restored, though, and I told him I wanted to finish it.'

Years went by before Robert got the call from his friend asking him if he wanted to buy the engine. In July 1999, he picked it up and began the restoration process that would take him 11 months to complete.

'Everything was already in pretty good shape,' Robert says. 'I had to make the ignitor trip and there were some parts I had to machine. Everything had to be tweaked and bent just right.'

Robert says that his desire to make the engine just like it would have been as it left the factory floor made the job even more difficult. 'The hardest part of the whole restoration was trying to find pictures of the pinstriping,' he says.

He can say that, though, because he's skilled in machining. The 27-year-old high voltage line worker says that skill is essential. 'What helps you in this hobby is knowing how to make the parts yourself - foundry casting and machining.'

That's advice he passes on to his friends and others just entering the hobby. It's a good sign, too, he says, that more younger collectors are needing that advice. 'More and more guys my age are getting into this hobby. They're not starting out with engines like this, but they're starting out with the more common engines and working their way up.' And they're learning about the history of engines.

For a historical engine buff, the Western turned out to be some thing of a treat, due to the company's fastidious attention to its paperwork. Although the company quit making engines in 1937, focusing instead on maintenance, it still had the factory card files on nearly all of the old engines. When the company closed for good in 1980, those card files were made available to engine owners. Not only did Robert get an engine, but also that engine's maintenance history.

Robert says that he was really happy to get the Western that he did. 'It's one of the early style of Westerns,' he says, 'not the first generation, but the improvement on that first one. It's ignitor- fired and has the water pump and the fuel pump on the side of the engine. Also, it's liquid-fueled. Nearly all the later Westerns were natural gas.'

Recently, Robert and other Western collectors joined in a historical moment. Six of the engines were displayed together at the California Antique Farm Equipment Show in Tulare, Calif. 'That's the first time anything like that's happened since they left the factory,' Robert says.

Not only did they show off the engines they had already restored, but Robert and other Western enthusiasts treated attendees to a display of hands-on tinkering right there at the show. 'We said we'd help this guy get his engine running. It was kind of funny, because there got to be quite a crowd around us. Several of those guys were glad to offer their advice, too,' Robert recalls, laughing. 'I'd just smile and say that I knew what I was doing and I'd done this already.'

The engine might not be Robert's oldest (that's an 1898 Buffalo-Olin) or even his favorite (a title claimed by a 42 hp Commercial that took him ten years of 'begging and pleading and crying on the phone' to acquire), but he's definitely proud of the work put in on the engine. Looking at the pictures - and realizing that it runs as well as it looks - most would agree he has a right to be.