Few and far between

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Jason and RobertSIMAR tiller

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Remember in the movie Jurassic Park when a group of particularly small and nasty-tempered dinosaurs with extra-sharp claws, called velociraptors, were brought back from extinction? The formerly dead dinosaurs run amok, terrifying all humans they encounter.

In the garden tractor world, collectors Jason Andrews of Blanchester, Ohio, and Robert Urich of Lewisbery, Pa., found their own version of the velociraptor: the SIMAR walk-behind rototiller. Their SIMARs are old enough, sturdy enough, and have tines strong and sharp enough to almost qualify as those terrible lizards.

'When I start these up at shows, they are loud,' Jason says. 'You have to stand about 10 feet away from them or it'll hurt your ears. I'm not kidding. They sound like a Harley tacked out in first gear.' The roar even prompted officials at one show to ask Jason to shut off his machine during a special event.

'Most people's reaction is, 'What are these?',' he says. 'Their eyes get really big. Their mouths drop. They call it a 'widow maker' and walk off.'

Among the early brands of earth-tilling machines that eventually became 'Rototillers,' the SIMAR was first made by the SIMAR Co. in 1918 in Geneva, Switzerland. It was only distributed from 1932 to 1939 in the United States, so not many are available to collect in this country, experts say.

Back home in Ohio, Jason keeps two SIMAR rototillers. He acquired his first tiller, the larger of the two, from his grandmother s neighbor who used it as a lawn ornament. The machine's work history is not known, but Jason says it was in pretty good condition when he bought it. 'The motor was not stuck, and it had good compression. The carburetor was no good, though. When I bought it, the carburetor was sitting in the garage of my grandma's neighbor and was broken,' he explains.

To try to get it running again, Jason took the carburetor apart, and when he did, he noticed it looked just like a motorcycle carburetor. 'Everything was there when I fixed it, but it had to have good seals put in because it was leaking.' No replacement gaskets were available, so Jason purchased some blue silicone and smeared it on the outside of the jug to make a seal. The trick worked, and the machine started right up.

Both SIMARs that Jason owns have only one forward speed, but later models have two forward speeds and one reverse. The Swiss brand is much more powerful than its smaller American cousins now made by the Troy-Bilt Co., the current name of the old Rototiller firm. In fact, Jason says, the grapefruit-sized cylinders on his big SIMAR are so powerful that he has yet to find someone strong enough to hold the machine in place after it is set in gear. Also, the rear-mounted, spring-loaded tines work very well. 'Since it is rear mounted, the SIMAR might dig a little deeper into the soil,' Jason explains. 'And the spring-loaded tines work well compared to today's mostly front-end-mounted tines that are usually stationary.'

Robert says he has sold and repaired many different brands of lawn mowers, tractors and earth tillers, having been involved in the lawn machinery repair business for most of his life. Yet, he'd never heard of a SIMAR until a chance encounter with four years ago at the Fulton County Foliage Festival in Pennsylvania. 'The guy saw that I had some rototillers out on display, so he came up to me and told me about a big rototiller that he had just sitting on his property,' Robert recalls. 'He said he didn't know what brand it was, but it had big, metal wheels and was rear mounted. That had me wondering what kind it was, so I told him I'd take a look. Turns out the guy lived only 20 miles away, and he let me have it not knowing what he was giving away.'

Despite his experience, Robert didn't know initially what kind it was either. 'I haven't ever seen any of these at a tractor and engine show, ever,' Robert says. 'It was just luck that I found out about this one.'

When Robert had the tiller cleaned up, he found a brass nameplate on it, which told him it was a SIMAR model C30, patent no. 13458. A friend, Robert Antram, researched the information, and discovered the tiller was rare.

It also was in bad shape, having set outside for a couple years. The bearings were rusted through on the crankshaft, and the teeth on the bull gear were deteriorated. The cleats on the wheels were heavily pitted, the pistons were frozen and the covering over the tines 'looked like a washboard,' Robert says.

He rebuilt the teeth on the bull gear, sandblasted and primed the wheels and then filled the remaining holes in them with automotive body filler to get a smooth finish. He soaked the pistons in kerosene and penetrating oil to loosen them. He bought new crankshaft bearings and put in new rings that he 'borrowed' from an old Wheel Horse garden tractor, a brand he used to sell.

The main dents in the washboarded tine cover were smoothed out with a hammer and the smaller dents with auto-body fender tools. After the body and engine work was completed, the SIMAR was painted green with red trim.

Robert says one thing about restoring old equipment is that one needs as much time as patience to finish a project. After he restored his SIMAR, he took it to several shows in Pennsylvania and received a number of compliments. 'Nobody had ever seen anything like it because it was imported from Switzerland,' Robert says. 'People would go out of their way to look at it.'

And it's not just an oddity either, Robert explains. 'Rear-mounted tillers don't jar you around as much as the front-mounted do. That's why the SIMAR is still better than a lot of the newer ones, if it is in good shape.'

Jason purchased his smaller SIMAR three years ago at the Ohio Valley Antique Machinery Reunion show in Georgetown, Ohio.

'I was set up next to this guy who had a SIMAR tiller. I, of course, had a bigger one, and he had a smaller one, so we got to talking. I asked him if I could buy it, and he said 'no.' The second year at the show I saw him again, so I asked him again if I could buy it. He didn't have it that year, so on the third year, I bought it.' Everything was intact and working on this second machine, which is an exact, scaled-down version of the larger one, except for one difference: a tube-like gas tank sticks up on the smaller one.

I don't know why the gas tank was made like that. Maybe it was an afterthought. Whoever designed it got done and forgot the gas tank, and then they had to go back and add it on later,' Jason says, jokingly.

The smaller SIMAR has all original parts. It's all rusted on the outside, but Jason says he can see a trace of hunter green paint under the rust and also remnants of an old decal. Rather than do complete restorations on his SIMARs, Jason has chosen to leave his machines as close to original as possible.

On Jason's larger SIMAR, the carburetor was the only thing he had to repair. The longevity of those machines is proof of their sturdy design, he adds.

Both tillers are heavy, though. The larger SIMAR weighs from 500 to 700 pounds and requires at least two people to lift it into Jason's travel trailer.

The smaller one weighs more than 300 pounds. Without the motor running, it's even more difficult to move than the bigger tiller because of its smaller wheels.

Jason and Robert both say they're sold on SIMARs, despite their bulky and cumbersome bodies. Their primary reasons are the same: SIMARs are exceptionally rare collectibles in the U.S. garden tractor and rotary tiller world. FC

-Photos courtesy of Jason and Robert unless otherwise credited. For more imformation about Jason's SIMARs, contact him at 10795 State Route 28, Blanchester, OH 45107; for information about Robert's SIMAR, contact him a 640 Alpine Road, Lewisberry, PA 17339.

Roots of the Rototiller

The SIMAR Co. traces its history to Dr. Konrad von Meyenburg of Geneva, Switzerland, who received Swiss patent no. 1018843 on Feb. 27, 1912, for a 'machine for mechanical tillage.'

Von Meyenburg described his new invention this way: 'The power of earth cutting by edge tools depending mainly upon the sharpness, section and surface of the tools and their free cutting, I make them of small section and surface, preferably self-sharpening, elastic and independent; so that each edge, also rotated mainly in a circle, may give way laterally and backwardly, like the claws of a scraping animal, and follow the way of least resistance upon a trembling or shivery curve.'

Siemens-Schuckert-Werke licensed the patent from von Meyenburg and manufactured the first rotary tillers based on that patent. The SIMAR Co. began manufacturing a similar machine in 1918. SIMAR is an acronym for Societe Industrielle de Machines Agicoles Rotatives.

By the 1920s, earth-tilling machines attracted attention in the United States. A branch of the Siemens company opened in New York City, and established itself as the Rototiller Co. The firm began importing and distributing the machines, now called rototillers, under the leadership of C.W. Kelsey.

The SIMAR line of tillers was added to the Rototiller line in 1932, officially merging the two formerly independent companies.

The European tillers were high-quality, well-built machines but designed for the long-cultivated farmlands of Europe and not for the stony U.S. soil. Changes were made to the tiller's design, making the tines more durable and the machines smaller and less expensive overall. The result was the All-American Rototiller, introduced in 1934, with production beginning in 1937 at Troy, N.Y.

Almost seven decades later, the Rototiller Co. has become the Troy-Bilt Co., and many similar firms have produced countless models of rotary tillers, too, and all trace their heritage to those first SIMARs.