Delco-Light: More Than Lights

Delco-Light systems had broad application in rural areas.

| July 2013

I was amazed when I found Sam Moore’s piece on Delco-Light 32-volt systems (Farm Collector, January 2013), and doubly amazed to find a complementary piece by Jerry Friesner in the March 2013 issue. These systems were very popular in rural areas in times past, but it seems very few collectors today (even us old codgers) have even heard of them or are interested.

I grew up in the boondocks of western Canada where “real power” did not exist until the late 1950s and into the ’60s. My family was slightly better off than many, so I grew up in the 1940s-’50s on a farm with a 32-volt system while my classmates used kerosene lamps.        

The market leader

While Delco (Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co.) built by far the most popular machine, my family had a Power Chief: a water-cooled, 1,000-watt, 1-cycle unit with 16 glass cells to make a battery of 32 volts (Delco units were mostly air-cooled). I remember the engine/generator unit as being quite problematic and we frequently reverted temporarily to kerosene.

There were many other manufacturers as well, but I’ve read that Delco consistently held 50 percent or more of the market. General Motors bought the company in 1916. Between 1916 and 1947, Delco produced 80-90 different models. The Model 850 was very popular and was produced during the entire period with only minor changes.  

Rebuilt in red

Typically all Delco-Lights were black, but occasionally you might see a dark red one. Red was used when production resumed after World War II in 1946-’47 (all Delco-Light production ceased in 1947). Delco maintained a “factory rebuild” program for some years, and rebuilds in 1946-’47 were also painted red. I have 1917 and 1919 models, each a similar shade of red but a little cleaning soon reveals a black undercoat. The implication is that, despite their age, they were back at the factory during postwar years.

I do not know how long the rebuild program lasted, but a few years ago I met a man who had worked for a Canadian electrical supplier that still sold Delco into the 1960s. He claimed Delco had a western Canadian distributor in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where his Edmonton dealership got its product. He also thought this distributor was probably Delco’s last outlet in Canada and the U.S. Both of my red ones had stickers on them from that distributor (EECOL-Electric Equipment Co. Ltd.). These post-1947 models must have been largely rebuilt units or new old stock.