1909 Famous Vertical Engine

A 1909 Famous vertical engine is the heart of an Indiana collection


| March 2009



Jim Smith and his 1909 IHC Famous engine

Jim Smith with his 1909 3 hp International Harvester Co. Famous vertical gas engine, the oldest in his collection.

When he got a chance to buy a very fine original engine, Jim Smith stepped up to the plate.

“I swapped four engines and an original McCormick-Deering sign for this,” he says. Four years later, the Fort Wayne, Ind., man has no regrets – and who would, owning a 1909 Famous 3 hp vertical in pristine condition?

The oldest piece in Jim’s collection, the Famous (manufactured by International Harvester Co.) once ran a line shaft in a woodworking shop. Remarkably, nothing has been done to it since it came off the factory floor. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with it and nothing has ever been done to it,” Jim says. “I think this is one of the nicest original 3 hp Famous engines around.” Even the piping is original: Most old engines’ gas lines have to be replaced, but the Famous has its original lines, fuel pump and water pump.

In an effort to preserve the engine’s fine condition, Jim treats it with kid gloves. “The 3 hp Famous is a 500 rpm hit-and-miss igniter engine,” he says, “but I run it at about 150 rpm.” The engine has a drip oiler, and an oil bath and an oil slinger kick up a little oil on the cylinder walls. Crankcase oil levels are monitored by a side sight glass. Main bearings are lubricated by a grease cup; an oil can is used for anything else that needs lubrication.

Oil can ordeal

An oil can almost became a permanent fixture of the Famous. While running it one day, Jim noticed a wheel behind the flywheel he’d neglected to oil. Rather than stop the engine, he determined that the engine’s 20-second cycle would allow a quick in-and-out jab with the oil can. “I tried it a couple of times but the oil can did not oil so I hit the plunger again,” he says. “Just then the engine fired. It grabbed the spout and took the can right into the engine behind the flywheel! I had a terrible time getting it back out, all because I did not want to shut the engine off.”

The Famous igniter consists of two metal plates inside the cylinder that open up like points. The battery and coil inside the battery box pass enough current through a wire to cause a spark when the plates open, firing the engine for a power stroke. Jim’s engine has the original carburetor. Fuel is pumped by a constant flow pump into the carburetor, which has no float, but rather something like an interior dam that the fuel flows over and then back to the return pipe and from there to the fuel tank. Both the intake and return fuel lines still have original brass check balls that prevent the fuel from flowing backward. Fuel is consumed only when the engine hits. Inside the carburetor is a venturi with a needle valve. On the intake stroke a vacuum is created and a little fuel is sucked into the cylinder, which is then ignited by the spark, and the engine fires.

Time for a tank upgrade

At the 100-year mark, the engine was due for a new fuel tank. “The tank just had too many holes to fix,” Jim says. “This one has one of the original extras called a gas saver. As it ran on the intake stroke, it would suck the intake valve in, but on the rest of the strokes this lever comes over and locks the intake valve up so it can’t pull in any more gasoline on other parts of the stroke. These were very rare.”

The governor kicks a wheel that brings an arm up to a cam and then the governor pulls out and an arm goes back. The engine freewheels and runs on the inertia. When the speed slows enough, the governor kicks out on the next few revolutions. Then the valve can work again and the engine can fire. The engine’s flywheel is 27 inches in diameter; the belt pulley is 9 inches.

The reservoir on the screen-cooled Famous is filled with antifreeze. A pump moves the fluid up into the engine. As it comes back through the return pipe, a plate diverts it over the screen, causing heat loss. The fluid then drains back into the reservoir.

Can’t stop with just one

Jim started collecting engines about 19 years ago. As he and his dad closed the deal on a 3 hp John Deere engine, a bystander shook his head and said, “You shouldn’t have bought that.” “We thought maybe we had paid too much,” Jim recalls, “but he said, ‘No, you got a good price. The problem is that you can’t have just one.’” He was right. Before long, Jim and his dad had about 20 engines.

Later acquisitions included an International 3 hp engine and a 1924 Economy originally sold by Sears, Roebuck & Co. Jim bought the International at an auction. The engine had been abandoned near a barn downspout and was mostly submerged in mud. “They just dug it out and sold it right there,” Jim says. He bored and re-ringed the engine and replaced parts, and the International runs well now.