Challenge gas engines are a highly collectible but lesser-known product from a company best recognized for its windmills.
When you're talking farm collectibles, the Challenge name is most familiar in the context of windmills. Founded in 1868 as the Challenge Windmill & Feed Co. in Batavia, Ill., the company was long one of the largest manufacturers of windmills in the U.S., with production continuing into the 1940s.
That proud tradition also extended to gas engines: Challenge began manufacturing gas engines for farm use in about 1900, and was a leader in progressive design. Some Challenge engines (horizontal tank-cooled engines bigger than 6 hp) used a ported exhaust, with exhaust gasses exiting from the side of the cylinder instead of through the cylinder head, and the company introduced the option of Wizard magnetos on larger hourglass models, eliminating the need for batteries. The earliest Challenge engines featured both torch (hot tube) and igniter ignitions.
The Challenge engine's most distinctive feature is its uniquely shaped "hourglass" hopper. By the 1920s, though, the hourglass design had been phased out and replaced by a flattop hopper. Both styles (and a dishpan flywheel model) were seen in the featured engine display at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, in late August 2007.
Steve Barr, Downers Grove, Ill., started collecting engines in 1998 with a Nelson Bros. Little Jumbo but soon delved into the Challenge line from nearby Batavia. "Challenge is just a little different," he says. "I do like the hourglass design and the later flattop. There's a lot of variety. The earliest vertical and horizontal designs had the push drive on the opposite side, as opposed to later flattop models, where it was on the standard side."
Steve's smallest Challenge is a 1-1/2 hp gas engine; his biggest is the 8-10 hp hourglass. The big engine is some kind of hybrid. "It has the bore and stroke of an 8 hp engine, and the flywheel from a 10 hp," he says. "And the crank is in between."
Challenge engines are not always easy to find. "Sometimes it rains and pours," Steve says, "and sometimes it's dry." Challenge implements, though, are almost always harder to find than the engines. "Corn shellers and mills you don't find so often," Steve says. "Pump jacks are more common."
An avid enthusiast, Steve has started an online photo registry of Challenge engines. The site (www.oldengine.org/members/sbarr) currently features more than 100 Challenge engines, plus a variety of other makes and models.
Jim Nass Jr. had a Maytag engine as a kid, but years passed before he got another close look at antique farm engines while attending a county fair. "The next year, I was at the Sandwich (Ill.) engine show and I bought a Fairbanks," he recalls. "I learned on that. The next summer, I bought 10 years of back issues of Gas Engine Magazine. Finally, in 1996, I found a Challenge engine in Indiana: a 1-1/2 hp flattop. Then I found another one at an auction."
Jim and his family live in Batavia, where Challenge was based and where the company remains a familiar name. "I think Challenge equipment was well-designed," Jim says. He speculates that the hourglass design was conceived for aesthetic purposes rather than functionality. "Challenge built fancy engines with lots of pinstriping," he says.
Jim's collection includes an 8 hp flattop and implements like a buzz saw. His interest in the hobby's rubbed off: His son, Jim III, has a burr mill and three engines; his son-in-law, Doug Dickey, has two.
"It's a challenging hobby," Jim says. "I've gone as far as North Dakota and Nebraska to buy engines. I've always been interested in putting things together and taking things apart. Engines are simple: If they have gas and a spark, they have to run."
Allen Hasselbusch, Clarence, Iowa, has been collecting old farm equipment for 20 years. His 1919 3 hp Challenge routinely draws a crowd. "I always wanted one because I like the hourglass hopper," he says. "You can always tell a Challenge engine from quite a ways away."
At shows, Allen displays and demonstrates several small implements, each powered by a gas engine, as an educational effort. "Lots of people see engines running," he says, "but they don't know what they do." FC