An Appreciation for Aermotor

Wisconsin man’s patience pays off with collection of rare engines.

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by Bill Vossler
Added by a collector somewhere along the line, this plate identifies the engine, which is on its original skids, as a 1906 4hp Aermotor. Generally, little is known about the Aermotor line.

Steve Oswald of Wauzeka, Wisconsin, started working with gasoline engines at a tender age. “Being a farm boy, I was always around machinery, and I liked it,” he says. At age 8, he tore into a Briggs & Stratton 3hp engine, completely dismantling the engine and then reassembling it, returning it to running order. “I put it to good use on my bicycle,” he recalls. “I had a heck of a time getting it lined up, but once I did, it worked fine. It went pretty fast, too fast, really, for gravel roads.”

His next project was a 1936 unstyled John Deere Model B tractor given to him by a neighbor. “It wasn’t stuck,” he says, “so I cleaned the carburetor, put in new gear-lube, points, condenser, spark plugs, added tires and painted it.” Having caught the tractor-collecting fever, Steve gathered up 30 tractors, mostly John Deeres, over the next 10 years.

When calm days stilled the windmill used to pump water for the family’s dairy herd, they used a 1-1/2hp John Deere hit-and-miss engine to run the pump jack. “I remember my dad starting it every spring with the John Deere B with a flat belt,” Steve says, “because it could be a little stubborn.” Hearing that engine “pop” made him notice the difference in the sounds of engines. Today, he still has those engines.

Hands-on education for a collector/restorer

Steve started collecting engines seriously in 1993 when he traded a stuck 1938 International F-12 tractor on steel for gas engines, including a 1-1/2hp Fuller & Johnson Model N and a McCormick-Deering 1-1/2hp Model M with original paint. “I figured I would be a fool not to take the deal,” he says, and he was hooked.

To support his hobby, he’s bought, restored and sold engines. Steve does all the work himself, except machining. He turns over that job to his good friend, Don Blousey. “I kept doing that, climbing the ladder to better engines,” he says. “With some of them, I made a lot of money.”

Steve says he’s learned a lot about working on engines from Don, who continues to take classes on machining and tooling. Don bores out the engine and adds new pistons. “It’s far better than just sleeving it,” he says.

He also adds thinner rings, installing 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch rings, which reduces the drag in the cylinder. “Then they run better and smoother and it doesn’t hurt anything,” he says.

Fascinated by Aermotor line

Aermotor engines are unique, and that got Steve’s attention. “They are very rare, difficult to find, and hard to get hold of,” he says. Aermotor Co., Chicago, got its start as a manufacturer of windmills in 1888. In about 1906, Aermotor began building stationary gas engines. As is the case with many old gas engines, very little information exists on the Aermotor line. “None of mine have tags,” he says, “so I can only guess at the horsepower, year of manufacture, rpm, or anything else.”

After the death of a neighbor who’d owned an Aermotor, Steve called the man’s widow and children to set up an appointment. “They said they wanted to get rid of everything. I knew he had a 2hp ‘sausage-hopper’ Aermotor (so called for the hopper’s shape), and I wanted it bad.”

Steve got more than he bargained for. “The first shed I looked in was a building where I think it rained harder inside than out,” he says. “Two big work benches, 15 feet long, were packed with piles of engine stuff. I didn’t know what I was getting.”

Transporting the haul – including eight engines – took seven pickups and three car trailers loaded full. But that wasn’t the only shed on the farm. After being called a second time, Steve found pails of valuable magnetos, so he gave the family another $500. “They couldn’t thank me enough,” he says. “They hadn’t thought it was worth that much.”

On the next visit, he found parts and pieces of another 40 gasoline engines. As the count rose higher, Steve kept opening his wallet. During one trip, his son, Matt, found a 5hp fluted hopper Aermotor, more Maytags and an 8-cycle Aermotor in good shape.

Sausage-hopper is a basket case

But the 2hp sausage-hopper Aermotor remained elusive. After getting yet another call from the family, Steve returned to the farm to investigate a mobile home said to be full of old stuff. “I opened the door, and there it was,” he says. “My eyes opened wide; I was excited.”

At first, all Steve could find were the 2hp engine’s flywheels, sub-base and cylinder. After checking pails filled with random parts, he began finding all the other pieces — except the head. “At some point, the engine had been in the process of being restored,” Steve says, “because it had new babbitt bearings and the block had primer paint on it.”

When the head didn’t turn up, Steve considered having a friend cast one from his 2hp Aermotor. “He would have done it,” Steve says. “But his is one of the only other engines like mine that I have ever seen in my 27 years of collecting engines, so I decided to wait a little longer.”

His patience paid off. An 88-year-old collector with a 2hp sausage-hopper Aermotor (dating to about 1907) had turned down Steve’s offers numerous times. “He always said ‘no’. But this time, he asked what I would offer him for it. So, a little bit of sunlight there.”

But the price remained too steep — until Steve threw in a couple engines — a very old 1-1/2hp Bloomer and a 1hp Workwell (of which only a couple more exist, he says) — and a lot of cash.

Slow and smooth runners

Instead of one or two pulleys, at least six galvanized pulleys (in varied sizes) were available for the 2hp sausage-hopper model for an additional $8, increasing buyers’ options. Bolts and nuts on the skids were galvanized, like those on Aermotor windmills.

On the 2hp sausage-hopper Aermotor, the ignitor is built into the head. “If the ignitor won’t spark, you need to remove the entire head to get it out, not just two bolts,” Steve says. “I don’t know why. It’s a weird set-up. Really, the whole engine is unusual. Most engines have a hopper on top of the cylinder to hold extra water. This one is rounded, and though you can add some water, there’s no reservoir like you see on other engines.”

The engine’s rounded hopper lends a unique appearance. At shows, onlookers are nearly mesmerized by the Aermotors. “They run extremely slow and smooth,” he says, “being they have very big flywheels.”

A single-flywheel pumping engine

When Steve bought his late neighbor’s 8-cycle Aermotor  pumping engine, he got it running in short order. “I cleaned it up, painted it, replaced the mica washers with new ones to prevent them shorting out, started it, and it ran fine,” he says. “Easy.” He also made a cart.

The engine’s air-cooling system is unusual. “With no fan, the exhaust comes up over the cylinder and back over the fins, which suck cool air out from underneath,” he explains. “The fins don’t get that hot.”

The 8-cycle Aermotor fires every eight revolutions, instead of the usual four or two. “This is achieved by the shape of the cam and the 4:1 timing gears,” he says. “Back then, people were a lot smarter than you’d think. Without any computers, they could think things out pretty good.”

A 4hp sausage-hopper Aermotor

Steve spent 25 years chasing a 4hp sausage-hopper Aermotor. Once again, he returned to his elderly collector friend, the man who’d finally sold him the 2hp sausage-hopper Aermotor, and who also owned a 4hp sausage-hopper estimated to date to 1906. “He said ‘no,’ but then asked what I’d give him for it,” Steve says, “so I knew there was a little hope.”

The seller’s asking price was outside Steve’s comfort zone, so he decided to wait. Three months later, he returned to look at other engines the man wanted to sell. Steve bought a 5hp Bullseye sideshaft. “He said he sure liked my money because it was so green,” Steve says, laughing at the memory.

That’s when Steve decided to broach the topic of the 4hp Aermotor once more. “We talked for about three hours, and he admitted the 4hp Aermotor was really too big for him anyway,” Steve says, “but he wasn’t too excited to sell it yet.”

After another hour of conversation, Steve made his final offer. “He was very, very quiet for a moment, and then said if anyone should have it, it should be me, because I had the others that he’d sold to me, so he sold me the 4hp Aermotor. My pestering him finally paid off. But I’m a little poorer,” he says wryly.

End of the line for the inverted vertical

Another rare engine in Steve’s collection is a 2hp United States gasoline engine he bought from a collector who’d had it for 60 years. Because it was once used to provide power to the printing press in Steve’s home-town newspaper, The Prairie du Chien Courier Press, the seller thought Steve should have it. “It is in excellent condition because it remained inside, where people took care of it,” he says. “It has lots of shims, nice and tight.”

The engine, thought to date to 1915, is an interesting remnant of an era when an unusual design garnered attention. This last version of the so-called “upside-down” (or inverted vertical) engine was built in the former shop of Temple Pump Co., Chicago, after that company went out of business in 1914.

United States Engine Works, Chicago, picked up where Temple Pump left off with production of inverted vertical engines, including a 2hp model, which was the smallest engine in their line. United States Engine Works was apparently a short-lived venture, as nothing is known of it after 1914.

Muffler not part of the plan

When he got the engine to his shop, Steve added gasoline and cleaned the check ball, but it wouldn’t start. No spark; rusty carboned points. “The engine hadn’t run for 80 years,” he says. “After I took care of it, the engine sucked gas and popped right off.” He also fixed a pinhole gas tank leak using gas tank sealer.

The inverted vertical, which had never been painted, had no muffler. “They ran a pipe through the wall, so they didn’t need a muffler,” he says. “The ignitor is at the base of the engine, below the flywheel. That was an improvement compared to some inverted engines, with a cover atop the crankshaft to prevent oil splashing all over the engine.”

The United States engine is a classic example of what Steve finds interesting about old iron. The ways in which gas engines run, and the varied shapes and sizes they come in, remain fascinating to him. And he enjoys the camaraderie of the hobby. “There’s never a dull moment,” he says. “Everybody involved is laid back and easy to talk to. At shows, it’s like a big family reunion.”

A reunion with sometimes crotchety vintage machinery, that is. “It’s a challenge to have engines and get them running,” he says. “I don’t know how many hours over the years I’ve spent trying to get them running. Some take three hours, some three days, to get them to run right instead of spitting and sputtering. It’s a challenge, and it keeps your mind going, and that’s important for a guy turning 65.” FC

For more information: Steve Oswald, 55286 Rhein Hollow Rd., Wauzeka, WI 53826; (608) 875-6491.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email:

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