Display of five Kansas City Lightning engines at the Tri-State Gas Engine & Tractor Assn. show offers rare opportunity.
If you stumble onto a Kansas City Lightning engine at a show, you’ve found something unusual. Collectors are aware of just nine surviving engines. To discover a display of five at one show is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Acting on little more than a whim, four collectors and one club made that happen in August at the Tri-State Gas Engine & Tractor Assn. show in Portland, Indiana. “We thought it’d be interesting to get them all together,” says Marv Hedberg, Rush City, Minnesota. “That way people could see their differences and similarities.”
On many engine lines, such an exercise might generate little excitement. But the Kansas City Lightning line is in a class by itself. Unique design – the hallmark of the Kansas City line – is showcased in each of the engines displayed.
The Kansas City Lightning line of gas engines was produced by Kansas City Hay Press Co., Kansas City, Mo., beginning in about 1900. The line’s single-cylinder, opposed two-piston mechanism – pistons in a common cylinder move toward each other, creating a common combustion chamber – contributes to uncommonly smooth, balanced engine operation.
Kansas City Lightning engines were among the few to employ steam cooling, notes C.H. Wendel in American Gasoline Engines Since 1872. “A steam-tight water jacket was arranged so that steam generated within was carried to the engine intake and aspirated with the air-fuel mixture,” Wendel says. “The steam vapor promoted a cooling effect, retarded preignition and served to keep the cylinder free of carbon.”
Another unique feature? The Lightning engine was gearless. “A three-sided lobe, acted upon by a timed pick, spins,” explains Editor Richard Backus in a 2004 article in Gas Engine Magazine. “When a lobe is up, the exhaust pushrod actuates the exhaust valve, and when the mechanism is flat, the pushrod misses its mark. On the portable engines, the belt-driven flyball governor latches the timing mechanism so a lobe is up to lock the exhaust valve open during overrun. This action simultaneously locks out the igniter.” On stationary engines, a pendulum governor is used.
Retired mold maker Marv Hedberg displayed a one-of-a-kind pair of Kansas City Lightning engines at Portland: a 10 hp factory portable steam-cooled engine designed for use on a hay press, and a 1/4-scale model of the same engine Marv built from scratch.
His full-size engine came from the collection of the late Morris Blomgren. The engine’s original cart is higher than any others used with Kansas City Lightning products, and that quite literally sets Marv’s engine apart from the rest. The engine’s frame forms the cart’s frame, which is made of channel iron.
The engine was complete when Marv got it from Morris’ estate, but worn. For years, it had sat outside. “I had to rebuild the pistons, exhaust valve and linkage,” he says. He also honed the cylinder, had a new water tank and ball guard made, and mastered the engine’s timing.
The 10 hp engine was used for years to power a Kansas City hay press. Marv bought that press from Morris’ estate auction and restored it for use with his engine. The pair made their working debut in 2015.
Marv’s scale model of the 10 hp Kansas City engine is a perfect copy of his full-size 10 hp engine: During visits to his friend, he made measurements of Morris’ engine. Marv machined all of the parts and pieces for the model from bar stock using CNC equipment in his shop. “Morris had a big smile when he saw the model running in his living room,” Marv says.
When Mike Paich’s buddy, Terry Alcock, put together an engine deal a few years ago, he spun a piece Mike’s way. “He asked if I was interested in a Kansas City Lightning 4 hp engine,” Mike recalls. “I said, ‘are you kidding me?!?’ I never dreamed this kind of engine would come my way.”
Unlike steam-cooled engines in the Portland display, Mike’s 4 hp KC Lightning is water-cooled. It was the only one of the five at the Portland show with a round cylinder (the others are squared), making it the senior member of the group, possibly built as early as 1901. It’s also the only one of the five backed up by patents.
“The owner of Kansas City Hay Press Co. patented the vapor carburetor and governor design that are on this engine,” Mike says. “None of the other engines have those patents on them.” The engine uses gas vapor for ignition. It’s also one of just two with original tags, and its base is riveted together, presumably to simplify the casting process.
The engine was complete when Mike got it home to his place at Britton, Michigan, but a bit of TLC was in order. “I did a little cylinder work,” he says. “It showed a fair amount of wear. I cleaned the valves, but not a lot. The wrist pins and babbitt were still good. I was just amazed; all the parts are pretty original. There were no breaks, no cracks, and it runs pretty smooth. Actually, it was one of the first engines I’ve gotten that didn’t need a lot of work.”
Although the engine’s design is elegant, it isn’t flawless. “The governor is really pretty complex,” Mike says, “and if any little bit of chaff or dirt got in, that would affect the speed. Even now, all I have to do is lubricate the governor and it changes speed. Most engines wouldn’t notice something like that.”
And in the final analysis, the engine was quite expensive. “This engine would have sold for $450 new (more than $12,000 in today’s terms),” he says. “That was way too costly for the time. A farmer could buy an engine for a lot less than that.”
Twenty-two years ago, Ed Laginess was on the scent of a rare engine in Texas when another collector made him second-guess his agenda. “Why would you want that engine,” the other collector asked. “I have one that’s more rare than that, and it’s priced for the same money.”
The engine in question was an 8 hp Kansas City Lightning. Depending on which story you favor, it was found in a fencerow in either Virginia or Kansas. Today it’s part of a small museum Ed’s put together at his home in Carleton, Michigan.
A unique engine in a unique line, Ed’s Kansas City Lightning has a banana-shaped flyweight governor bolted to the crankshaft. “That governor made it a gearless engine,” he says. “It also has a totally unique carburetion mixer.”
Ed’s engine is different from the others displayed at Portland in yet another way. The engine was on a factory cart when he got it; its base is cast in one piece. None of the other Kansas City Lightning engines that are on trucks have a full base. “The trucks are actually the main frame of the engine,” he says. “I removed the engine from the trucks for space purposes. It looks great mounted on its skids.”
The engine was a bit on the rough side when Ed got his hands on it. “The pistons were stuck,” he says. “It hadn’t been run in more than 70 years. I had to pull the pistons out, clean the cylinder, rings, fuel pump and carburetor.” On the plus side, the engine was complete and didn’t show a lot of wear, and that made it the source of parts used as patterns by other collectors.
The engine “runs beautiful now,” he says, and it’s a perfect fit for his collection. “I like engines with mechanical oddities,” he says.
Tommy Turner, Magnolia, Kentucky, didn’t have to do a lot of heavy lifting when he acquired his 6 hp Kansas City Lightning engine. It had already been restored, and before that, it had been treated well. “I don’t know how it was used,” he says, “but it apparently never sat out. There’s no heavy wear on it, and that’s the original wood.”
A portable steam-cooled model, Tommy’s engine has different trucks than the other two portable models produced by Kansas City Lightning. The engine’s carburetion is similar to that on Marv’s engine, but different from systems on the others displayed at Portland. “Really, this engine and Marv’s are the most similar,” Tommy says.
Tommy speculates that the unique features of the line’s engines may reflect the size of the company. “Each part and piece was fitted to each engine,” he says. “They used what they had and devised a way to make it work.”
A court judge, Tommy has particular insight into another thing that could account for the line’s uncommon features. “Unique design was often used as a way of avoiding accusations of patent infringement,” he says. “Usually engine manufacturers settled on a design and stuck with it. But there are a lot of dissimilar features in the Lightning engines.”
Tommy has keen appreciation for the line’s sophisticated engineering.
“Nearly every piece of the Kansas City Lightning engine has a unique design,” he says. “The igniter’s offset trip design causes the trip finger to rise as the igniter is tripped. The stationary electrode actually isn’t. It’s placed on a pivot that allows it to rotate as the igniter fires, to ensure that no one location on the electrode suffers all the wear. The mounting holes on the igniter are elongated for a reason. Rotating the igniter on the mounting bolts provides the timing of the engine. And all Lightning engines, regardless of the size, used the same igniter.”
As if it weren’t enough to see five rare and unique engines from a noteworthy manufacturer in one display, one of the five was there on temporary loan. The Butterfield (Minnesota) Threshermen’s Assn. agreed to share a club-owned Kansas City Lightning 5-6 hp stationary engine for the duration of the Portland show.
“It’s really an amazing thing for a club to loan an engine like this for a display somewhere else,” says Marv Hedberg, a member of the Butterfield Club. He hauled the engine to Portland in an enclosed trailer and kept a close eye on it in the display space at the front of the Stationary Engine List area.
The piece dates to the earliest days of engine production at Kansas City Hay Press. Engine collector Ole Lundberg (since deceased) found it holding down a fence on land near his home near Butterfield, says David Harder, a Butterfield club member who often runs the engine at shows. Ole made an offer for the engine; the owner let him have it, so long as he found something else to anchor the fence.
When Ole got the engine, it was partially disassembled. He launched a search for replacement parts and eventually got the engine back in running condition. Before his death in 1995, Ole donated the engine to the local engine club.
Ironically, Ole once let a complete Kansas City Lightning engine slip through his fingers to a tragic fate. Years ago, at an auction just a mile from where he found his engine, he saw a buyer get a Kansas City Lightning engine at the bargain price of $9 – and then tear into it with a sledgehammer.
Leslie C. McManus is the senior editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at