It's a Small World for a Minnesota Model Maker

Model maker Neal James of rural Elk River, Minn., has built 27 engines, including seven gasoline engines.

| April 2006

Neal James of rural Elk River, Minn., once played in a band called The James Gang. But today, his "James Gang" might be the dozens of model engines he has made, including some from scratch. "I was raised on them," says the 76-year-old retired tool and die maker. "My dad was into everything. He had his blacksmith shop, and a portable feed grinder that we used to take around and grind feed and a corn shredder that we took around. We were in the well business together for five years, and then his blacksmith shop." And what did all of those businesses have in common? Gas engines.

A 1980 trip to Rollag, Minn., to the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers' Reunion, piqued Neal's interest in model engines. "It was the biggest show in the state, so I went up to see what it was all about, and I sure found out. I saw the small model engines up there, and I got interested in them right away. I didn't know they made anything like that, so I got all hepped up about getting started on one." He asked for information, and found out where to send for kits to make model engines.

As soon as he got the castings, Neal started working on the small, unscaled 4-cylinder Wall C601 model gasoline engine. "It's a freelance kit, with the engine much like that of the Model A automobile," he says.

But he had seen an Associated gas engine at Rollag, and when he found a kit for that one, he ordered it. When it came, he set the Wall aside, and finished the 1/3-scale Associated 1-1/2 hp model engine. "It was a little challenging because it was the first one, but I had a lot of experience machining, so I was able to overcome the problems."

Though the Associated model was designed to run, Neal didn't start it up for about a year. "I was just so proud of it, I didn't want to get it dirty," he says. "So I set it up to be admired at shows, and then I entered it in the Sherburne County Fair." He won grand champion with that model, and later that year at the Minnesota State Fair he was awarded a blue ribbon with a rating of 98 points out of 100 possible. "They wrote that it was 'Beautiful,' but I lost points because it was a kit." After that, Neal began to run the Associated when he took it to shows.

Neal has built 27 engines, including seven gasoline engines. One of his most challenging projects has been a 1/8-scale 1915 Holt 75 model gas engine he's working on now. "I've worked on that one off and on for a few years," he says, "but I'd like to have it done by spring so I can take it to shows. But it's time-consuming."