Waking up a 1915 International Harvester Co. engine
Story and photos by Gerald Perschbacher
Open the shut-off cock. Be sure sufficient oil is in the crank case and gasoline is in the tank. See that the spark level (lower level on the steering post) is retarded (in utmost forward position). Open the throttle lever (upper lever on steering post) part way. Place the switch plug on the coil, turn to “Bat” for battery, then hand crank with a rapid motion. If that doesn’t work, prime the cylinders via the priming cups. If the spark is OK, then the vehicle will start. Once the engine starts, throw the switch from “Bat” to “Mag,” then advance the spark and close the throttle to an idling position.
Sounds complicated? It was all part of the start-up process for a two-cylinder, air-cooled, International Harvester Co. Auto Wagon, circa 1911-1915.
The Auto Wagon was a highwheeler, one of those American-made vehicles that truly looked like a farm wagon with an engine attached. A two-speed transmission plus two hefty chains drove the rear wheels with power and determination. IHC was best known among all highwheeler manufacturers. Little wonder — it built its vehicles to last, to perform hard work and to be practical enough for just about any owner to repair or rebuild. That is, as long as parts availability allowed.
Today, those once-plentiful parts are hard to find, so when it comes to tear-down and rebuild, a collector must sometimes rely on engine professionals.
The maker offered suggestions — really indicators that the engine was properly running. A gas-and-air mixture that was too rich would burn black exhaust. Too lean and backfiring or popping resulted. “A whitish exhaust denotes a superfluity of oil in crank case,” said the company. IHC marketed the oil under its own name as “International Air-Cooled Oil,” more a description than a creative label.
Good oiling was the first and foremost indicator of proper operation, resulting in long engine life, with careful operation a close second. Said the factory: “The engine is adjusted before leaving the factory, and if kept well oiled, should not require any attention for some time. Exhaust valves will require re-grinding after engine has been in use some time.” The company also showed owners how to do their own grind job.
It was a simple philosophy for a rugged, straight-forward machine made to be good and reliable, especially for half-ton farm or mercantile loads.
We started this article by quoting a manual. Have such in-depth paperwork at your fingertips before unbolting anything. Make photocopies and enlarge as needed, then jot comments on the sheets as you proceed. Augment this resource by networking with owners of similar vehicles. Solicit advice by exchanging pictures (especially by e-mail) when you stumble onto a problem or need a rare part.
A major rule to follow when tackling the tear-down of an old engine is to take plenty of pictures, label and bag items, lay out the parts in logical progression, position them so that they will not be bothered and make plenty of notes.
Much of the restoration process centers on giving parts a good cleaning. Have the correct cleaning solutions handy and carefully free parts from decades of grime. Check for part numbers, too, and compare them against a parts manual when necessary. This will help if and when you need to track down replacement parts or have items made.
“I think it hasn’t been run in 20 years,” I was told when I purchased the 1915 International Harvester Co. Auto Wagon shown here in 1998. “We used it to haul gravel from the creek bed and bring it up to our house.”
So said the family of first ownership. Trouble was, the vehicle had been purchased by a father who used it for his mercantile store. He passed it down to his son. When the son died, it went to his sister. By the third generation, it was time to sell. Understandably, memories faded about details, such as how well the IHC had been running or when the engine had last turned over. Still, with such a cosmetically well maintained and preserved vehicle, any smart collector would simply forge onward and buy it. I did.
Years passed after my purchase. Then the desire to get the IHC running for a gathering of IHC highwheelers peaked in early 2010.
Initially, there was compression in the engine — a good sign. The heartbeat of this IHC is the engine. My friend Rick Quirin of Belleville, Ill., undertook the task of getting the old-timer to run. He worked on valve adjustment, rods and ends, then the carburetor. Initial work involved a tremendous amount of soaking and cleaning. We anticipated that the engine was as solid as the rest of the vehicle. It wasn’t. At least, not completely. Early investigation uncovered slivers of broken Babbitts in the oil pan, donated by the ends of both rods on this two-cylinder engine.
“I’ve got bad news,” Rick said. He had found a problem when he lowered the pan. “Broken metal pieces. We don’t know what’s inside until we tear it apart. The pistons may be shot. The cylinder walls may be scored. This could mean a major engine rebuild.”
By April 2, the engine was completely disassembled. The flywheel and crankshaft were removed. Contact was made with Effingham Regrinding in Effingham, Ill. General Manager Dean Klinkelaar took personal interest in the job of checking every part delivered to him, prior to estimating what needed to be done. For just about any old-car owner, this was a time of worry and anticipation.
Klinkelaar soon indicated the rods could be reused with re-Babbitting. The crankshaft was another issue. “We did a magnaflux test,” Klinkelaar said. “Found a line in the crankshaft. Could have been made that way. We’ll do another test to see if the piece is balanced. That will be the final sign.” He explained how magnafluxing used magnetic particles and dye to expose imperfections unable to be seen by the eye. Later, Klinkelaarrevealed the news. “It’s OK, I think, as long as it doesn’t get run too hard or fast,” which hardly would be the case for such an old vehicle. “I really think it was made with the imperfection.”
I asked, “How did the experts at IHC test a crankshaft in 1915?”
Klinkelaar noted, “They hit it with a hammer and it made a good, pinging sound. I did it the same way, and it sounds fine. Let’s gently recondition as needed and you can reassemble the engine.” He also had to pour and bore a main bearing, which was nearly 65 percent of the total payment to his shop.
Eventually, it was determined that the cause of the ruined Babbitts was improper disengagement of the starting gear, which created intermittent resistance as the engine ran. In time, this resulted in wear and chips around the outer edges of each Babbitted rod. Sadly, the disengagement of the gear was a simple physical process that the original owners did not practice.
Rebuilding an engine isn’t a faint-hearted task. It takes generous soaking of bolts, good tools, loosening of parts, scrubbing, reforming, bending, bead blasting and generally returning the parts to like-new condition as the long-defunct IHC Auto Wagon factory in Akron, Ohio, intended.
When we hit a brick wall during the rebuild, one of us always had ideas and contacts. If there was a technical question requiring old drawings and diagrams, I searched diligently and found the answer. I consulted other experts in various cities. Quirin tapped friends who knew what he didn’t in making parts, machining over-the-counter items or tuning up a nine-decade-old vehicle that had not run for a long time.
“They told you about 20 years? That it had run 20 years before you bought it?” Quirin asked. He was leading toward an assertion: “I think it was a lot longer than that.”
I agreed. One eyewitness account from 1946 noted that the vehicle wasn’t operable then. Chances are, it wasn’t tinkered with after that. If so, that meant 64 years of dormancy.
At over 100 plus years-old we were preparing this old-timer to come out of retirement. Coaxing is a better word, treating every part with respect when the engine was reduced to parts, examined, rebuilt and reassembled. Only one way to do it — the right way.
This takes time. If you ever jump into an engine, give yourself plenty of time. A dose of patience is necessary, too. Put on your thinking cap, because you’ll have to out-guess some problems and think like the assembly line workers and engineers who put it together. Unfortunately, Quirin and I were running short on time in order the show the vehicle at the highwheeler gathering, so extra energy, long days and short nights were in order.
The pistons were cleaned and installed. Valves were prepared and put in. Quirin painted the cylinder jugs, block and related parts. We were then ready for the final engine reassembly. Each cylinder jug was lifted and wiggled and each piston ring was pinched until the parts slipped snuggly in place. The heavy flywheel was installed.
Considerable time was spent in succeeding days hooking up components. Then, the engine was started. “It’s running, and it sounds great,” Quirin reported by phone. “It burns clean and runs strong. I think the compression is fine and we probably have high and low gears, and reverse.”
Just a mere hour before the IHC was placed in a trailer for the trip, the vehicle eased out of the garage and saw the light of day under its own power.
We made the trip to Indiana, spent the day with nearly 40 other IHC highwheelers, drove about a mile through the fairgrounds and headed back home late that afternoon. It was a wonderful experience — made even more wonderful by a successful engine rebuild and the friends who made it happen.
A 100+ year-old highwheeler had every reason to smile. I know we did.
If you have questions or wish to share comments, contact Gerald Perschbacher at email@example.com.