Engine Fever

I had engine fever from an early age – anything with an engine in it, I loved it. When I was young the big stuff – cars, boats, trains – was out of reach, so I turned to the smaller stuff, like lawnmowers and gas-powered toys. My dad was kind of a minimalist on things motor-related, priding himself on his un-powered push mower and hedge shears, and my mom was not much technically inclined, preferring the company of people and books and art to that of machinery and tools and garage floors. But they were completely accepting of a son whose greatest thrill was finding some neighbor’s tired old lawnmower on the curb on trash day and dragging it home for dissection and tinkering.

I still remember my first score, a grass-encrusted vertical-shaft rotary mower that I pulled onto our patio for close inspection. I was young, probably under 10, and knew nothing about mechanics at that point, just that I loved motors and had a burning desire to find out what was inside them. Since my dad was focused mostly on basic home repairs rather than engine rebuilding, we had a pretty minimal set of tools, consisting of a hammer and some screwdrivers and a couple of adjustable wrenches. Knowing truly nothing about how these things were put together, and failing to see the bolt heads that were buried under a layer of dried grass clippings, I treated that motor like an egg, trying to crack into it with the hammer and a big screwdriver used as a chisel. It was tough going, but I managed to find a seam, and actually pried it open wide enough to have a first peek inside at the dark and oily innards. (I’m not sure what I did with the oil, whether I drained it first or just caught it when it dripped out the crack I had made.)

Around this time a neighbor, Ned Taylor, stopped by, maybe attracted by the sound of metal-on-metal whacking or maybe just to say hi to my folks. “You know, prying it open like that, you’ve wrecked the crankcase,” he told me matter-of-factly. At that point I didn’t really know what a crankcase was, but since I didn’t have any specific plans for the motor beyond getting inside it, I just shrugged. “You need to undo the bolts to get the motor off the deck and open it up,” he then told me, and pointed out where the attaching bolts were after scratching off some of the coagulated grass under the mower deck. “Oh, thanks!”, I said, and ran to get the adjustable wrench from my dad’s tool kit. I spent the rest of the afternoon unbolting every bolt I could find, which isn’t easy with just an adjustable wrench. If I couldn’t unbolt it, I’d hammer and pry it, until I had a pile of  greasy and grassy half-broken parts to inspect. And they were just as wonderful as I’d imagined they would be – pistons and valves and crankshafts and  cylinders and all the rest.

If you don’t have engine fever, you probably haven’t given much thought to what’s inside your car’s engine or your lawnmower’s motor or the shrieking fuming beehives powering your weed whacker and leaf blower. Well, let me tell you – it’s beautiful in there. The parts and cases aren’t the straight boring practical let’s-just-get-on-with-it designs that you might expect to find if you think these are just utilitarian lumps that no-one wants to think about. They’re beautiful sinuous complex smooth curves, intersected where needed by abrupt hard flat angular surfaces, and fit together far more intimately and snugly than your hand in your glove. The curves are partly defined by nature and necessity – the parts do have a role to play that requires them to be (just) strong enough to do their intended job for many hours without failing or complaining, and this necessitates them taking certain forms and dimensions. And they must be castable and machineable using existing tools and methods, which constrains the shapes that can be used (though 3D printing may soon lift many of these limits). And companies do want to minimize their expenses, so want the parts to be the lowest cost that will get the job done. But beyond that, an engineer has the flexibility to choose what the part will look like, and from what I’ve seen every mechanical engineer designing an engine component has engine fever. The parts are aesthetically beautiful as stand-alone objects, and only become more so when you consider the tough job they perform day in and day out in harmony with all the other parts.

My first experience just whetted my appetite. Subsequent engine adventures were steps in a journey, each one refining what I knew and wanted to know about engines and their secrets. I started by leaving the screwdriver/chisel out of the formula and relying just on the bolts the designers had thoughtfully provided for disassembly. This was made significantly easier by the Craftsman mechanic’s starter tool kit, complete with sockets and box wrenches, that my folks got me for Christmas. Those tools are still in use, added to but never replaced, and have a patina of thousands of tiny nicks and scratches accumulated over the years. I’d unbolt each engine from its mower deck or other supporting platform, and  carefully disassemble the engine in the garage or on the patio, cleaning each piece with a rag as it came off and laying it aside for study and reassembly. I’d then clean the crankcase under the garden hose, scrubbing with brushes and dish soap until its outside and inside were dirt- and oil-free. I’d then carefully reassemble the parts into the case until I had a sparkling clean engine ready to do whatever I put it to, which at that point wasn’t anything specific. That was probably just as well, because early on I didn’t understand the role of gaskets to seal in the engine’s vital fluids, so they went together gasket-free and ready to leak.

I scouted for mowers as part of a general inclination toward trash-picking (Dad drew the line when I started rolling home old tires), and gradually got more picky as I started dreaming up possible uses for the engines. The vertical-shaft rotary mowers were the most prevalent, but because the crankshaft stuck out the bottom these needed a platform like the mower deck to run, and so weren’t as interesting to me. I was always on the lookout for the horizontal shaft upright mowers, which were an older style and much rarer, and managed to find several of these that had been put out to pasture on the curb. These I treated with special reverence, carefully disassembling and cleaning and reassembling them as prizes that I squirreled away along the garage wall. My reason for preferring these to the vertical shaft mowers was because they were the exact right style for powering mini-bikes and go-karts, both of which I wanted in the worst way, like every other pre-teen kid I knew. The fact that we lived in Jenkintown, a pretty dense suburb of Philadelphia, with all sorts of ordinances against driving something like that anywhere but on your own driveway, and maybe not even there, was one of those minor glitches that we’d surely find a way around once I had mine in hand and running.

My parents were amazingly supportive patrons in all this. Dad gave up one half of our two-car garage every summer for me to store my engines and bikes and perform surgery on my newest finds. He got it back each winter so he could keep his car inside, so I sorted through the piles each fall and packed all the stuff I wanted to keep up against the back wall to hibernate until spring. Dad wasn’t personally especially interested in mechanical things, though he was quite handy around the house, probably from his youth growing up in the hills of central Utah, where you learned to fix things yourself or went without. But he seemed to appreciate and admire my passion, and encouraged me as long as it didn’t significantly inconvenience (e.g., Mom’s side of the garage). I recall the two of us standing in the driveway looking under the hood of our Pontiac, which had a 400 cubic inch engine, and him asking, “Well, does that look like 400 cubic inches?” Neither of us was sure what exactly was supposed to be 400 cubic inches, so we both kind of estimated various lengths of things with our hands and concluded that, yup, that was probably just what a 400 cubic inch engine should look like.

I got my dad to drive me one Saturday to look at a tired sagging go-kart specimen for sale in the little rural-ish town of Plumsteadville, Pennsylvania, but once we got there he gently got me to see that it wasn’t such a great deal and was probably best left in the country anyway where it could be driven freely. Given that I don’t think he was ever a fan of me getting one of these, he was still amazingly tolerant of my efforts. He let me order a mini-bike frame from some company in California for maybe $25, which came bare and needing welding to mount a plate to hold the rear axle, which immediately put it out of the reach of our family toolkit and skills. So it never rolled outside of my imagination, but that didn’t cool my passion for engines.

My mom even chipped in, taking me to the Roslyn Junk Yard on a couple of summer afternoons, a remarkable thing, given her allergy to bees and the thriving yellow-jacket community there. This was a local public dump near the high school where people could cast off anything the trash collectors wouldn’t take or that they were too impatient to wait to be collected, so it had a wide assortment of treasure, including things with engines. One time I found a nice older upright mower with a cast-iron Briggs and Stratton on it, which mom helped me heave into the trunk of our Pontiac. Another time there was an actual car engine, a short-block from a V-8, which was for me the ultimate find, but was for her thankfully way too heavy for the two of us to budge. I can still picture that engine block sitting there as we pulled away empty-handed, with me mulling over ways that we might lever it into the trunk on a return visit.

One of the biggest thrills for me was the car crusher in Southwest Philadelphia near the airport. This was a facility that dismantled worn-out cars and ran them through a machine that chewed them into tiny bits and spit the pieces out into an enormous pile of metal scrap. The car crusher was on Passyunk Avenue right beside the Platt Bridge, which you took to get to the airport, so I got to look at it any time we went to the airport for a trip or to pick up a visitor. Squashed-flat sedans were fed into the shredder end-to-end on a conveyor-belt tongue that carried them up to the giant machine’s mouth. While the chopper could nonchalantly devour a car chassis, the engines were apparently too big for it to swallow, so they were removed first and piled into their own mountain beside the scrap bits. This was the holy grail for me – a giant pile of car engines of every make and sort – Fords and Chevys and Chryslers and V-8s and straight-sixes and even diesel truck engines. I’d only get a glimpse as we drove by, or a bit longer if I got lucky and we got stopped at the traffic light, but that was enough to fuel my imagination for days about the fun I could have poring over the prizes that were in that pile.

I started up a couple of the horizontal-shaft engines I had dis- and re-assembled (with gaskets once I had discovered them), but was always more interested in the mechanics than the operation, so only did this on a few occasions. Plus, I was a bit afraid of them once they started snorting and roaring and getting hot – I preferred them cool and calm and collected. When I got a little older my general engine fascination moved to a focus on cars and their engines, and later to motorcycles and their engines. I started learning from books and magazines and technical manuals about the right ways to rebuild and soup-up engines and all that related stuff, and rebuilt several motorcycles and a couple of cars that carried me many thousands of miles with only the normal sorts of troubles you expect from older vehicles. And in parallel came sports and music and, of course, vacuum tubes. But that’s a whole different story.