Vintage Small Engines

Back in the day, quality and pride of manufacture were commonplace, and a small gas engine would last 30 or 40 years or more. There were many different brands, but they were distinct from one another--and you could tell one brand from the other with a casual glance.

vintage Briggs flathead engine

Small Engine History

Small engines can be traced back to the earliest days of the internal combustion engine. They have been part of American culture since at least the 1930s, when they found their way onto homemade farming devices, such as water pumps and corn shucking machines. These gas-powered labor-savers were also called upon to cut wood, lift weight, and other useful chores.



Long before there was automatic recoil pull-start, the pull-rope was separate from the engine. The starting process began with manually wrapping the rope around the engine pulley. If the motor didn't turn over on the first pull, the process was repeated until it did.

Gas-powered small engines were utilized to power home washing machines in rural houses that did not yet have electricity. Motors such as the Briggs WM (and others) featured a foot-starter, which made it easier for women to start.

Obsolete Small Engine Brands

Many small engine manufacturers have come and gone, such as Clinton, Wisconsin, and others. Lauson started producing small engines around 1930, and has been a subsidiary of Tecumseh Products since the late fifties.


Briggs & Stratton Flathead Engines

Few can argue that the best-known small engine manufacturer is Briggs & Stratton, who began production in 1908 and are still making small motors today.

small antique engines

Read: Briggs & Stratton 5S Engine

In 1953, they revolutionized the small engine industry by developing the first lightweight aluminum engine. Being lighter and less expensive than their cast-iron counterparts, these engines made gas-powered lawn equipment more affordable to post-WW2 consumers moving to America's new suburbs.

small engine history

Above is a 1950's Briggs and Stratton powered 'Pennsylvania' lawn mower, on display at the Smithsonian Museum.

Produced from the 1950's through the 1990's, five-horsepower Briggs flatheads are so popular that there are racing classes based on this engine.

vintage Briggs engine

Read: Briggs 5HP Flathead Engine

Read: Briggs 3.5 HP Flathead Engine

Briggs PulsaJet carburetor

Read: Briggs Tank-Mounted Carb Cleaning And Repair

Points vs Electronic Ignition

Early model Briggs flatheads had a points-style system, where the flywheel magnets rotate past the legs of the ignition armature. On this type of system, the ignition is always on.



By the mid-eighties, all Briggs & Stratton motors had been converted to electronic ignition. Earlier engines can be retro-fitted if so desired.

Read: Vintage Briggs & Stratton Engine Identification

As far as repair, Briggs small engines are generally considered the easiest to work on. And regardless of the vintage, nearly every part is still available. In fact, there are many aftermarket replacements for hard-to-find Briggs items.


Tecumseh Small Engines

Tecumseh began producing small engines back in 1934. In 1956, they purchased the Lauson Manufacturing Company, who at the time, were also a popular small engine brand.

Today, Tecumseh is jointly owned by Certified Parts Corporation (CPC) and Liquid Combustion Technology (LCT).

vintage small engine history
Vintage Tecumseh Engine Identification
Vintage Tecumseh Engine Build
Tecumseh Flathead Valve Seat Repair
Tecumseh Crank and Connecting Rod Inspection
Tecumseh Carburetor Replacement
Tecumseh Points Ignition Repair


Kohler Small Engines

The first Kohler engine was designed and sold during the 1920s. In 1948, the company opened a new factory to produce small engines They began producing a single cylinder, cast-iron air-cooled engine (the K90) in 1951. A year later, the K160 engine was introduced.

vintage Kohler motor in lawn tractor
Vintage Kohler small engine in Wheel Horse lawn tractor.

In 1965, an automatic compression release system (ACR) offered consumers an easier recoil start. A year later, engine number 1,000,000 rolled off the production line.

The Kohler Twin Cylinder Series II engine began in the 1980's. The Command series began around 1986/1987, and featured hydraulic valve lifters and OHV design.

Today, Kohler small engines are found in lawn tractors, lawn mowers, outdoor power equipment, welders, pressure washers, and other products. They power Toro's, Poulan's, Craftsman's, John Deere's, and other lawn care equipment brands.

Read: Kohler 7000 Engine Specs
Read: Cub Cadet XT1 Lawn Tractor Review


Vintage Lawn Mowers

vintage lawn mower ad

For Baby Boomers who grew up in Suburban America, old lawn mowers bring back fond memories. In today's collector market, complete, running examples are very desirable.

wind to start lawn mowers
Read: Wind To Start Lawn Mowers


Gas-Powered Scooters

A motor scooter is defined as having a step-through frame, flat foot-board, and rear-mounted engine. Originally invented to fill a need for inexpensive transport, step-through gas scooters have been around since the 1890's, but their popularity didn't start until the 1930's.

gas powered scooter history
Read: Gas Scooter History

In the early part of the 20th century, small engine manufacturers placed a large emphasis on product quality. Today, vintage small engines that are complete and running get harder to find with each passing year.

If you find one of these discarded relics, they can often be restored without too much difficulty. I've found rebuilding and displaying these old motors to be a very rewarding pastime.

vintage small engine collecting


Related Articles:

Lauson Small Engines
Wind To Start Lawn Mowers
How To Repair a Rusty Gas Tank
How To Restore Engine Tin
Integral Valve Seat Repair
Tools Needed For Small Engine Repair