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Buying a Fairmont Railroad Motorcar


I have collected traditional hot rods of some sort for most of my life. But about ten years ago I decided (mid life crisis) it was time for something different. After a year of hunting want ads and sale bills I bought a 1946 Fairmont Railroad Motorcar on a surplus auction. What did I know about a Railroad Motorcar...? Exactly Nothing!

I got it home, got it running found some abandoned track to try it out on and rode it (actually...pushed it more than I rode it) for a year. It was clear the motor was tired and needed an overhaul. Compression was about half of what it was supposed to be and the oil leaks were numerous.

The hunt was on for somebody that knew something about Fairmont 2-cycle engines. That somebody turned out to be Richard Canaday who along with his brother Jack ran a machine shop in Lathrop Missouri. Richard had a motorcar himself and understood all of the principles of how a Fairmont 2-cycle engine was designed to work and more importantly how to improve the efficiency (read increase horsepower and torque). He understood my logic that this was an opportunity to squeeze a little more torque and horsepower from this 2-cycle engine.

The bottom end was rebuilt and left alone with not room for much improvement there. Like most things designed in the early days it was over built for the job it had to do. With that portion of the engine in good shape it was time to move forward. The cylinder head was next.

This was the part Richard had been waiting for. I knew by the grin on his face he had a plan in mind and that my cylinder head was never going to be the same. I knew something was up when Richard chucked the cylinder head in the lathe then fired up the welder. This I had to see...  First the cylinder head was built up to increase the compression. Richard did this by hand with the head mounted in a lathe. There is some obvious talent there.

Hardly recognizable, this is the same head with the machine work done. That center section, was raised, about 5/16 of an inch. Richard knew exactly what he needed for a finished measurement. Not satisfied with a simple port and polish job Richard did a complete redesign of the cylinder head combustion area.

I was like a kid in a candy store having not watched somebody this good in more than twenty years. Richard is not a theory guy, he is an “absolute 100 percent know how something works” guy. “You can’t make something better ‘till you know for certain how it works!.” he often said.

This is the head reinstalled on the engine with the engine back in the motorcar. The Factory engine had steel head nuts and steel studs, which were seized to each other so when it is time to remove the cylinder head, all of the head bolt studs broke off in the block.

Richard made a tool to get the broken head studs out of the block. He also machined this set of brass head studs on the lathe as replacements. No more seized head bolts.

The engine would almost pass for stock except for the head bolts…and until you start it. The original cylinder compression in a new stock Fairmont engine is 65 pounds.  This one was down to 36 pounds. This one today is just shy of 85 pounds. The exhaust note “Barks” a sharp crack every time the engine fires, gone is the mellow putt putt sound.  These are hand crank start engines so cranking the engine is now a little more difficult, but well worth the trouble.

This is a stock piston out of a 1946 Fairmont 2-cycle engine. Looking at that dome and the fact that the piston weighs over a pound presented a few challenges.  These engines remained the same design from their introduction in the early 1920’s up into the mid 1970’s when they were discontinued.

 This was the part I was looking forward to. I had built speciality low rpm / high output alternators for many customers over the years it was time to build one for me. These engines are 2-cycle and have an idle speed of about 150 rpm and a maximum rpm of 650.  I needed an alternator with about 20 amps starting at 200 rpm That would run the headlight taillight and ignition with some amps to spare. I built a mounting bracket for the engine and installed the alternator. Happy to say it worked like a dream.  And I found yet another market for my alternators.

This is my Fairmont Motorcar stopped in the Rail Yard in Blue Rapids Kansas, only four miles to go until the end of the line. This rail line has 12 miles of track and has some great scenery. I also ride this line at night a couple of times a year which is quite the adventure. Night time is when all of the animals are out and about.  This railroad line has two sections of track that are two percent grades about a half a mile long each. My track speed used to be as slow as five miles an hour by the time I got to the top of the grade. Now I run 20 mph all the way up and over the hills. Not bad for an engine design that is over 90 years old.

On this rail line is a railroad bridge that is 90 feet about the Big Blue River and is about an 1/8 mile long. As you can see is has no railings and you can look down between the ties as you ride over it. It truly takes your breath away the first couple times you cross over it.

This is the same bridge at sunset. If you ride across this bridge about dusk you can often see the deer walking out onto the sand bars to drink out of the river. There is a lot to see along the railroad tracks that you cannot see from a road or the antique cars stashed in the back of farmsteads away from public view, or so they thought.

I now have my "something different" hot rod. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that it would be a railroad motorcar of 1945 vintage, that you could hot rod a 2-cycle engine designed in the 1920"s, and that I would be riding the rails for fun. You never know what life has in store so enjoy every day.

Here is a short video of my 1946 Fairmont  Motorcar in action. For comparison, the yellow motorcar that goes by first is a stock motorcar and has the typical putt putt exhaust note that all of the early 2-cycle motorcars are known for. Mine is the one following.

The exhaust note is quite different between the two. This is on the Central Branch Railroad in Waterville Kansas. You can stay in that hotel in the background, it has been restored. The caboose in the background is one of two surviving wooden cabooses left in Kansas. The Central Branch Railroad is now owned by the Marshall County Railroad Historical Society and is the oldest continuously operating Railroad in Kansas.

Thanks to Ed Hoover for his video services...

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About Me

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Since 1987, Fifth Avenue owner, Randy Rundle, has been making antique, classic and special interest vehicles more reliable and fun to drive.