Fairbanks-Morse is a storied name in the world of diesels, and it has celebrated over 100 years building diesels. The company goes back to 1832, when Thaddeus Fairbanks opened an iron-working shop in Vermont. Fairbanks eventually expanded into building weight scales, which formed the cornerstone of his early success. Charles Morse, a longtime Fairbanks employee, eventually partnered with Thaddeus to form Fairbanks Morse & Company. Fairbanks Morse (FM) manufactured a huge array of metal products besides scales and by the late 1800s, was one of the largest manufacturers in the USA.
Starting in the 1890s, Fairbanks Morse expanded into oil, naphtha and kerosene-fueled engines, which soon acquired a reputation for being well built and reliable. When Rudolph Diesel’s patent on the compression ignition engine expired in 1912, the company expanded into that realm, first making hot-bulb, semi-diesels. Its first true, high-compression diesel was the Y-VA in 1924, and it was a raging success. The Y-VA evolved into the Model 32 soon thereafter.
The two-stoke Model 32 was a versatile and long-lived, modular design, offered in two-bore and stroke configurations; 12×15 inches and 14×17 inches. The 12×15 engine displaced 1,696 cubic inches per cylinder and the 14×17 made 2,616 ci per cylinder. The 12 x15 engine made approximately 50hp per cylinder at 257rpm and was built in one-, two- or three-cylinder configurations, in rpm ratings up to 360rpm. The 14×17 engines could make 60 to 75hp per cylinder, and could be configured on one-, two-, three-, four-, five- and six-cylinder crankcases, with rpm ranges from 257 to 360 rpm. They were started with 250psi of compressed air and could be built to run in clockwise- or counter-clockwise rotation.
The induction systems are very unusual in today’s world and, back then, varied by application. Being two-strokes, they didn’t have the separate intake stroke to inhale a full cylinder of air. Instead of intake and exhaust valves, they used ports on either side of the cylinder that were covered or uncovered at various points in the piston stroke. They needed help breathing, and three methods were used: crankcase scavenging and two types of mechanical air pumps. The type of induction system was indicated in the designation with a letter, A, D, E, F or Y (e.g. 32E-14), and with a number (which could be -12 or -14) indicating the bore size, and another (the “32”) indicating the engine model.
The most common intake system was crankcase scavenging, indicated by the letters E, F, or Y. How a crankcase scavenging system works is both strange and wonderfully simple, so reference the featured illustration for details. A-suffix engines (e.g. a 32A) had a crankshaft-drive, flapper-type blower. Sadly, we haven’t seen that system firsthand, so we can’t describe it. The D-suffix engines used a piston-type blower mounted to the front of the crankshaft, but, again, it’s hard to say what it looked like or how exactly it worked.
The Model-32 engines saw extensive use as stationary power plants, commonly driving generators and pumps. Some are still in use. The City of Delta, Colo., still has three operational Model-32 diesels, two 14×17 three-cylinders running 125KW generators, and one 14×17 four-cylinder running a 172 KW generator. They also have four much larger Fairbanks-Morse generators that supplied main power to the city until the late 1960s, when high-power lines finally made it to Delta. They are maintained as backups and still occasionally used, though the Delta Power Plant has become more of a museum than anything. DW
“The Model-32 will tickle the soles of your feet when it runs … ”
This Model-32 Fairbanks…
This Model-32 Fairbanks was used in a flour mill in Shelby, Ohio. According to the available information, Moody & Thomas Milling installed it into their newly completed mill in 1932, and had it running flour-milling machines on four floors of the building via a complex arrangement of 36-inch belts, shafts and pullies. A large generator was also attached, and when it wasn’t supplying power for the mill, it was occasionally used as emergency power for the city of Shelby. The three-cylinder diesel ran at a fixed 257rpm, day in and day out, for almost 40 years. The historians at the Shelby Museum report that the plant was in operation past 1960, still run by the big 32E-14. The plant was largely shut down in the early 1960s, and from information kindly supplied by Tom Claybaugh at the Shelby Museum, it may have been run occasionally into the early 1970s, at which point a new owner attempted to put the mill back into service.
By 2012, the engine was still in place, but it hadn’t run for decades. The derelict, abandoned and vandalized building was slated for destruction (it was torn down in May of 2013), and that’s when Jerry Biro stepped in. If you are into obsolete diesels, you may have heard his name as owner of Hercano Propulsion, a supplier of Hercules Engine Parts. He is also a vintage-engine collector and the Fairbanks-Morse is his largest.
It was an epic trip that could probably be in the “ultimate” engine-swap category. Stripped by vandals, the Model-32 still weighed 16 tons. Getting it moved required a lot of work; tearing down walls, chain hoists, greased beams, cranes and lowboy trailers. Once at his shop, it required an engine bed to be constructed that included intake and exhaust systems. Jerry scoured suppliers and private sellers all over the country to make the engine whole again. It took a bit more than a year to get the engine running. The cooling system is not fully plumbed yet, but the engine can run that way for quite a while with no load.
Jerry fired the engine up for us. You’ve heard the expression, “The earth moved for me?” Well, despite many yards of reinforced concrete poured for the engine bed, the Model-32 will tickle the soles of your feet when it runs—even if at a leisurely 257rpm. It’s unclear how many hours Jerry’s engine has on it, but the Model-32 was notoriously long-lived and designed to run 24/7 for years. This old bruiser could probably go back to work if needed and deliver decades more service.
Typical Specifications: Fairbanks-Morse Model-32
Engine: 3-cylinder diesel, 2-stroke
Bore & Stroke: 14×17 inches
Power: 180 hp @ 257rpm
Torque: 3,678lbs-ft @ 257rpm
Compression Ratio: 500psi (about 20:1)
Fuel Consumption: 9.88gph @ 257rpm
Weight: 20 tons
Fairbanks Morse Engine
Striegel Supply Inc.
W.W. Williams Distribution
Thanks for the article. I really like Fairbanks Morse Model 32 engines and have done a lot of research on them. They started out as the Model Y in semi-diesel form. When they evolved to a full diesel, they started as the Y-VA and used indirect (2 stage) injection. They had a precombustion chamber bolted to the top of the cylinder head. The injection system was low-pressure, injecting fuel through a single hole injector into the top of the precombustion chamber. The model in this article is actually a 180hp Y-VA that has been converted to direct injection, using upgrade parts supplied by Fairbanks Morse. This could be one in two ways. The upper bases used on the 32A are unique and very similar to the Model Y. They could be converted to direct injection by using either special-made cylinders that fit the existing base and later design heads and pistons, (10 stud heads) or they could be converted using special-made heads to fit the existing cylinders and different pistons. These heads were made for direct injection, but for the original cylinders, which had 12 cylinder head studs like the Model Y. (FYI the Model Y semidiesel engines could not be converted to full diesel. The bottom end was smaller and was not designed to withstand the pressures needed for full diesel operation.) The Y-VA became known as the Model 32A at some point, the one in this article would have been later referred to as a 32A-14 180hp. The letters indicate the evolution of the Model 32, each having progressively more efficient cylinder scavenging and injection systems. They were all crankcase scavenged. The 32A had scavenging air flowing into one side of the cylinder, opposite to the exhaust ports. There was a fin on the piston in an effort to direct the incoming air more towards the top of the cylinder, just as the Model Y semi-diesels. The 32B still used indirect injection and began production in late 1928. The change was in the cylinder scavenging ports, having straight cylinder sides and a radial air flow into the cylinder, coming into the cylinder from the back and sides. The fin on the piston was no longer necessary and was removed in the 32B. The Model 32C began production around 1930 and still used the same scavenging system as the 32B. The change with this model was to direct, high-pressure injection. The engine in this article has been converted to this system. The pistons have bowl shaped tops, forming the lower half of a somewhat spherical combustion chamber with the head forming the upper half. This change significantly increased efficiency. The next change came around 1933 with the Model 32D, having the addition of cooling passages below the scavenging ports to increase cylinder cooling and reliability as horsepower ratings increased. The operating rpm was also increased from 257 rpm to 300 rpm on the 14×17 engines and from 300 rpm to 360 rpm on the 12×15 engines. Horsepower ratings were also increased to 70hp/cylinder on the 14×17 engines and to 55hp on the 12×15 engines. The final change to the Model 32 engines came as the Model 32E around 1936. This model used an improved cylinder scavenging method known as back-flow scavenging. The scavenging ports directed the air flow towards the back of the cylinder, up the cylinder wall opposite the exhaust ports. This change greatly improved scavenging and allowed the horsepower ratings to increase to 75hp/cylinder on the 14×17 engines and 60hp/cylinder on the 12×15 engines. The practical limit to power was now reached, because the piston could not withstand higher sustained horsepower without oil cooling, which was not possible with crankcase scavenging.