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.

Danny Yates stands by the Model-32 to give you perspective on its size. Danny was one of the helpers that aided owner Jerry Biro in getting the old Fairbanks back into operation. The strange-looking covers on the cylinder bases are the air intake and reed-valve housings. The main intake air feed is in the floor and connects to an 18-inch intake air stack inside of the building. The bulges in the cylinders visible just above the catwalk are the intake runners that connect the crankcase to the intake ports.
The cylinder head is tied down with 10, 1.50-inch diameter studs. The injector (1) is at dead center and there is a compression release (2), so you can bar the engine over easily. Because it’s started with compressed air, there is a check valve for the compressed-air inlet (3) so compression pressure won’t blow back into the starting system when the engine starts. There were many types of cooling systems used, from gigantic radiators to cooling towers, water pits and even city water feeds, but many engines had a temp gauge at the cooling water elbow on each head. We are not sure what the item marked “5” refers to, but some engines used a hot bulb (an externally heated “glow plug”) for cold starts, and this may be the spot for it.

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.

This may save you from a little head scratching over how the crankcase scavenging 2-stroke intake system worked. The air inlet could be via a stack as seen to the right or via an intake filter bolted to the crankcase as seen on the left. Sometimes both were fitted. The blue arrows indicate the path for the intake air. The Green arrow marked “1” indicates the position of the reed valve. The crankcase of each individual cylinder was separate. When the piston went up, it increased the volume of the chamber and created a little suction so the large reed valve opened to allowed air to enter. When the piston went back down, the air volume in the crankcase was slightly compressed, closing the reed valve and when the piston dropped below the intake ports at the bottom of the sleeve, air was pushed into the cylinder up an air passage in the cylinder (green arrow 2) to the intake ports (green arrow 3). At 250 -360 rpm, this system worked just fine, though keeping oil out of the intake charge required a dry sump lubrication system.
This housing contains the injection pump, run off of eccentrics on the crankshaft snout. A main pump supplies injection pressure, while three separate valves (or however many for the number of cylinders) on another eccentric open and close to feed the injectors. The timing of this is done via the cover in the center. The injectors on the three-cylinder engine open at 2,200 psi, but some similar FM engines that used the same style of injector operated as high as 3,200 psi. The lever visible on the left of the housing controls the air starting, which also has a timing device in this housing. Below the housing is the main oil pump, where oil is recovered from the crankcase and stored in the tank to the right. Above the housing is the oil metering assembly that feeds oil through individual lines, and the lubrication system can be primed via a hand pump before startup. It is not a high-pressure system, and the oil is more or less dribbled into the bearings. Operating at such low speeds and on babbitt bearings, little oil is needed versus a more modern engine.

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 injector is huge. It could be rebuilt easily, using tools very much like manually operated valve-grinding equipment, and then lapped using lapping paste—just like valves were done in the old days. Then, one would check spring tension and install the complete valve onto the test stand. Using the adjuster on the top of the injector, pop-off pressure was set to 2,200 psi, the spray pattern observed and the injector was ready.

Common Use

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 … ”

The connecting rod wrist pin is about three inches in diameter and supported with 7/32 x 1-3/4-inch needle bearings, 237 of them per pin. At the lower end, the bearing consists of two solid pieces (not shown) that bolted to the base of the rod via the two bolt holes. The two bearing sections were shimmed to get the correct clearance, and the lower half used a cotton wick to spread the oil.
Moving the Model-32 was not an easy task, especially from a building only two steps from falling down. All extra parts had to be removed; the unit was then unbolted from the bed, jacked up, and then, slid on greased steel beams to the opening knocked into the side of the building, and rigged so a crane could lift it and place onto a lowboy trailer.

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
Displacement:                                            7,851ci
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


Hercano Propulsion

Striegel Supply Inc.

W.W. Williams Distribution

1 comment
  1. 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.

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