Restoring and running old putt-putts is a labor of love that plays a heartfelt tune for this ferric aficionado.
They’re old, slow and require constant tinkering to keep them ticking. These heavy chunks of metal make my old Land Rover look like a lean-burn, four-stroke outboard. I’m talking about putt-putt marine engines.
The cast-iron inboard engines are a throwback to a time when men were made of iron and ships were made of wood. There are no batteries or starter motors attached to these bolted-together babies. To start one, you need to be part contortionist, part mechanic and part discus thrower. First, you add a splash of fuel to the copper tank. Then, adjust a number of unmarked brass knobs and needles on the carb (or atomizer). Finally, you must stretch your lower back out, crouch down, wrap your arms around the cast-iron flywheel and let ’er rip.
You can use a leather belt wrapped around the flywheel to start the smaller two-stroke models. Normally it takes a couple of choice curse words to get it to fire, igniting in a puff of white smoke before finding the steady beat of a bass drum.
The acoustics of a putt-putt engine are entrancing, from the cylinder firing at the top of its stroke to the accompanying orchestra of brass water pumps, gears and lifters playing in unison.
Putt-Putt Marine Engines
To some owners, these engines fuel their nautical nostalgia, but for many it’s a love affair with simple, beautiful mechanics. Mike Hingst sees it that way. He’s lived by Lake Macquarie, north of Sydney, Australia, all his life, surrounded by engines and timber launches in various stages of rebuild. He works alongside Pepe, his faithful fox terrier, who sleeps in an old engine box.
“If put together right, putt-putts are easy to service and work on, and cheap to run,” Hingst says. He’s got more than 100 of them that are over a century old. He even has 15 on display in his living room alongside the TV and trophies won at rallies for old machinery.
When asked what the ladies think of his ferrous furnishings, he says, “I had a girlfriend who said engines didn’t belong in the house. She gave me an ultimatum. Well, she’s no longer here.”
Hingst’s love affair with old engines started when he was 13. His father bought him an old wooden launch from Hire Craft of Toronto. She was powered by a light-green 2.5-hp Vinco, made by the Vincent Bros. in Sydney. Hingst putt-putted all over, trolling for bluefish with wooden handlines and silver wobblers. His love of boats led to a career as a shipwright—and later as a collector and restorer of old engines very similar to the baby Vinco that started it all.
Hingst’s engines come from all over the world, most notably Australia, America and England. As an Aussie, he prefers locally built engines, which carry a higher demand. He’ll only part with an engine if he’s got more than one, and prices start at $1,000 and end up north of $3,000 for a fully rebuilt engine.
Putt-putt engines were—and still are—used in shaft-drive timber launches from 12 to 25 feet. In their day, they could be found in for-hire boats, private vessels, professional fishing boats and the milkman’s launch. When outboards landed in the 1950s, putt-putt engines were put in the shed or left to rust in their timber cradles.
Being raw-water cooled, the cast-iron water jackets typically rusted out if the sparking system didn’t corrode first. Hingst encounters engines in all states of disrepair. In most cases, the owners don’t even know what they’ve got. Occasionally, a family heirloom lands on Hingst’s workbench, brought in by an anxious family member hoping to restore the ancient engine in loving memory of granddad.
A rebuild involves surveying the water jacket and stripping all the mechanicals apart. The iron components are wire-brushed and ground, then repainted, often in fire-engine red or Brunswick green. After honing the block and replacing rings and parts (as well as valve work on four strokes), the engine is meticulously reassembled. Hingst even places roller bearings in the kitchen fridge to subtly change dimensions, allowing for easy assembly. The sparking system (magneto) is tested and possibly repaired, before breathing life into the engine again.
Once rebuilt, the best way to look after a putt-putt is to use it often. Flush them with fresh water after use and change the oil once a year (if it’s a four stroke). If the engine lives on a boat on a mooring, leave the jackets in fresh water by installing a three-way system at the inlet and pumping a bucket of fresh water through, leaving it in the jacket. Clean fuel is essential for a long and good life.
“Put together well and maintained, a putt-putt engine will last a lifetime,” Hingst reckons, and keep playing that well-honed tune.