(first posted 3/12/2011. Updated 3/12/2021 with new ending and pictures of the disassembled worn out engine)
After a record mild winter, the grass is calf-high, and it’s time to bring out my collection of fine vintage mowers from the shed. I don’t know about you, but lawnmowers were a critical gateway to satisfy my childhood lust for cars and internal combustion devices. My first mowing job came at the age of eight, when a neighbor inquired if anyone in our household was willing to make fifty cents. My mother had to start the Briggs and Stratton, and I was off on a long career of mowing, with a lightweight, easy-to-push mower almost exactly like this one.
But I hate the evolution of mowers; they parallel that of cars: they’re full of safety devices and cheaper materials that have made them heavy and complicated. I gave up on a crappy (not a Honda) new mower years ago, and have assembled a mini fleet of the finest, lightest aluminum and magnesium deck best-mowing mowers ever. These are the equivalent of old Porsches or? And the price was right: I mostly found them sitting at the curb with “Free” signs on them.
This old Montgomery Ward with the classic B&S 3hp engine may not be exactly a 1964 (I don’t read VIN numbers!), but it’s representative of the vintage. A featherweight aluminum deck with nice “vacuum action”, the unobstructed pathway for the mowed material means this puppy will rip through the tallest, thickest grass, weeds, brush and baby rabbits without ever slowing down or clogging a deck or bag.
Did someone say bag? The single most wretched invention in mowing since the safety handle and heavy steel decks! Leaving the clippings on the lawn is how grass naturally feeds itself! Why would anyone want to go to all the effort to haul it off, and then have to spread fertilizer? This mower flays the grass so finely (and far), in a day or two, the cuttings aren’t visible. Or I long ago stopped caring.
The most pathetic thing I see constantly is people struggling to mow thick spring lawns without the bagger and with the opening to the rear closed off; folks, it just doesn’t work! They end up mowing at a snail’s pace, and torturing the mower and themselves. I could whiz through their jungle in a fraction of the time with one of these babies. It’s another example of how what was common knowledge is now lost on so many.
These mowers are absolute featherweights; I can pick one up ever so easily, and toss it in the back of my truck or xBox. In the sixties, when people had the priorities straight, light weight was a primary selling point for mowers. You simply have no idea how effortless these mowers scoot along, even up hills. And don’t even mention self-propelled mowers: think of mowing as good exercise, not a chore. I speed walk with this one.
When I found this mower at the curbside, I was attracted by that lovely deck (I’ve become an aficionado of old alloy decks), but I pulled the starter to see if it would turn over. It was almost frozen up. The oil was totally empty. Good way to get a B&S to stop running. I brought it home for the deck anyway, put some fresh oil in it, and pulled a bit. It began to loosen up. Pull a bit more, put in some fresh gas, and it sprang right to life, the Lazarus of mowers. That was eight (now nine) years ago. And we (my younger son, mostly now) have about a dozen rental houses to mow (they’re clustered like in a complex with common yard area). It hasn’t shown any sign of petering out yet, except for a mild drop in compression. I know where to find plenty more of these engines, if the need arises. But the deck is a keeper.
The other mower in the fleet is a Sears (above), and it sports a genuine magnesium deck! Its deck lacks the nice swirled chamber of the Monkey Ward, and the magnesium deck is having structural issues, such as holes appearing (from gravel?) and a big crack I had to mend with a steel plate.
It probably won’t last as long as the other one, but its engine is still in the prime of its life, and has decades ahead of it. Well, instead of talking about them, it’s time to go put them to use. Which one shall it be today?
Update: (this article was first written exactly this time last year): I pulled out the Sears yesterday after sitting in an open-sided shed all winter, and it started up on the second pull (with a little puff of white smoke). And I also have a new addition to the fleet:
A Lawn Boy, considered by many to be the all-time durability champ. Two-stroke, which means a flavor of oil in the air. That makes me wonder if one could use vegetable oil, to make it smell like french fries? I picked it up last fall and have been too busy to mess with it, but I doubt it’ll take much to get it purring again.
I discovered the miraculous simplicity and lightness of Lawn Boys when I had a gig mowing a neighbor’s lawn. She had one from the early fifties or late forties, similar but not quite the same as above. It was nothing but the deck, wheels, handle and a totally bare engine with exposed flywheel/fan which required a real rope starter, that had to be wound around the fan pulley each time.
But it had to be the lightest mower ever built; the Holy Grail of mowers, if lightness and simplicity are your thing. They are mine.
Update (3/12/2021): It finally wore out. The compression got weaker and its oil consumption got stronger.
I took it apart, thinking I might rebuild it.
The cylinder is worn, not surprisingly. There’s a decent ridge at the top.
And a fair bit of scuffing from dirt/debris. These are of course aluminum cases, with a treated bore, meaning that honing is not a realistic option.
So it will probably just go into a bucket as spare parts. If I can find a good motor with the right (short) shaft, the deck is still usable, and it’s my favorite because it just rips through tall grass and is very light.
I actually stopped using the Ward a couple of years ago and let it sit, and turned to my other vintage lightweight, this Sears magnesium housing mower from the 60s, with a later engine. It still runs, but it’s starting to show signs of advanced age too, the beginnings of the same symptoms as the Ward’s. B&S engines don’t last forever.
I spotted this cheap little mower sitting at the curb in the neighborhood a few months back, and tossed it into the truck. It had zero compression, but looked like someone had tried to take the head off. I pulled off the head and replaced the damaged head gasket, and replaced the carb diaphragm, and it started right up. Unfortunately, this motor, like all the newer ones, has a longer shaft than what the Ward’s deck needs, so for now I’m using it as is, although the side discharge plugs up in really heavy wet grass, as we get here in the spring. It’s been a warm winter, and I already had to mow once in February!