Lawnside Classic: The Mow You Know

Now, I had a real thing for lawnmowers—particularly their engines—when I was a kid—I couldn’t have a car or a motorcycle, but a lawnmower had an engine and wheels, and that’s a pretty good start when you’re eleven! I pestered the engine companies for brochures, then cut out the pictures of engines and pasted them on my bedroom walls. I wish I’d kept the brochures intact in a binder, which I suppose is like normal people wishing they’d treated their baseball cards more carefully when they were normal kids.


My early lit included Paul Dempsey’s TAB Books on the topic, and a mid-’70s fixit book with a funky green-and-white cover, written by…Castellano, was it? Yep, this one; what do we see powering the mower on the cover? It’s a Tecumseh LAV engine with a windup starter. If you’re particularly sharp of eye, you’ll notice the photo has been printed wrong way round (or maybe this what we’re looking at is the model for Australia and the rest of the Southern hemisphere).

About those “LAV” engines I keep mentioning: unlike Briggs-Stratton’s and Clinton’s purely numerical engine models, Tecumseh named their engine families; the numbers came after the sometimes-a-bit-contrived name. For example:

LAV: Lightweight Aluminum Vertical (Tecumseh inherited this from Lauson)

TVS: Tecumseh Vertical Styled (an industrial designer had a go at the LAV’s blower shroud for updated appearance, in the process creating more space under it so the engineers could use a more effective flywheel fan; offer more different fuel tanks, and move the ignition coil out from under the flywheel)

TVXL: Tecumseh Vertical eXtra Life (TVS with cast iron cylinder liner, upgraded exhaust valves, etc)

TNT: Toro ‘n’ Tecumseh (Toro wanted some brand-specificity, and they bought enough engines that Tecumseh said okeh; the changes were mostly cosmetic)

ECV: Exclusive Craftsman Vertical (Sears bought a lot of engines and wanted brand-specificity; these were essentially LAVs with changes were both cosmetic and mechanical)

LEV: Low Emissions Vertical (TVS with reshaped combustion chamber, less carburetion slop, etc; these hadn’t yet come out when I was horsing around with engines)

OVRM: Overhead Valve Rotary Mower (OHV version of TVS)

Alongside from topical library books were the factory service manuals; oh gawd, yes. I bought one or two of them, but wheedled many of them directly from the engine manufacturers for the cost of a couple of postage stamps and a handwritten letter; that works surprisingly well when you’re a kid, or at least it did back then. I saved up—$22, I think—and bought a giant early-and-late-production Tecumseh master parts catalogue, about a foot thick, which I spent hours poring over. I used its section dividers as inspiration in response to my science teacher giving me an “N” (“Needs Improvement”, roughly the equivalent of a “D”) for my notebook organisation; the revamped notebook raised my mark to an “E” (“Excellent”, which translates to “A”).

I had a big two-volume complete Clinton parts and service manual, too, which I wish I hadn’t discarded; it had some of the most thoughtful explanations of basic engine theory I’ve ever seen, and was full of fantastic illustrations; because internet, I was able to roust up some samples—not in very good quality, but get a load o’ those mortally-terrified flowers, and the hapless operator being flight-hauled behind the theoretical mower charging along at 18 theoretical miles per theoretical hour:

Oh, and there was this completely bizarre book I found at the Denver Public Library, written by one “Barnacle Parp”. That nom de plume and the rambling stream of consciousness that forms the book’s text suggest heavy drugs were flushing around in the outdoor power equipment literary circles of that time.

I had no interest in sputtering, stinking 2-stroke engines by any maker except for a passing curiosity with Outboard Marine Corp’s reputably durable Lawn Boy items. Still don’t. As for real (4-stroke) units, I devoutly, chauvinistically favoured Tecumseh (née Lauson) engines. Beancounters had been loosed by the time I came round, the annual model change fanfare had died way down, innovation in areas other than cost reduction had almost flatlined as mowers and engines got good enough for most purposes and American industry got smug, and Briggs’ engineering was too cheapcentric for my taste. Mower engines are a safe place to have strong opinions because the stakes are so low—it’s easy, watch this: vertical-pull starters as a class are dumb, but the Briggs unit is dumbest of all because of the drag it places on the rope, which is routed around corners, and the slow speed at which it cranks the engine. Yes, it works, but it’s an offensively clumsy piece of thoughtlessly-designed junk compared to the elegance of the sprag clutch arrangement used with their horizontal-pull and windup starters. Tecumseh’s vertical-pull starters, except for their very early first design, were differently but equally questionable, though some of them tried to stave off mowing drudgery by dint of entertainingly-labelled handles:


And I preferred Tecumseh’s primer-equipped float carbs, positive-displacement oil pumps, and mechanical governers versus Briggs’ cheaper, more primitive air vanes; oil splash dipper-flingers, and those flood-o-matic Pulsa-Jet carburetors—especially the plastic ones, believe it or don’t—Briggs perched atop the inconveniently-low gas tank.

What I actually had was an eye for industrial design, and a keen interest in it, though I wouldn’t have been able to describe it that way at the time for want of vocabulary. Inspired by the bummed brochures, I made drawings in pencil on newsprint paper of engine designs along Tecumseh’s philosophy, with carefully-rulered lines pointing to various features and blurbs about each one. Not –all– many of them had engineering validity, but—eh!—I was 11; whaddya want outta me?


I always thought it’d be fun to put together a cool vintage Toro Whirlwind with a hot rodded Tecumseh engine—it’d’ve probably been their last piece of thoughtful engineering, the OVRM overhead-valve iteration of their TVS engine, dressed up in period style with oil bath air cleaner; one of their rough-service diaphragm carbs (always wanted to play with one but never got the chance); the fuel cap with the built-in gauge; that giant round funnel-shaped oil minder; a windup starter (natch), a cover plate for the hole in the deck for the dumb down-discharge exhaust Toro used for way too many years—that’s the wrong way to do it unless the goal is to envelop the operator in a cloud of bladefan-propelled exhaust, not forgetting the gasoline of that time was leaded—and an above-deck SuperQuiet muffler from Tecumseh’s Taylor Muffler division. Red deck, white engine and shroud, lotsa decals. Never had all the right parts at the same time. Got that muffler on the shelf, though; perhaps it’ll go with those two NOS windup starters.


Pages: 1 2 3 4 5