Lawnside Classic: The Mow You Know

But I’m not in voluminous company, as it seems; a lot of people had no love for the Tecumseh engines. My success with them was almost complete, though. The first was on my father’s ’79 Craftsman 20″ push rotary. One of my early memories is going with him in the nearly-new Caprice to pick it up. No more groovy metallic blue-green magnesium deck; this one had a red stamped steel deck assembly probably made by Roper. It was powered by a white TVS-90 stamped with Sears’ 143.XXXXXX number rather than “TVS-90 XXXXXX”, for the sole apparent purpose of adding a step to parts lookup. Fixed-speed (no throttle control); primer-equipped chokeless carb making the proud AUTOMATIC CHOKE decal on the starter housing a laff (maybe that was another fib by the “Foldamatic handle” guy?). It had a replaceable cylindrical-can pleated paper air cleaner; electronic ignition, and a toggle-type spark plug short-out engine stopper helpfully labelled STOPPING CONTROL—a secondary (heh) reason not to wear open-toed shoes while mowing. It had a “3.5 RESERVE POWER” decal on the fuel tank; that was a thing on Craftsman engines. They were labelled with the usual and customary number—3.0 for the 7.5 cubic inch engines; 3.5 for the 9-CID engines; 4.0 for the 10-CID engines, and 5.0 for the 12-CID engines, but instead of horsepower or HP, always with that screwy “Reserve Power” claim. No word on how a “reservepower” differs from a horsepower. Here’s that mower in the Spring 1979 Sears cattledog for $115 ($458 in 2022 dollars):

That mower was the victim of a mechanic named Craig, probably dead now, who ran a shop called Engine Clinic. I’m pretty sure he machined the crankshaft almost all the way through just above the blade attachment point and told my dad it was a real good thing he’d brought the mower in for a tune-up, because the blade could fly off and burst through the deck. He let us take home his Snapper mower with a heavy-duty 5-horse Briggs engine; he was trying to sell dad a new mower. If he was also trying to give me nightmares and daymares with that flying-blade warning, he succeeded.

The Snapper was several large cuts (har) above what we’d been using, but…no sale. The Craftsman, with the assent of Consumer Reports, was replaced by a Lawn Chief № 51D 20″ push rotary, about $170 ($430 in ’22 bucks) from True Value hardware. I’d militated for a Tecumseh engine, and this mower had another TVS-90. Not quite the same as the one on the Craftsman: it was black rather than white; had adjustable engine speed via a throttle lever on the mower handle; instead of the replaceable-can paper air filter it had Kleen-Aire—a really good piece of engineering—and it had operator presence control: the engine was braked to a stop in under 3 seconds if the operator let go the deadman bail at the top of the mower handle. That a concept most of two decades old when it was mandated in the US for 1982.

The Lawn Chief was a basic, generic mower. There’d’ve been nothing the matter with it if not for my overly-eager tinkering. Thing was, I had that giant parts manual and it was just full of temptingly swappable upgrades: two-quart fuel tank rather than one! In white rather than black so as to easily see the fuel level while filling! Bigger, quieter muffler! With nickel-plated finish! The list went on and on, but I had no money for parts, so I had to hasten the demise of stock parts in order to necessitate their replacement. Scheming little rotter! I am sure dad knew—he had to know—that plier crush marks don’t just appear on perfectly good polyethylene fuel tank outlets. He questioned me about it; shoulda busted me for it, but he didn’t. I wish I felt better because my monkeyshines didn’t actually cost a whole lot, but I don’t.

I’d been all for that fancy Snapper Craig had tried to sell dad, but dad wasn’t into spending big bucks—hence the Lawn Chief. I kept agitating (and, erm, sabotaging) for a fancier mower, and eventually found a juicy one at a shop not far from our house, run by Ron. I don’t remember the name of the shop; Ron also had another shop called Southside Lawn and Leisure, which had a terrific mower junkyard out back. One day while I was nosing around at the nearer shop, probably ogling the accessories rack, Ron asked me “Why do you spend so much time messing with lawnmowers, a kid like you?”. He meant a kid whose folks were positioned such that other options were available to him. I said, “Because I’m good at it”.

The de luxe used mower I’d found was an ’84 Snapper № 214X1PS with a Tecumseh TVXL105 heavy-duty 4hp engine. Self propelled by that company’s intriguing disc-drive setup, earlier versions of which had offered a Reverse position that was the same as the other drive speeds except completely dangerous. It had electric start; it was the commercial-duty “Extra Tough” model (metal ball-bearing wheels, other upgraded stuff); rear bag + side chute, the works with extra mayo, fries and a large drink. Of course I wanted it! Quite an upgrade, but it hadn’t had my kind of fastidious attention from new; it had chronic carburetor troubles and lost at least one ignition module (which might’ve been my fault—this time not on purpose). I should have just put on a new carb. Or maybe a new engine; some fastneners stripped in the aluminum block, which made it hard to secure the shroud. Only troublesome Tecumseh I had. That mower was the decal-festooned (yay!) heavy-duty version of the one on the cover of the brochure:


The Snapper was eventually replaced by a new Toro, a 1990 model. 21″ rear bag/side chute/mulch kit, self-propelled, and it had a blade clutch: instead of the engine being quick-stopped before the operator could put their hand or foot in harm’s way, just the blade was braked in a hurry; the engine carried on running for greater convenience. That year there were engine options: Toro’s new GTS (for “Guaranteed To Start”) 2- or 4-stroke engines made by Suzuki, or the Tecumseh OVRM-40, and OHV version of TVS-90, with a nifty lost-foam cylinder head casting. I was rabidly, ignorantly, brassily anti-Japanese at the time; Bob, the owner and chief mechanic of the shop I frequented on thoroughly somewhat-less-than-entirely-reputable East Colfax Avenue in Denver, said the Suzuki was the better engine, but “I know this kid, and if he’s keeping it running, let him pick the engine!”.

So we got the Tecumseh. There was some difficulty sealing the 2-piece exhaust system, and I think I put one carb kit in it, but half of that was just ’cause I wanted the sexy new red primer bulb rather than the boring ol’ regular ol’ normal ol’ black one. (Why, no, matter of fact, I didn’t have many friends as a kid…what makes you ask?)

Early on, a sooty smudge on the mower deck near the muffler outlet indicated it was running rich up at our altitude. The carb had no mixture needle, though. I wrote one of my numerous letters to the poor guy at Tecumseh—Ken Yoho was his name, and I’m sure he was sick to damn death of my annoying questions and requests for decals. But he sent me the part number for the “high altitude” adjustable main jet/bowl nut, which I installed and adjusted. Presto, no more soot. The mower itself was rather good. The transmission needed one rebuild, which was not too thrilling, but that’s it. I played around with different blade designs, mulching auxiliary blades, etc., aided and abetted by Bob.

When it came time to clean out the house after dad died and mother was moving to DC, I put the grass catcher through the washing machine a couple times, cleaned and carwaxed the deck and engine, and took it back to the shop. Bob was busy in the back; one of his employees hollered, “Hey, Bob, this guy says you know him and wants to consign his Toro.” Bob glanced up from his work out back and said “Oh, him? I’m sure it’s in perfect condition; write it up.” A few days later, he called me in; he’d got $350 ($587 in ’22) for it when a guy came in, leaned on it, and asked if he had any good used mowers in stock. When Bob said “That one you’re leaning on”, the guy couldn’t believe it was used and bought it straightaway (original purchase price a decade previous: $450 or so, which is $995 in ’22—refer again to those adjusted prices from back in the good ol’ days!). When I went to pick up the check, I gave Bob my giant Tecumseh parts manual; I’d moved on from engines with one cylinder to engines with six of them in a row at a 30-degree incline, and didn’t have space to keep or move the book.

I don’t have a mower any more, because I don’t have a lawn any more. What used to be lawn at my house is now bark mulch and native plants. Everyone’s happier this way: me, the bees, the birds, and the bankbook. But in Autumn ’15 when I happened to be in Denver for the first time in many years, I ducked in at the mower shop, still in business, and asked ol’ Bob if that parts manual might still be around. It was eventually found under a thick layer of dust and precipitated cigarette smoke, probably untouched since shortly after I’d dropped it off. I hauled it back home with me. The exploded views are still fascinating, as are my ancient annotations.

On the other side of those big bushes my dad’s mowing near in the lede pic of this post was the driveway, where resided—read all about it in my COAL series—another of my very early inspirations, my folks’ 1970 Dodge Dart:


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