Top 3 Vintage Small Engine Brands

Before diving into small engine history and describing the achievements that helped define the top vintage small engine brands, some perspective on how far small engine technology has come might be helpful. I hope you find some of the following small engine history as interesting as I have.

According to financial reports and supported by official press releases, at the time of publishing this article, the three companies currently making the most small engines for outdoor power equipment are Honda, Briggs and Stratton and Kohler, but that wasn’t always so.

Vintage Small Engine Mower Ad

In fact, many other brands of outdoor power equipment are powered by a small engine from Honda, Briggs and Stratton or Kohler via outsourcing agreements. Generac, Subaru and Kawasaki also deserve honorable mentions for current sales figures, together the small engine brands mentioned so far power over 90% of all non-electric outdoor power equipment.

Environment Driven Small Engine Innovation

As the world embraces an end to fossil fuel reliance in the fight against climate change, it is unclear which companies will best adapt their products to meet green demands. Instead of speculating on the future, here is a look at a couple of renewable energy alternatives that already exist to power small engines.

Did you know that small engines can run on water instead of gasoline? This is done by breaking down water molecules (H₂O) into oxygen(O₂) and hydrogen(H₂) molecules in a process called electrolysis.

Did you know that small engines can also run on other renewable alternatives? In fact, if you look at the back of a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) handbook, you can find schematics on building a gasifier.

A gasifier captures the gases created while burning something and can be used to power a small engine.

The future of small engines definitely looks cleaner, it will be interesting to see how quickly companies can innovate and adapt. Re-using and re-purposing small engines may be a better alternative to simply banning their use completely, especially in remote applications. Time will tell.

Small Engine History

Small engines have existed since the invention of the internal combustion engine. They have been used to make life easier by cutting wood, pumping water, moving heavy objects, generating electricity and even shucking corn.

Many companies have produced small engines over the years. Some of the companies eventually went out of business, like Wisconsin and Clinton, and others were sold to competitors, like Lauzon becoming a subsidiary of Tecumseh.

The Top 3 Vintage Small Engine Brands

Wow, choosing just three vintage small engine makers from all the companies seems like a daunting task. At the same time it’s not difficult at all, the following three companies have earned their position in history by producing quality small engines and adapting to changing consumer demands. Here are the top 3 vintage small engine brands.

Briggs and Stratton Small Engines

Old Briggs and Stratton Small Engine

Briggs and Stratton began producing small engines in 1908, and you can find one of their early models in the Smithsonian Museum, how’s that for a claim to fame? The company has revolutionized the small engine industry several times, like in 1953 when they introduced the first lightweight aluminum engine.

Lightweight engines were cheaper to manufacture than their cast iron counterparts, which made the equipment they powered more affordable for consumers. Briggs and Stratton also branched out into other industries with the introduction of the 5HP “Flathead” engine, a favorite among cart racing enthusiasts.

Briggs and Stratton, at one time the largest producer of small engines in the world, entered bankruptcy and their assets were purchased by KPS Capital Partners in Sept of 2020. They now operate as an independent company with the long-term support of KPS, a leading global private equity investor.

Kohler Small Engines

Vintage Kohler Small Engine

In 1920 Kohler built the first modern-day small engine generators to power Kohler plumbing products and provide instant electricity to rural homes, boats and small businesses. By 1929 they were powering lights and sound trucks for Hollywood movie sets.

In 1931 Kohler engines powered the construction lights of the Hoover Dam and in 1933 they accompanied explorer Richard Byrd on his trip to the South Pole. From the start of WWII, in 1939, Kohler generators powered mobile hospitals and radio communications for the allies.

The year was 1948 when Kohler invented the now famous K series of stand-alone small engines to power almost everything that requires a motor. K-series engines were unmatched in reliability, and many are still in good running condition today on old lawn mowers and some snowmobiles.

Kohler’s history is full of fascinating facts. Kohler sold its 1,000,000th small engine in 1966. The first lawn mower electronic fuel ignition(EFI) system ever was made by Kohler in 1998. Kohler Command engines are a favorite among consumers today, however Kohler Courage models are not as warmly received, you can’t win them all!

Still, the positive impact Kohler small engines have made throughout their history is undeniable, earning Kohler a well-deserved spot on the top 3 vintage small engine brands list.

Tecumseh Small Engines

Vintage Tecumseh Small Engine

Tecumseh Products officially opened for business in a 50,000 square foot production plant located in Tecumseh, Michigan in 1934. It was formed by Raymond Herrick and his friend Charles Floyd Sage, who had previously operated a manufactured parts business prior to the great depression.

Initially, Tecumseh focused on refrigeration compressors, but in 1981 they agreed to a joint venture with Italian Fiat Settori Componenti to enter the small engine business. The venture proved successful as Tecumseh engines gained market share globally on outdoor power equipment.

Tecumseh small engines powered many lawn mowers for 28 years, and many are still in good working condition today thanks to their durable design. Unfortunately, much of Tecumseh’s gasoline engine business, including parts and intellectual rights, were sold to Platinum Equity LLC in order to satisfy debts.

In February 2009 Platinum LLC announced that Tecumseh’s small engine assets had been sold to Certified Parts Corporation and that Tecumseh products had closed their business doors permanently. Still, having worked on many Tecumseh small engines, I can say that overall they were very reliable small engines, even if they were sometimes frustrating to work on.

Conclusion

The top 3 small engine brands were chosen in part by how long their respective companies dominated the outdoor power equipment market. It takes many years of improvements and innovation to remain a leader in any industry, and these three companies rose to the challenge.

That being said, there have been many great small engine designs over the years, by many other companies, and this list does not in any way suggest they are inferior. In fact, many of their small engines may be more valuable today because they are rarer, which is important to nostalgia buffs.

Still, to be considered a top brand it takes many years of satisfying customer demands, staying ahead of industry changes and earning a good reputation. All 3 of the top small engine companies accomplished these goals over prolonged periods of time.