THE HERCULES GAS ENGINE COMPANY
have been three distinct companies
that produced Hercules engines—The Hercules Gas Engine Works of San
The Hercules Manufacturing Company located in Canton, Ohio, and the
Gas Engine Company of Evansville, Indiana.
The Hercules Gas Engine Works based in San Francisco was organized in 1893 and produced stationary engines until 1907, when it was purchased by the Peerless Motor Company. The Hercules Gas Engine Works produced Hercules, Improved Hercules, New Hercules, Palmer and Ray engines.
The Hercules Manufacturing Company in Canton, Ohio, was the largest and longest-lived of the three companies that produced Hercules engines. It was organized in 1915 to make heavy-duty engines for trucks and tractors. It eventually produced gasoline engines for a wide variety of applications such as pumps, air compressors, generators, well-drilling rigs, etc. In 1931 it expanded to produce diesel engines. The company was purchased by the Hupp Corporation in 1961, which in turn was taken over by the White Motor Company in 1969 and operated as the White Engine Division. The company was sold again in 1976 and functioned as an independent company under the name White Engines. In 1987, the company was renamed Hercules Engines and operated under that name until it closed its doors in 1999. During its long history, this company was a major supplier of gasoline and diesel engines to over 500 other companies in the U.S. and abroad.
The third company producing Hercules engines (the subject of this article) was an offshoot of the Brighton Buggy Works in Cincinnati, Ohio. This company was founded by William Harvey McCurdy in 1894. The company was a major supplier of buggies to Sears, Roebuck and Company and sales grew rapidly to the point where the company needed to expand. In 1902 the company was moved to Evansville, Indiana and renamed the Hercules Buggy Company.
Business was good and William McCurdy was an astute entrepreneur. His holdings rapidly expanded to include the Hercules Buggy Company, the Hercules Body Company, the Hercules Wheel Company, the Hercules Surrey and Wagon Company, the Hercules Warehouse Company, the Hercules Paint Company and the Hercules Lumber Company. William McCurdy was actively involved in local and regional railway systems, amongst other things, and his companies built streetcars and railway cars for these systems.
The Hercules Buggy Company had early ties to the production of gasoline engines. Sears Motor Buggies were built in McCurdy’s Evansville factories from the early 1900’s until 1909, when production was moved to the Sears Motor Car Works factory in Chicago. However, bodies of Sears’ cars continued to be built in Evansville until 1912, when the car was discontinued.
Sears, Roebuck and Company had been buying stationary engines from a company it controlled in Sparta, Michigan—the Holm Machine and Manufacturing Company. However, this company was unable to keep up with the demand, so in 1912, William McCurdy was asked to become the supplier of stationary engines for Sears. The Hercules Buggy Company purchased the Holm Machine and Manufacturing Company and built a new factory in Evansville to build engines. On November 8, 1912, the Hercules Gas Engine Company was formed; the first Hercules engines were released in early 1914. In 1914, the company was building approximately 150 gasoline engines each day. From 1914 until the factory’s closing in 1934, over 400,000 gasoline engines were produced in Evansville.
The Hercules Gas Engine Company’s earliest engines, based on the Holm Company’s line, ranged in size from 2 to 14 HP. This was soon reduced to 1 ½ to 10 HP. The engines were similar in appearance. The line was restyled in 1915; all engines were painted green, with red striping. During its long career the company produced engines that were sold under the tradenames Ajax, Arco, Atlas, Atlas-Mixer, Barnwall, Champion, Economy, Economy King, Erren, Hardie, Hercules, Hoag, Hvid, Jaeger, Keystone, Loane, Reeco, Rohaco, Saxon, Servel, Taylor Vacuum, Thermoil, and Williams. The Hercules Gas Engine Company maintained close ties with Sears, Roebuck and Company into the early 1930’; both companies sold nearly identical Economy engines from 1915 until the late 1920’s, when Sears discontinued its Economy engine.
During its long history, the Hercules Gas Engine Company produced engines producing 1 ½, 1 ¾, 2 ½, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, and 18 HP. By 1931, only the 1 3/4, 2 ½, 6, 8, and 18 HP models were available. Early 7, 9 and 12 HP engines had separate screened-cooling tanks instead of water hoppers. The company produced at least nine different 1 ½ HP engines through the years. In the early 1920’s, the 1 ½ HP models were replaced by 1 ¾ HP Model S engines. Most Hercules engines had Webster magnetos, carburetors with built-in fuel pumps and volume-controlled governors instead of the typical hit-or-miss systems. All engines except for the 1 ½ and 2 ½ HP models were available with either gasoline or kerosene carburetors; the 1 ½ and 2 ½ models had hit-or-miss systems and couldn’t be adapted to burn kerosene. In the mid 1920’s, Webster low-tension magnetos were replaced with Wico high-tension magnetos and igniters were replaced by spark plugs. The Model S Series of engines were available with 1 ¾, 2 ½, 3 ½, 6, 8, 10, and 14 HP.
The Hercules Gas Engine company also produced oil engines based on the R.M. Hvid fuel system design. Through the years, these engines were available in sizes including 2 ½, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 HP. These engines were not as successful as the company’s gasoline engines; early models in particular had problems with broken crankshafts, ruptured main frames, etc.
The Hercules Gas Engine Company produced a number of products powered by Hercules engines. The 5, 7, 9 and 12 HP engines could be outfitted with circular saws for an additional $24.00.
An additional 30 inch blade cost approximately $6.00. Thousands of dragsaws were sold with 1 ½ HP engines; later they were offered with 5, 7, 9 and 12 HP engines. These saws had 5 foot blades. The dealer price for a dragsaw powered by a 1 ½ HP engine was $74.00; an extra blade was $4.45. The dragsaws were produced until 1931 and were sold through Sears dealerships.
Belt-driven or direct-drive pumpjacks were available with 1 ½ or 3 HP engines. In 1922, the dealer’s price for a 3 HP Hercules engine was $70.00. With a pumpjack and a gasoline carburetor, the price was $97.00. At this time, the dealer’s cost for a 7 HP engine was $136.50, a 9 HP engine cost $198.00, and the price of a 12 HP engine was $243.00. A kerosene carburetor was available for an additional $5.00 and hand trucks were available for an additional $8.00. Consumer prices were approximately 25% higher. By the early 1920’s, the Hercules Gas Engine Company had built over 300,000 engines.
The Hercules Gas Engine Company developed a three-wheeled farm tractor in 1915. It was driven by a single large rear wheel and steered with two small front wheels. The operator sat alongside the engine, which was covered by a shroud that extended into a large fender over the rear wheel. No production tractors were ever produced; although, over 2,000 orders were received. Likewise, in 1922, the Hercules Gas Engine Company announced that it would begin making the McCurdy Six automobile; however, the vehicle was never put into production.
On November 23, 1920, the Hercules Buggy Company, the Hercules Body Company, The Hercules Gas Engine Company, the Hercules Paint Company, the Hercules Surrey and Wagon Company, the Hercules Warehouse Company, and the Hercules Wheel Company were merged into a single firm—the Hercules Corporation. During this year, the 7,500 employees of these various firms produced 84,000 buggies, surreys and wagons, 62,000 gasoline engines, and 40,000 auto and truck bodies and cabs.
In 1925, a controlling interest in the Hercules Corporation was sold to Servel, Inc., and it became a division known as Hercules Enterprises. Servel lost the right to use the name “Hercules” on its engines to the Hercules Motor Company of Canton, Ohio.
In 1929, Servel sold the Hercules division and it became an independent company under the name Hercules Products. During the late 1920’s or early 1930’s, Sears, Roebuck and Company severed its ties with the Hercules Company and contracted with the Stover Company of Freeport, Illinois, to build it's Economy gas engine. By 1931, models offered by Hercules Products were limited to 1 ½, 2 ½, 6 and 18 HP. Engine production ended in 1934.
The Hercules name has continued through a number of sales and reorganizations. It exists today as the Hercules Manufacturing Company, a producer of refrigerated trailers and milk truck and dry-freight bodies located in Henderson, Kentucky.
Hercules Body Company. www.coachbuilt.com/bui/h/hercules/hercules.htm
Hercules Engines. www.herculesengines.com/hercules/Default.htm
Karch, Glenn. A History of the Celebrated Line of Hercules Gasoline, Kerosene and Oil Engines Including Economy, Jaeger, Arco, Thermoil Manufactured from 1914 to 1934. Classic Motorbooks, 1989.
Wendel, C.H. American Gas Engines Since 1872. Volumes 1 and 2. Prairie Press, 2006.
Wendel, C.H. Gas Engine Trademarks. Stemgas, 1995.