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Scenes From Another Time – A Busy 1930s Auto Machine Shop

Wombwell Auto Parts, located in Lexington, Kentucky not only sold auto and truck parts, but also ran a fully equipped machine shop. This type of operation was common up until the early part of this century when many machine shops closed due to most engines lasting the life of the vehicle and a changing market.

Wombwell’s machine work probably came to them from repair garages as far away as fifty miles or more and the trucks that delivered parts would bring in the work and return it when finished. Back then most service outlets would sublet the machine work needed and reassemble engines at their facility. It was a money maker for the parts seller because in addition to the profits from the shop labor it usually sold what was needed to do the complete job.

Follow along below to view and learn about the major pieces of equipment in the shop. In addition other machines handled the more routine work like brake rebuilding, drum and flywheel machining, clutch rebuilding, king pin service and other shop work.

The lead image taken in 1931 shows, left-to-right, an early portable hand operated line-boring fixture and a valve service bench behind it.

You can take a look at an earlier article showing the Company’s mobile tool sales trailer and tow car. Lafayette Studios photographs are courtesy of the University of Kentucky.

Auto Parts and Machine Shop 1934

  • An autumn storefront display decorated with a “Never-Freeze” display and other sundries.

Cylinder Boring Bar and Honing Machine 1034

  • The shop was visible from the parts store and here a worker is using a dry cylinder honing system equipped with a vacuum to keep the abrasives and dust out of the shop. To the right a small six-cylinder block sits on a cylinder boring stand with the boring bar on top.

Automobile Cylinder Grinding Machine

  • From the very beginning of the automobile until the early post-war days, high-quality cylinder bore machining was done on a more precise, but time consuming grinding machine. This method was replaced by fast and quick to set up boring bars, followed by wet honing with oil.

Auto Piston Grinding Machine

  • Instead of stocking a wide range of oversize pistons required for the different overbore sizes needed during engine rebuilding, piston grinders were used. Shops stocked semi-finished pistons and ground them to the size needed on a piston grinding machine.

Connecting Rod Boring Machine

  • This pair of photos show a primitive Showmaker connecting rod boring machine above used for boring re-babbitted rods. Below from the far left are: three gas-fired babbitt pots and a pyrometer on the wall used for monitoring babbitt temperature, in the center is a rod pouring fixture, and up on the wall in a rack are different sized babbitting molds.

Connecting Rod Babbitting and Boring

  • Crankshaft grinding was needed on most engine overhauls due to lack of good oil and air filters that allowed dirt to cause premature wear. This Landis grinder is driven by two belts, the left to rotate the crankshaft and the right-hand one to turn the grinding stone at a very high speed.

Landis Crankshaft Grinder

35 responses to “Scenes From Another Time – A Busy 1930s Auto Machine Shop

      • I agree. Particularly the shot of the crankshaft being ground. Copious amounts of what I knew as “soda water” would have been pouring out of that 1″ pipe immediately above the contact point between the crank journal and the grinding wheel. Otherwise the dust output would have overwhelmed the shop. Years ago an old time process engineer brought me the handbook for a machine that would allow turning of individual crank pins while the crankshaft was still in the engine and the engine was still in the car. Probably “the” high-tech equipment of its day, but hopelessly incapable of the precision required in today’s engines operating at fractions of a micron.

  1. Wow, these photos are so neat ! I went to an old machine shop auction near Nashville, TN several years back and there were machines and areas of the shop that looked much like this. I had no idea what some of the equipment did, but bought some of the small “have to haves” that was just too interesting to not buy, ha ! These guys were artists in my mind, as was my Grandfather in an old “plow and furniture” shop that he worked at. Same story there, stood around as a little kid with my mouth open amazed at all the stuff and it’s doings ! Thanks so much David, and I’m glad you put links to here on AACA’s F-Book site too, as more folks will get to see your good work!

  2. My first job after trade school (machinist) was at a local engine shop. A great place for car guy like me. It was later than the thirties, but we used what looks to be the make tools, quality built in the USA. From heads to blocks, flatheads to ohv, a truly great leaning place. The shop is still in operation today and helping to keep our vintage cars going. You can automate the job, but the skill to make it work will always lie with the person.
    Thanks Dad, for all that you taught me.

  3. As usual, a nice batch of pictures. I think I can smell it from here. I know of at least two places still like this. I like the beat up sheet steel on the workbench. The closer it gets to the vice, the more patina. I also think that bench grinder is the same as mine. It certainly dates the same, three generations, and working like a champ. More, please? Thanks!

  4. The last time I needed a machine shop about 2 years ago to rebuild my friends cylinder heads I found out that it was cheaper to by rebuilt heads from a firm that had them redone in Vietnam. You would think the shipping alone for 2 Chevy small block heads would keep the work here, but nope.

  5. You will still find this type of shop in areas where there are a lot of industrial use of engines, such as the ones used to drive irrigation pumps.

  6. Theres a parts store/machine shop in Largo at Seminole and west Bay that’s been frozen in time since the old lady
    died and the family just shut it down around 2002 I think.Its dark in there but if ya stare long enough thru the
    windows you can make out what a shop like that looked like in the 50s .They never updated or modernized
    anything!Like a time capsule.Better than any museum.You cant fake stuff like that

  7. Thanks, Dave for these photos. I went into an Auto Parts store in northen Indiana and rthe counterman wrote up my order on one of those large boxes, with a crank handle on the side. Still had wood floors and wood shelves. He did not need a parts book. I told what I needed and off he went, to he back room, came back with my part.

  8. My father-in-law started as an apprentice at the Lunenburg Foundry in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in 1912 – they made one-lung engines for fishing boats, maybe larger ones too, I can’t say. Still in business. After WWI he came to Boston and worked in a number of places eventually becoming Superintendent of one of them. The machines then were powered by belts run from overhead pulleys. He would have known all of these pictured, I am sure. He actually made a one-cylinder water cooled engine from raw stock, it had about a 1 1/2 inch bore and 2 inch stroke. I saw it once mid-50’s but never saw it run. Disappeared after his death, would love to have it now. I do have 6 volume set of Automobile Engineering published by American Technical Society, 1920. Describes shop procedures and machines used – lapping, grinding, chamfering, honing, etc. fascinating reading of auto repair techniques a century ago.

  9. In the first picture; the fellow on the right looks to be seating the intake valve housing into the cylinder of a Harley-Davidson JD. Harley suggested using a concoction of lead powder, and oil, called plumbago as the final sealing trick. It looks like the photo was intended to show the versatility of that machine shop.

  10. When I was a kid growing up in the 50s and 60s, every time I went to town on a parts trip with my Dad, I would disappear into the back shop and watch the miracles being performed. I learned a lot about what made an engine tick (plus several words that led to the taste of soap when I got home). When I entered the trade in 1971 we did almost everything but crankshaft grinding and line-boring the blocks. We used a boring bar very similar to the one in the picture and we fit the pistons with a Sunnen positive-set hone. Valves, guides, inserts, con-rods, all done in our shop. We farmed out babbitting to a couple of specialists although I was able to dabble in that at a farm shop just east of town, when the owner rebabbitted the rods in his Model A. The same farmer (his dad was once a machinist for Great Northern Railroad and brought a lot of equipment with him when he decided to take up farming) ground a lot of flywheels and truck brake drums for us. Back then there was very little talk about obtaining a rebuilt engine, and the only places were the Ford dealer and Sears. We even rebuilt water pumps, starters, generators, and alternators. Sure is funny to talk with technicians (mechanic is a politically incorrect term for some silly reason) in modern dealerships. Talk about rebuilding an engine or even a starter and they’re the ‘deer in the headlights.’ You guys DID that?’ they ask incredulously. Great pictures! Thanks for the post. Hope to see more like them…

  11. What a great site!
    While browsing the web I fell upon your site and look foresrd to many more visits
    Thank uou
    The reason for the browsing was to look for a manual/info sheet for a muanually ooerated York cylinder boring bar(vetical). Wonder if you one of the followers could give me some help.
    I enjoy rebuilding Model A Ford engines and have a dozen with the cranks ground,bearings repoured and line reamed waiting to be assembled.
    Many thanks for creating this great source of adventure!!

  12. my grandfather and my uncles and me and my dad all bought parts from womb well’s. They were located downtown on I believe the street was Corral St near the old jail. They had high quality parts far above the parts stores now. My grandfather’s garage was in Midway, it was called boots’ garage, it was a standard oil service station.


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