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Palm Harbor man won't let his engine dreams sputter

Len Waller, 76, is proud of his Waller X-3 prototype engine. He works on it Wednesday outside his home in Palm Harbor. 

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Len Waller, 76, is proud of his Waller X-3 prototype engine. He works on it Wednesday outside his home in Palm Harbor. 

PALM HARBOR

A 76-year-old man opens his garage door and wheels out a black cart filled with silvery tubing, cylinders, gauges and three decades' worth of dreams. Len Waller knows this contraption better than most people know what's under the hoods of their own cars. It's an engine that looks old and new at the same time, an invention of the past that longs to leap into the future.

He throws some switches and gets it going: babababa-BRAR!

Waller has worked on this engine since the 1970s. He built it with two brothers and an uncle. They talked it over, sketched it out, mocked it up, machined each part and fit it together like a gleaming metal puzzle.

They believed that their invention might revolutionize the American auto industry. They hoped it would one day fit inside Fords, Chevys or Toyotas, giving them more power while using less fuel than conventional internal combustion engines.

But for now, the Waller engine runs only in the Waller driveway. And his brothers and uncle no longer hear the roar.

• • •

Waller and his brothers grew up in Connecticut, where their father ran a machine shop. The boys loved to tinker and build whatever popped into their minds: toys, a homemade scooter, a hot dog cooker and, eventually, a fuel-injection system for a 1941 Plymouth retrieved from a junkyard.

By the 1970s, the brothers and their uncle were living in Florida. One day, as they were talking about what engines could and could not do, they came upon their idea for a new kind of internal combustion engine.

A normal engine has cylinders laid out in a row, with pistons that rise and fall. The pistons turn a crankshaft that sits perpendicular to the cylinders.

But the Wallers wanted to arrange their cylinders in a circle. The rising and falling pistons would push up and down on a curvy disk inside the circle. This motion would turn a main shaft parallel to the cylinders instead of perpendicular to them.

This, they believed, would produce just as much power as an average car engine but use less fuel — or produce more power from the same amount of fuel.

They built a wooden model and then started on a 25-horsepower working prototype. In the late 1970s, Waller quit his day job as a machine shop foreman and began working full-time on the engine at a facility in Seffner and later in Tarpon Springs.

The engine received U.S. patent 4,432,310 in 1984. Patent documents say the Waller engine "operates with excellent fuel efficiency, little or no vibration, a minimum of exhaust pollution and a reduction of friction and freedom of binding between bearings and cam surfaces."

Motor Trend magazine said in 1986 that "the basic concepts of the Waller Sinocam engine address some of the basic limitations of the conventional engine layout and seem to offer some concrete advantages. Only time will tell if it is to be successful."

• • •

The Wallers were ready for big things. They began going to auto shows and trying to contact big manufacturers, such as Honda, International Harvester, Borg-Warner and American Motors. They got farthest with Ford, which spent a couple of days testing the engine but never offered a deal.

"I've written to every major corporation throughout the world, and they've basically said, 'Thanks but no thanks,' " Waller said.

Waller still believes in the engine. He lives with his wife in a Palm Harbor house and tinkers in a garage decorated with a wall-sized schematic of the invention. He still hopes that someone, somewhere will take a closer look and manufacture it.

But his work has gotten lonelier. His younger brother, Donald, a truck driver, died nine years ago. His older brother, Francis, a civil engineer, died seven years ago. His uncle, William Gdovin, a watchmaker and TV technician, died four years ago.

Waller's grandson Michael Knous, 23, who is working on a master's degree in civil engineering at the University of Florida, remembers seeing the engine as a teenager without fully grasping it. Now that he understands how it works, he thinks "it's definitely neat that they were able to dream up this idea and then as a family and brother actually bring this idea to life."

Waller himself is philosophical about the engine of his dreams.

True, Waller Motors never became General Motors. But he looks back with pride at the day he and his brothers decided that it was time to actually start up the engine they had built with their own hands.

"Believe it or not, in three times around, with the cranking of the engine, it started and it ran. And we got more satisfaction out of that than we have out of anything," he said

"So whether this thing goes or not, anybody buys it, that's all well and good. That's all a plus. But we got the satisfaction out of building something out of basically nothing and having it operate. Because we built every piece on here except the nuts and bolts."

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232.

People who would like to contact Len Waller about his engine can e-mail him at [email protected]

Palm Harbor man won't let his engine dreams sputter 02/06/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 6, 2009 9:50pm]
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