Jim Rippe's engines look as if they might have provided the angel Morani's means of levitation. There are about twelve of them, large ceramic pyramids crowned with shiny lengths of copper pipe and arcs of lavender plastic tubing. They bristle with brass nozzles and colored buttons and toggle switches. Overlaid on their basic gray-green, Boston beanpot color are gleaming red and blue zigzags, rows of tiny gold stars, and a gaudy, iridescent rainbow glaze. They have no discernible source of power and no visible moving parts, though at least one of them (The Rippe 1921 Virgin Gas Engine) is said to run on faith. The inventor, in a burst of Yankee practicality, foresaw the need for an alternative source of power. Another of the Rippe engines, the 911 pumper, was designed to enable water to run in whatever direction it wanted, including uphill. Nearly every piece in the show is supposed to pump either water or air, though why their inventor wanted to tamper with the elements in the first place is left unexplained. The machines' alleged creator, Jim Rippe's mythical great-uncle Jeremiah, was a visionary, not a man of the world. Consequently, his creations are best considered not as merely functional engines, but as mile-stones along his road to salvation by horsepower.
Jim Rippe recounts Jeremiah's whimsical quest in a tape which accompanies the shop. In the best American diehard tradition Jeremiah Rippe flouted convention, defied public opinion, devoted his whole life to the creation of ever more powerful and improbable looking engines, and eventually died, a broken and unrecognized inventor mourned only by his dog. His last creation--the spawn of a mind unhinged by disappointment--was a monstrous machine that was meant to pull his coffin to his grave.
Jim, on the other hand, is alive, and he is at least as present in the show as his imaginary ancestor. He and Jeremiah have a good deal in common. Jim, like his great-uncle, prefers the company of his dog to membership in learned societies. Jim also shares with Jeremiah an appreciation of the purely aesthetic qualities of machinery. The workings of their engines are unfathomable, and unimportant. What matters is that they look powerful. With their gleaming metal fittings, their haloes of mysterious tubing, the no-nonsense names carefully lettered on their sides, and the earth-shaking noises they make, they embody kind of pure horsepower that anyone who ever drove a decrepit jacked up Studebaker always longed for. The show's charm arises mostly from the likenesses and the occasional contrasts between Jim and Jeremiah. Jim Rippe is aware that he takes the same delight in the appearance of power in machinery as his fictional forbear. Yet the intervening century has given Jim the additional consciousness that the deep-seated American reverence for mechanical power in itself is one of the causes which have led to a society in which machines are so complicated that they baffle most people. Jim's work evokes the parallel between an ordinary twentieth-century man's astonishment in the face of mysteries like lasars. He is gently satirizing an America foolish enough to long for the good old days of the last century--the very times in which the seeds of its own most pressing problems were sown. And at the same time as Jim Rippe, an artisan in an age dominated by machines, waxes a trifle sentimental about the early nineteenth century, he makes fun of his own nostalgia by leavening his antiquarianism with cheerfully anachronistie Day-Glo colors and plastic. The final irony is that every piece in the show is made of material which is totally unsuitable for internal-combustion engines.
The Rippe engines are an odd but delightful amalgamation of handcrafting and machine mass production. Marcel Duchamp and James Fulton would probably both have liked them. But when the relationship between Jim Rippe and his quixotic great-uncle is made clear, the show becomes a little more than just a witty exercise in visual nostalgia.