Bert Kinner had a vision: He believed that private flying would be popular with millions of Americans, but remain a rich man’s activity until affordable engines were available. Toward that end he dedicated his life.
— John Underwood, Aviation Historian
Winfield Bertrum (“Bert”) Kinner was born in 1882, and raised on a farm in Iowa but was not destined to harvest crops or milk cows. His future was predetermined by his natural talents described by author John Underwood as “a self-taught wizard with things mechanical.” Although young, he sought work away from home at various jobs that didn’t stick. As a streetcar motorman, threshing machine operator, and as a barber, Kinner did not find his niche until the horse was replaced by transportation and farm equipment using the internal combustion engine.
During the Exhibition Era of pioneer aviation (prior to WWI) aviators traveled circus-fashion charging spectators 25 cents to see an aeroplane fly. In 1915, Kinner was operating a Cadillac agency with “a taxi stand on the side,” supporting his young wife, Cora (Brusse) and two children, Winfield Jr., and Robert (a daughter, Donna, was later born). Katherine Stinson was winging her way across Minnesota in her Wright machine, thrilling spectators with her stunts, about the same time Otto Timm was flying his home-built copy of a Curtiss Pusher. Forced to put down close to the Kinner’s home for repairs, fellow Minnesotan Timm fortuitously met Kinner, the mechanical wizard who was locally dubbed “the kid who could fix anything.” This chance meeting gave Kinner his first opportunity to work his wizardry on an engine (an Anzani) and introduced the two men who would become lifelong friends.
The “local kid who could repair anything,” felt a tug west and soon moved his family to Los Angeles, CA, where he customized Ford Model T Speedsters. He’d take beat up coupes and sedans and turn them into roadster,” says Underwood. Kinner was lured by accounts of WWI aces and intrigued by flight. He volunteered for the Air Service, albeit too late to serve. The war ended, but Kinner’s determination to fly had just begun. He studied publications on aircraft design, teaching himself how to build an aeroplane. At this point in time Kinner’s only experience with flight was an air tour with his family from a local airport. Undaunted, Kinner finished his home-built biplane with a second-hand 50-hp engine. It flew well enough for Kinner to teach himself to fly, but he had no desire to become a barnstormer. His plan was to build engines which were reliable yet inexpensive enough to put on the nose of an aircraft within reach of anyone who could afford an automobile.
Leaving the Model T business behind, he bought 210 acres in East Los Angeles, and called it Kinner Airport. He advertised automobile and aircraft repairs, and sold gas and hamburgers. Just like that, Bert Kinner entered “the game” of aviation.
From that point on, Bert Kinner never left California. In fact, he never left Los Angeles County.
No story about Bert Kinner’s contributions to aircraft and engine technology should be written without mention of his life partner, Cora Brusse Kinner. Underwood met Cora Kinner and her children a few years after Bert Kinner died. Through the ensuing years Cora shared the story of how Kinner engines and aircraft came about. Adventurous, smart, and loyal, she worked beside her husband, learning as he did. Their three children grew up helping with chores at the aircraft factory, on the airfield, and at home. “We all helped,” says Donna Kinner Hunter. “I remember the smells of engine oil, dope [a fabric shellac], kerosene, turpentine, and paint in the factory. Mom stitched fabric onto the airframes. My Uncle Lee (Cora’s brother, Lee Brusse) became dad’s test pilot. It was a family business with its ups and downs.”