William C. Durant is generally given credit for creating, in September 1908, the car and truck building giant we know as General Motors Corp. Not everyone knows that Mr. Durant, and General Motors, took a brief and disastrous fling at building farm tractors during the late teens and early ’20s.
During 1915, rumors flew in agricultural circles that Henry Ford would soon introduce a small farm tractor for $250 or less. The Ford Motor Co. hotly denied those rumors, but in 1917 the mass-produced Fordson was introduced. The first 7,000 machines were sold to Great Britain to aid in the war effort, but the Fordson became available to American farmers in 1918 and was an immediate success. The little Fordson soon outsold the previous leader, the International Harvester Co.’s Titan 10-20, because the Titan cost about $1,000, while the Fordson came in at $885, fully equipped. Henry had widely missed his target price of $250, but the Fordson was still about the cheapest tractor on the market.
Billy Durant, at that time chairman and chief stockholder of GM, saw the popular Fordson tractor as a challenge. Ford had already grabbed a major share of the car market, and the same thing seemed about to happen to farm tractors. Durant determined to go head-to-head with Ford, and bought out the Samson Tractor Works, Stockton, Calif.
Samson began building tractors about 1913, and its Samson Sieve-Grip tractor, introduced in 1914, was the most successful model. Offered in 6-12 and 10-25 versions, the machine was named for its open-faced wheels, which worked fine in the soft peat land around Stockton, and in light soils, but were less than satisfactory in sticky clay. The clay collected inside the wheel and accumulated until each wheel became a solid ball of mud and would hardly turn. In spite of that, the one-cylinder 6-12 became very popular because of its light weight and low center of gravity.
In 1918, GM bought a factory in Janesville, Wis., and incorporated the Janesville Machine Co. to build the GMC Samson tractor. GMC put a four-cylinder 4-3/4-by-6-inch engine in the Sieve-Grip, rated it a 12-25 horsepower, and put it on the market at $1,750.
Obviously, the $1,750 Sieve-Grip was no competition to the $885 Fordson, so GM announced, in late 1918, that a new Samson Model M, with a price tag of $650, would be its answer to Ford. The Model M boasted a GMC four-cylinder engine of 4-1/2-inch bore and 5-inch stroke that turned out 9.32 drawbar horsepower when tested at Nebraska.
The $650 price included platform, fenders, governor, belt pulley and power take off, all of which were extra-cost items on the Fordson. Pictures show the Model M resembled the Fordson, although the M looks higher and has a slightly longer wheelbase. The Samson Model M sold well, and produced small profits for GM, although they couldn't begin to offset the losses incurred on their other tractor, the Samson Model D Iron Horse.
In the late teens, motor cultivators were very popular, and Durant decided to jump into that market. GM bought the rights to the Jim Dandy motor cultivator, one of many being built at that time. The Samson Model D Iron Horse was announced in January 1919, and GM built them by the thousands. This little (1,900 pounds) machine cost $450, and was powered by a Chevrolet 3-11/16-by-4 engine that transmitted power to all four wheels through belts and pulleys. There was an independent clutch control for each side, and the machine was steered by levers to which reins could be attached, allowing the tractor to be driven from a pulled implement, just like a team of horses.
The design was faulty in that the machine would upset easily, and there were many mechanical failures. Those problems, combined with the severe recession of 1921 and the fact that motor cultivators fell into disfavor, left GM with thousands of unsold Iron Horses. In 1922 the General left farm equipment business to Ford and the others, and converted the Janesville facility to a Chevrolet assembly plant.
An interesting footnote to the General Motors tractor story is a photo I've seen of what is supposed to be a prototype 1946 Chevrolet tractor. At the end of World War II, GM supposedly asked a Mr. Nutter, who was one of their engineers, to build a farm tractor. Nutter was given a 2-ton Chevrolet truck chassis and engine as the basis for his machine. The tractor had a 216-cubic-inch, six-cylinder engine, a four-speed transmission, and a two-speed rear end. The picture shows a typical tricycle-type tractor of the late 1940s that looks a little like a Gibson. Nothing more is known of this machine, so GM must have decided not to take the plunge a second time, leaving us to wonder what might have happened if they had. FC