Wheel Horse Garden Tractor: The Horse of a Different Color
Oscar H. Will III
On parade at the South Mountain Fairgrounds.
Just as domestication of the four-legged horse revolutionized the development of ancient civilizations, Cecil and Elmer Pond’s Wheel Horse tractors revolutionized how post-World War II America cared for its suburban lawns and gardens.
From a small, neighborhood garage in South Bend, Ind., the father-and-son team developed an accessible, innovative, purpose-built, four-wheel tractor that really stood out, and whose descendants are still produced today.
This horse of a different color not only spurred generations of garden tractor designers of virtually all makes, but also captured the fancy of a group of loyalists who now meet once a year in Pennsylvania to celebrate the little red horses.
Members of the Wheel Horse Collectors Club (WHCC) met at the South Mountain Fairgrounds west of Arendtsville, Pa., in June for their seventh annual all-Wheel Horse show. “It was our largest turnout ever,” says founding president Don Kane. “We started with about 40 tractors in 1999 and had about 500 in attendance this year.” The club boasts more than 500 members from the United States, Canada and Great Britain, and the two-day show attracts hundreds of spectators and soon-to-be Wheel Horse enthusiasts.
Just horsing around
The WHCC was formed by a group of enthusiasts who made connections via the Internet. “My son Jeff put together a website devoted to Wheel Horse tractors as part of his senior project,” Don explains proudly. “Many of us (who visited the site) then became friends and decided to have a little show in 1999.” Shortly after, the friends incorporated as the WHCC.
Chris Sutton traveled to the ’05 show from Brighton, Sussex, in the U.K., and though he didn’t haul a tractor with him this year, doing so in the future isn’t out of the question. “I am a Wheel Horse fanatic, really,” Chris explains with a wink. “I even have some U.K.-unique stuff that was built at the plant in Belgium.”
Dan Messinger, East Berlin, Pa., discovered that restoring Wheel Horses was a great way to stay connected to his son Dustin when he hit his early teens. “The tractors gave us a way to communicate,” Dan says. “And the time we spent together was quality time.” Sixteen years later, Dustin is grown and on his own, but the father-and-son team still mess around with Wheel Horse tractors. A beautifully restored Model 401 with 32-inch front-mounted sickle bar mower really made their display shine at South Mountain.
Bruce Lauer, Canton, Ohio, and son Anthony have been collecting Wheel Horse equipment for 11 years. “We brought our 1963 Model 603 because it was a rare transitional model,” Bruce explains as he points out some of the tractor’s unique features. “This was an entry-level tractor pieced together with remaining parts from older models.” Among the machine’s unusual characteristics is the sector-shaped steering wheel, and older style hood.
Eric Mettle, Hartville, Ohio, has also been collecting Wheel Horse equipment for about a decade, although he was around the machines for many more years than that. “I grew up with Wheel Horse,” Eric explains. “My dad worked at the dealership when I was a kid, and I worked there part time too.” Eric is the proud owner of a beautiful Ride-Away Senior tractor. According to Don Kane, this model represents the pinnacle of Wheel Horse collecting as it is rare and relatively difficult to find intact – particularly the models with optional fiberglass hoods from 1955-56. “An intact hood is more difficult to find than the tractor,” Eric explains.
The Ride-Away Senior was largely component-built utilizing a Rockford automotive-type clutch, Ford 3-speed transmission and shortened Ford rear axle. The pinion and bull-gear final drives were produced by Wheel Horse but used Ford’s differential, rear axle, hubs and brakes (taken from the shortened axles). Steering through the front wheels was with a Ross steering gear and automotive linkages. An 8.3 hp single-cylinder air-cooled Wisconsin engine provided ample power.
Wheel Horse Collectors Club board member Bill Pearson, Richmond, Va., is a diesel mechanic by day. When it comes to machinery, he knows the meaning of heavy duty. “I have always been impressed by things that were built to last,” Bill says. “I saw Wheel Horses at antique engine shows and liked them because they are heavy duty.”
Bill’s first Wheel Horse, a 1967 L-157 Lawn Ranger, was one of the company’s lighter-duty models marketed as a lawn tractor. The L-157 was virtually identical to the Wheel Horse garden tractors of the time except it lacked a hitch for ground-engaging tools and had smaller wheels and tires. In fact, the tractor was quite possibly the toughest lawn tractor available from any maker in 1967.
Bill likes to use the machines in his collection for something, even if it isn’t for the work they were originally designed to do. His L-157 is no exception, as he mounts a long hitch of artificial reindeer out front of the tractor and drives it sleigh-style in the Richmond Christmas parade each year.
Father-son team John and Christopher Frock, Westminster, Md., also had a number of tractors on display, but one pair really stood out. Their nice, original condition 1963 Model 753 tractor with 30-inch, front-mounted PTO-driven LMR-3072 reel mower made an interesting and unusual combination. Christopher’s beautifully restored 1958 RJ-58 Ride-Away Junior was a real showstopper though, with an equally lovely sickle bar mower mounted up front and land plow on the rear hitch. Just before the show, Christopher completed the six-month-long restoration on his own, and was justifiably proud.
Kim Frock (Christopher’s mom) says they have been collecting for more than 15 years and have nearly 50 garden tractors. “Christopher is a fourth generation collector,” Kim explains as she points out her son driving his RJ-58 in the parade.
Spanning the generations
Organized Wheel Horse collecting might be a relatively new pastime for many folks, but not for the Byers family. “It was really our uncle Paul M. Byers who introduced us to Wheel Horse,” Marvin explains about how he and his brothers Alan, Gary, Marlin, Larry and Mark became so interested in Wheel Horse equipment. “He was an Oliver dealer and sold Wheel Horse.” However, it was the boys’ maternal uncle Ralph Seylar who really turned them on to collecting. “I bought my first Wheel Horse new in 1960. … It was a Suburban 400,” Ralph recalls. “And we have had them ever since.”
Ralph brought his 1976 Model D250 to the show, much to the delight of the crowds. Designed for heavy estate use, this tractor featured a 10-speed transmission and a 20 hp 4-cylinder, liquid-cooled gasoline engine built by Renault. “1976 was the first year for the D250,” Ralph explains. “It’s relatively new, but still quite rare.” Though the D250 remains one of Ralph’s favorite tractors, his collection corrals at least 11 other machines, including Models 954, RJ-59 and B-80.
The Byers men aren’t sure exactly how many Wheel Horses they have. However, their impact at the annual show is substantial in terms of numbers and diversity. For example, Marvin had his 1962 Lawn Ranger on hand, complete with polished aluminum fuel tank. Gary had his 1966 Model 606, and Mark proudly displayed his 1958 RJ-58 Ride-Away Junior. “That was the first year for the cast iron Unidrive transmission,” Mark says. “And it was powered by a 4 hp Kohler.” In addition, the Byers family showed a 1965 Model 1045, 1970 Raider 10 (complete with 6-speed transmission) and a 1976 Model B-60 with a 4-speed transmission.
Alan, the youngest of the Byers brothers, has been collecting for less than 10 years, but has already involved his children with the hobby. “My son Bryan and step-son Daniel helped restore the (Model) 701,” Alan says as he wipes a speck of dust from the beauty’s hood. “And my daughter Brooklyn likes to drive it.”
The horse’s mouth
On May 23, 1974, Cecil Pond sold Wheel Horse Products to the American Motors Corporation, who ran the business as a wholly owned subsidiary, Wheel Horse Products Inc., a Delaware corporation. The daily operations of the company were little changed initially, and even a deal negotiated before the sale (to AMC) to purchase and market General Electric’s outdoor power equipment division went through as planned.
On Jan. 14, 1982, Wheel Horse was sold to a private investment group, who continued to operate the business until 1986 when it was sold to Toro, a company that actually knew outdoor power products, and how to build and market them.
“Wheel Horse put Toro back into the riding mower business,” says Ed Cole, Toro’s representative at the WHCC show. “Today, some Toro Wheel Horse machines are based on earlier Wheel Horse designs, and some are all new.”
Ed, who still owns vintage Wheel Horse tractors, has never missed a WHCC show. “I have a 1974 B-80 5-Speed Special,” he says. “I still use it to push snow.” Ed notes Toro is proud of the Wheel Horse brand, and as such continues to be very supportive of the WHCC’s endeavors and donates prizes and money to support the show. “Toro has been good for us,” Bill Pearson adds. “And they still make quite a few parts for the older models.”
The lovely mountain valley at the South Mountain Fairgrounds in Arendtsville, Pa., will again play host to the iron horse of a different color on June 23-24, 2006. FCFor more information:– Wheel Horse Collectors Club, www.wheelhorsecollectorsclub.org.– William Pearson, (804) 261-4914.– Straight From The Horse’s Mouth, by Michael A. Martino Jr. Oscar “Hank” Will III is an old-iron collector and freelance writer and photographer. He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and his farm in East Andover, N.H.