A Model D Worth Waiting For

Farmer and Moline-Universal reunited after a half century


Below: Norm Kuper enjoys driving the Model D in parades, but says that it is still work to drive. From this angle, the black Remy Co. starter and generator/governor can easily be seen.

Content Tools

"I never got to drive it when I was a kid," Norm Kuper explains, as he proudly wipes a thin layer of South Dakota dust off the engine of his beautifully restored Moline-Universal Model D. "I had to wait 50 years." Soon after his father brought the tractor home in 1934, this Lennox, S.D., man says he was ever-eager to take the controls, but his father never let him - he was just too young.

"I was 10 when he sold it in 1937, and I thought I was plenty old enough (to drive the tractor), but really I wasn't," Norm admits.

When first released in 1917, the Moline-Universal Model D was arguably a tractor well ahead of its time. The small, relatively lightweight, 2-bottom plow machine was ideal for farmers who wanted to replace horses, but had no need for the large steamor petroleum-powered traction engines that still prevailed on the prairie. However, like the larger tractors of the time, the Model D was cumbersome to operate, and was no match for a youngster at the controls. But for the farmer who had been used to using horses, the Model D was a mechanized marvel.

Universal appeal

"I was young, but I knew it was a special day when Dad bought the tractor," Norm explains. "It took him nearly three hours to drive the 9 miles home." It is easily imaginable that the three-hour wait was excruciating for a young farm boy in the mid-1930s, but imagine anticipating one day driving the tractor, only to see it sold before getting the chance. "I was disappointed when Dad sold it," Norm says.

Norm isn't certain what kind of life the tractor had before his father purchased it; however, it didn't appear to have been abused. "It was already 15 or 16 years old, but the tractor and plow were in good condition as I remember," Norm says. "Dad used it to move the broiler house around and for some other chores," Norm says. "But I don't think he plowed much with it."

In the years that followed, that Model D toiled as the primary tillage tractor for brothers (and bachelor farmers) Wichard and John Ruhaak. "The Ruhaaks used it with the 2-bottom plow to work their ground until the mid-1950s," Norm says. "They never had indoor plumbing, but they made things last." That the Model D lasted into the second half of the 20th century as a working tractor is testament to both its robust design and to the care its owners took to maintain it. Eventually, though, the Model D was parked in the shelterbelt.

When the Ruhaaks retired the Model D in about 1955, Norm was busy with his own farm and young family. "It wasn't until quite a few years later that I thought about trying to buy that tractor," Norm explains. In fact, it was in the mid-1980s, about 30 years after the Ruhaaks had retired it, that Norm and his brother Luverne went to see if the Model D was for sale. "John (Ruhaak) had passed away, and Wichard, who still baked his own bread on a corn cob stove every Friday for the week, told us he didn't need any money," Norm says. "We were both a little disappointed at first."

After some thought, Wichard explained he needed a snow-blower, and noted that if the Kuper boys could get him a good one, he would take it in trade for the Moline-Universal. "Luverne and I headed right into Sioux Falls and bought him a top-of-the-line 'blower," Norm says looking out the window of the house he and his wife built while still on the farm - the house now comfortably situated on a city lot they purchased in Lennox after retiring. "I bought that 'blower back at Ruhaak's sale - it comes in handy since we moved the house to town."

Out of the woods

When Norm and Luverne pulled the old Model D out of Wichard's shelterbelt, they were pleasantly surprised by what they found. The wheels hadn't been rusted through, although they were partially buried, and the drive train wasn't frozen, so it was easy to roll. "The tractor didn't look the greatest, but the engine was still loose," Norm says. "It didn't run, and the wiring was a mess, but it was all there." The Kuper brothers hauled the tractor and its original 2-bottom plow and cart to Luverne's shed, and embarked on a project that would take the better part of the next two years. "It didn't take long to get it apart," Norm says. "But putting it back together was a different matter."

The Model D's Moline Plow Co.-built 192 cubic-inch displacement engine was in remarkably good shape, although the cast iron pistons were worn enough they really needed replacing. Long absent from the parts shelves of Minneapolis-Moline, White and AGCO dealers, new replacement pistons for the old tractor were not an option. Good used parts are also virtually impossible to find for the Model D, so Norm and his brother turned to another antiquated source for replacements.

"They made a lot of 6-cylinder Chevy engines back in the 1940s," Norm explains. "So there are plenty of new replacement parts still available." And as it turns out, the Model D's 3 1/2-inch cylinder bore was close enough to a common Chevy bore that a local automotive machine shop was able to fit brand-new aluminum Chevy pistons to the Model D engine's four cylinders.

The original connecting rods, rod bearings, crankshaft and poured babbitt main bearings were all good enough to reuse. The Model D's operator's manual advises changing the engine oil every 10 days, and judging from the overall good condition of the engine's bottom end, Norm speculates the advice may well have been followed.

Norm found the engine's cylinder head, cam, lifters, pushrods and rocker arms to be reusable, but the super-sized valves themselves were not salvageable. Considering it had been over 60 years since that engine had been produced, finding new valves, or even good used valves, was every bit as unlikely as finding pistons, so Norm again searched elsewhere. "We found those big valves in some big equipment," Norm says with a wink. "Turns out Caterpillar had some that fit fine after turning them down a little." Norm's friend, Robert Meyer, Lennox, helped with the machining to fit the valves, and also rebuilt the tractor's Holley carburetor. "It might never have gotten done without my friends," Norm says.

Another high-wear component of many liquid-cooled engines is the water pump, which is often missing or non-functional in 60-year-old relics. Norm was relieved to discover that the Model D's engine relies on the thermo-siphon principle to circulate coolant rather than a pump, because water pumps tend to be very specific to an engine model, and are often impossible to repair or replace. The thermo-siphon principle relies on the fundamental density difference between warm and cool water to drive its circulation. Warm water rises and flows from the engine to the top tank of the radiator. As the water flows through the radiator and cools, it becomes denser and flows into the bottom of the engine's water jacket where it is again heated. To get the tractor's cooling system functioning well, Norm needed only to patch a few leaks in the radiator with JB Weld.

The Model D's driveline was also in remarkably good condition for the amount of exposure the tractor had endured. While their competitors were still using oil cups and engine sump drains to drip-lubricate exposed drive systems, the Moline Plow Co. designed the Model D's clutch housing, transmission and final drives to keep dirt and water out, and lube in.

"Everything is enclosed on the tractor," Norm explains while pointing to the clutch, transmission and final drive housings. "But it must have been taken care of, too, considering the (lack of) wear." Norm cleaned and adjusted the tractor's clutch, transmission, differential and final drives, but even the aged bearings were in good condition.

Once the mechanical components of the Model D were in place, Norm turned his attention to the electrical system. The tractor's Remy Co. (before Delco-Remy) starter and ignition components were still intact, and required only cleaning to function properly. The charging system, however, and electric governor needed some major work that included rewinding the coils in the governor. With the electrical components rejuvenated, Norm rewired the tractor and it was nearly ready to run. But before driving the Moline-Universal, Norm had to mount one of the tractor's rear attachments.

The Moline-Universal's design is reminiscent of an oversized 2-wheeled garden tractor, but it was never intended as a walking tractor. Rear wheels on the Model D were supplied by host of available trailing attachments. So before Norm could drive the tractor, he first had to complete the restoration of one of its attachments. "The 2-bottom plow was standard equipment, so I tackled that first," Norm says. And in spite of the scores of years of use, the tractor's plow, like the rest of the tractor, needed relatively little work to make it into a showpiece. Norm has since also restored the tractor's cart and a cultivator he obtained later.

Finishing touches

Once Norm's Moline-Universal Model D was ready to roll, he called on friend Robert Meyer to paint it, along with the attachments. The tractor was sprayed with several coats of Moline Plow Co. red, and the attachments were painted red with yellow wheels. Norm then added rubber tire-tread to the lug-lacking drive wheels and the plow's smooth steel wheels so it could be driven on pavement. "After all that work, I wanted to be able to drive it in parades and shows," Norm says with a smile. "But I still have the lugs."

In 1987, just about 50 years after the Model D left the Kuper farm, Norm finally got the chance to drive it, and says it was well worth the wait. The tractor's early form of articulated steering is simple and relatively easy to use, but it takes coordination and strength, especially when the throttle, clutch, gear selector and implement adjustment are also made by hand. "After driving it in parades and shows, I can see why Dad never let me run it," Norm says with a smile. "But I am glad that I finally got the chance."

Norm Kuper now limits his show-going to events close to home, where he enjoys displaying the old Universal along with the plow, cart and cultivator, and driving it in parades. With the passing of his brother Luverne, Norm says the tractor holds an extra special fondness now.

- Always on the lookout for other Moline-Universal Model D attachments, Norm can be contacted by mail at 204 S. Ash St., Lennox, SD 57039.

Oscar "Hank" Will III is an old-iron collector and freelance writer who retired from farming in 1999 and from academia in 1996. He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and his farm in East Andover, N.H. Write him at 243 W. Broadway, Gettysburg, PA 17325; (717) 337-6068; e-mail: willo@gettysburg.edu