Big Lemon Early Tractors

Mechanical problems and lack of testing made lemons out of some early tractors

The Little Bull tractor was widely advertised and hyped, and became the best-selling tractor ever when it was introduced in 1913.

The Little Bull tractor was widely advertised and hyped, and became the best-selling tractor ever when it was introduced in 1913.

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Before 1920, many tractors wouldn't work right, if they worked at all. According to the book 50 Years on Tracks: 

"By 1917, under the impetus of war and a burgeoning market, tractors bore the names of more than 200 firms. Builders vied with each other in a frantic race for sales. In many areas, unlimited credit was the rule. Generally, quality was poor.

"For most makes of tractors before 1920, service didn't exist. Internal engine wear from dirt became so acute that many farmers turned back to steam. Certain areas were gutted with rusting tractors – some simply no good in the first place, and others not usable for want of a part."

In short, many early tractors were lemons.

Tractors were lemons – i.e., they didn't perform, last, or work at all – for many reasons: design flaws; overstatement of their abilities by tractor companies; lack of farmer mechanical know-how; improper use by farmers; lack of testing under actual farming conditions before marketing; purchase of tractors by price instead of quality; and because of fly-by-night outfits.

Little Bull is Lots of Bull

The first truly big lemon was the Little Bull tractor, manufactured in Minneapolis by Bull Tractor Company.

When the 5-12 rated Little Bull hit the market in 1913, this small tractor took the fledgling tractor industry by storm. In less than one year it was the top-selling tractor in the U.S.

For good reason: it had many advantages. It was small and lightweight at a time when farmers were crying for small tractors; it was cheap, the currency farmers recognized at the time, $335 (cash only, a new concept); and it was heavily advertised and hyped ("The tractor sensation does the work of five good horses and sells for the price of two poor ones.")

In its June 25, 1914 issue, Farm Implements magazine praised the Little Bull: "It is extremely simple – uses only four gears; is three-wheeled (the single front wheel acts as a steering wheel in the furrow); is light and can travel anywhere; very durable."

Unfortunately, it was not durable. The Little Bull was a scaled-down big tractor, its designers believing the durability of a large tractor would translate to this smaller one. But just as a toothpick's strength is proportional to a board's, the Little Bull's parts were weak and not up to the task of farming. Plus, vital oiled parts were open, and down close to the earth, subject to the depredations of soil and grit. In short, the best-selling Little Bulls broke down, and were shipped back to the manufacturer in droves.

However, the Bull Tractor Company blamed farmers: "The masses, however, have not been educated to the proper handling of a tractor. For instance, the Little Bull was put on the market as capable of doing the ordinary work of five horses, but too generally it was required to do the work of six or eight horses. It was recommended to pull two 14-inch plows under ordinary conditions, but quite generally, it was forced to do this work under extremely difficult conditions, such as plowing in packed soil during a drought, which no five horses could do."

In defense of the company, it did try to fix Little Bull; dozens of design changes and modifications were made so that by 1918, it was the most-modified tractor ever produced. But each modification raised the price, until the Little Bull cost the same as the average tractor on the market.

In 1915, Bull Tractor Company brought out the 7-20 Big Bull (it became a 12-24 by 1917); and offered to trade in the Little Bull at its full purchase price if farmers bought a Big Bull.

But too many people had been burned. By 1918, the Bull Tractor Company was manufacturing no more tractors, and in 1920 filed for bankruptcy.

Samson Does Not Reign Supreme

In 1919, William Crapo Durant of General Motors built another tractor lemon, the Samson Iron Horse. This remade Jim Dandy Cultivator was built to appeal both to horse lovers – it had reins – and tractor lovers.

Animosity between the two groups was rampant: Tractor-maker Holt Manufacturing Co. of Stockton, California, wrote in their company newsletter:

The horse is sliding off the map; his friends at last admit it.
He'll hang around a while mayhap, but soon he'll have to quit it.
For things propelled with gasoline increase each day in numbers,
And Dobbin leaves this earthly scene for his eternal slumbers.

However, lovers of horses weren't going to endure this slur sitting down, as this reply in a 1915 farm journal indicates:

I'll let my neighbor fret and stew about the things his tractor'll do;
I'll take old Dan and Kate and Ned, and hitch them to a plow instead.
Let neighbor plow with his machine and raise his corn with gasoline;
My way of farming is the best; I have more time to smoke and rest.

The Percheron Society of America and the Horse Association of America howled that tractors were taking the romance and spiritual rewards out of farming. They were Undermining the Nation's Morals. They were Bad for the Land. They were Ruining the Farmer.

A tractor salesman wrote that "The horse is out of step with progress. His is the poorest engine ever built. For every hour he works, he eats 10 pounds of food; his thermal efficiency is only two per cent. You can't keep a horse busy the year around; he averages only 3 1/2 hours of work each day and isn't up to really heavy tasks. He needs one acre out of five for feed and costs $100 a year to maintain.

"Tractors, on the other hand, don't need to be rested in hot weather ... are not 'soft' in the spring when needed most... are not subject to flies, bees, and sickness ... need no barns, only a shed ... don't 'eat' fuel when idle ... require fewer men to operate and maintain ... will do heavier work longer ... keep busier the year around ... make for better crops, better profits, better living standards."

With these hard feelings as background, Durant and GMC decided to flood the market with a tractor that would appeal to both groups: the Samson Iron Horse. It might have worked, but for several problems: First, Durant didn't want to create a good tractor as much as he wanted to beat Henry Ford, and the popular Fordson tractor. Second, GMC overextended itself with the Iron Horse. Third, it needed the profits from the Iron Horse to keep its tractor division afloat. Fourth, the Iron Horse had major faults.

At first, the Iron Horse appeared to be a hit as thousands sped out of the showrooms. But just as quickly, things turned sour. The Iron Horse was infested with mechanical problems; plus, lovers of horses or not, farmers found the reins clumsy, and the machine tipped easily. All but six of the Samson Iron Horses were returned for refunds. GMC suffered huge losses, dooming Durant, GMC tractors, and for all practical purposes, reined tractors.

The GMC tractor division limped on until 1922, when it was converted into a factory assembling Chevy cars. The lemon called the Samson Iron Horse was no more.

Staude Mak-A-Tractor

If there was ever a lemon in the tractor field, it was the kit made to convert automobiles – almost universally the Model T Ford, the most popular car in the United States – into a tractor. "The idea, of course," writes tractor historian C. H. Wendel in his Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, "was to permit the farmer of limited means to convert his family car into a tractor ..."

Dozens of companies sprang up from 1915-25 with a variety of kits. One of these was E. G. Staude Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, which manufactured the Staude Mak-A-Tractor kits.

Their philosophy was "With a Staude Mak-a-Tractor you can plow in the morning, you can do your heavy hauling in the afternoon, and you can drive for pleasure in the evening." The work – removing rear wheels, putting on the new Staude tractor wheels, along with axle collars and axle clamps, as well as altering water circulation equipment – supposedly only took only 20 minutes (in actuality, usually much longer), and the kit cost between $200 and $300.

Glenn G. Hayes, editor of Better Farming, wrote in a July 1917 editorial, "I have seen this attachment do good work in wheat stubble – replacing four big horses or mules and capable of going day and night if need be. On the road the hauling speed is about five miles per hour. Those same horses would require twenty acres of feed to keep them a year. The farmer who owns a small car and does not investigate the efficiency of this new attachment is blind to opportunity. One has all to gain and nothing to lose in asking his dealer to a show-down on this proposition. I don't know how one can get a 'four-horse team' any cheaper."

Which was true. The only problem was that it didn't really work; Ford Model T's were not made to do the work of a tractor – the cooling system and the planetary transmission couldn't stand the heavy work, while the rear "tractor" bearings wore out quickly – so by using these add-on kits, the farmer not only ruined his "tractor," but his car, as well. Fifty Mak-a-Tractor kits were sold in 1916, 7,000 (disputed) in 1917, with plans to sell 50,000 in 1917. But by 1918, the kit problems were obvious: Advertising offered new standard cooling equipment which made overheating the engine "practically impossible"; new Timken bearings would prevent rear bearing wearouts.

Staude Mak-a-Tractor kits did not last past 1919. "Even though the idea looked real good," Wendel says, "these car-tractor conversion kits were so unsuccessful that today it is difficult to find one, even as a collector's item."

Lemon Drops

Some tractors had minor design flaws that could make the tractor a lemon, like the 1905 Hart-Parr tractors. Dan Roen of rural Comstock, Minn., says his neighbor bought one of those, which didn't come with an oil pump.

"It had a little drip cup for each piston and main bearing and connecting rod, so at the end of the field he'd have to get off, and look behind each drip cup and see if it was dripping oil. At night he'd have to take a little kerosene lantern and get off the machine at the end of a row to check them." It was no surprise that a year later, the machines had oil pumps.

Many farm tractors were lemons because tractor manufacturers didn't test them before they sold them to farmers.

As Farm Implements says in its Dec 31, 1917 issue, "A number of years ago, when a gas tractor that would really work was an object of lively curiosity to farmers, one of the present well-known manufacturers of tractors was designing and building its first experimental machine. H. W. Adams was at that time employed by this firm and due to his wide experience with steam threshing machines, stationary gas engines and other power machinery, assisted in designing and building that machine.

"I knew that too many tractors were the result of theoretical experts who worked on drawing boards, instead of the results given by tractors under actual working conditions in the hands of farmers," Adams says. "I saw where such tractors could not help but fall down ..."

Tractors of the time were also lemons because no organization oversaw the manufacture and production of tractors. There was no penalty for shoddy workmanship, except non-repeat business, which didn't trouble many of the fly-by-night companies which were in business only to make a quick buck.

But something positive did come out of these lemons. By 1920, groups had sprung up to scrutinize tractor ads ("Pan Tank-Tread Tractor Will Win the War," crowed one ad, while in another, Eagle tractors untruthfully claimed to run equally well on kerosene or gasoline). Then the Nebraska Tractor Test became law, requiring tractors sold in Nebraska (and soon, all states) to prove their claims through rigorous testing.

Better tractors is today's enduring legacy from these old time lemons. FC 

Bill Vossler writes on a variety of collectible farm equipment, and is the author of Toy Farm Tractors, published last year.