Building a Nilson Tractor

Scratch builder creates a replica Nilson tractor from period illustrations.

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Gary Johannessohn fell hard for the Nilson tractor, building one from scratch without ever having seen an actual Nilson.

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To get a look at a Nilson tractor, Gary Johannessohn had to take extreme measures: He had to build one. "I've had a love of old tractors for most of my life," Gary says, "and the odder and more peculiar they are in appearance and design, the more I seem to appreciate them!"

Today, Gary is the proud designer, builder and owner of a replica Nilson. The project celebrates an exceptionally rare line he discovered a few years ago when his son-in-law gave him a copy of American Farm Tractors by C.H. Wendel.

"I spent hours studying the different tractors described in it, especially the 3-wheel models," he recalls. "A number of companies manufactured 3-wheel tractors in the teens of the last century, and the Nilson tractor really got me exited. I liked the shape and design of it, and the way in which the operator sat on it. In fact, I could see a forerunner of such tractors as the Ford 9N, 8N and other utility-type tractors where the operator sat to the front of the drive wheels."

An active member of the Lake Itasca (Minn.) Region Pioneer Farmers, Gary collects and restores gas engines, tractors and vehicles. Those experiences gave him another insight to the Nilson tractor design.

"I think there was a vision of safety incorporated into the tractor, as opposed to so many other tractors in which the operators were perched precariously up on the right rear fender or behind the tractor and over the drawbar," he says. "Some of those designs persisted into the late 1930s and 1940s. But every Nilson model built had the operator located in the center of the tractor."

The Nilson tractor also had a channel-iron frame and a roller chain drive to the single rear drive wheel. It featured regular automotive-style steering, a non-pivoting front axle and an in-line vertical engine, all of which, Gary notes, "had powerful appeal to me."

The decision made to build, Gary began collecting parts. "I had the pictures in the Wendel book blown up and I carried them around with me," he says. "I showed them to other collectors as I sought further information to aid me in assembling a tractor." It didn't matter that many people had never heard of the Nilson: He found lots of support. "That's what I like about this hobby," he says. "There are some really fine people out there who are eager to help one another."

Parts came in over the course of two years. Gary started building in December 2005 and continued working on the replica all winter. Using illustrations from the Wendel book, he decided to copy the 1915 version of the Nilson. "I had to incorporate some imagination as I went along," he says, "because I only had the two illustrations to work from and no catalog showing the tractor from a variety of angles."

As chief designer of the replica, he took a few liberties with the original. "I changed a few things on my design, such as the rear fender," Gary explains. "The 1915 model should have had a half-fender, but I liked the look of the later machines with a wrap-around full back fender. I also put a full chain guard on the side for greater safety. And I incorporated a railing around the seat so there's something for the grandkids to hang on to when they ride with me."

By late spring 2006, the tractor was basically assembled and ready to try. "I was especially interested to see what the ground speed would be," Gary says. "I had used a 4-speed truck transmission with a 90-degree 2-to-1 ratio direction-changing gearbox to accommodate the roller chain drive on the tractor's right side. I put a 7-inch sprocket on the gearbox and my final drive sprocket was nearly 4 feet in diameter and fastened to the single rear wheel. I was positive it would be so slow that you'd have to do drag steps to keep from getting ahead of it!"

But life is full of little surprises. "Once I started it and drove it outside the shop," Gary says, "even in its lowest gear you couldn't drive it in a parade!" There was nothing to do but look for another 90-degree gearbox. Gary solved the problem with a gearbox from a New Holland baler with a 7-to-1 reduction. The engine is a Dodge 6-cylinder 217-cubic-inch industrial unit.

In May 2006 it was time to get decals and have the replica painted. "I had no idea what color it should be, for up to that time I had never seen an actual Nilson tractor," Gary says. After looking through a local paint dealer's catalog, he found a shade he liked and ordered a gallon. "I staggered just a bit when the paint arrived and I learned how much it cost: $250 for one gallon," he recalls. He picked contrasting paint for the wheels, and turned the project over to his son-in-law, Jade Stenseng, who painted the replica and applied computer-generated decals.

Gary's Nilson tractor is dark green with red wheels. "Not long after I got it finished, I saw a picture of a later model in one of the hobby magazines," he says. "It was red with yellow wheels! I think I'll leave my tractor the color it is, at least for a while."

In the summer of 2006, Gary took his Nilson to the Lake Itasca Regional Pioneer Farmers show. "I drove it in daily parades and entered it in the tractor pull, and it pulled very credibly in its weight class," he says. Ever modest, he's quick to point out imperfections. Still, he's satisfied. "It runs and handles very nicely, and that makes it all worthwhile."

Bob Bilden, describes Gary's replica as "the easiest steering machine I have ever had occasion to try out."  

Editor's note:
The Nilson Agricultural Machine Co. was incorporated by Nils Nilson in 1913. The company introduced its first tractor, the Nilson 20-40, in 1916. At about the same time, the company (by then the Nilson Tractor Co.) moved to Minneapolis.

During the more than 15 years the Nilson company existed, at least four models were built. Although quite unique in design (especially the 3-wheel models), Nilson used a highly respectable and successful engine (Waukesha) and built rugged machines. Like many other small-production companies, Nilson ultimately conceded to competition from industry giants. Crown Iron Works, Minneapolis, took over production of the Nilson in 1920; the company filed articles of dissolution in 1929.