The Doodlebug: A Homemade Tractor

Built-from-scratch homemade tractor, or doodlebug, keeps on ticking.
By Clell G. Ballard
August 2012

The Chili Dipper is especially handy at smoothing dirt roads in the spring.
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Probably the most common farmer-created implement in the early move from simple horse power to mechanical motive power was the homemade tractor. Dozens of companies produced tractors that were expected to replace the horse on America’s farms. The variety of such offerings was almost mind-boggling, but there was one common denominator: Farmers needed money to buy them. Most farms were small. Although they provided the essentials of life for the farm family, few generated a substantial amount of cash. For a farmer to obtain a new tractor, money had to change hands.

Although it was quite evident that more work could be accomplished with a tractor, the small farmer couldn’t always come up with enough resources to buy one. That problem was addressed in a couple of ways. Some companies provided a cheaper alternative by selling kits used to convert cars and trucks into tractors. The most common conversion involved Model T Fords since they were almost ubiquitous nationwide. In a typical conversion, the vehicle’s wheelbase was shortened, a heavy-duty rear axle was substituted and large, cleated rear wheels were installed. Some method of providing lower gearing was incorporated so the marginally powered engines could actually accomplish farm fieldwork.

The affordable option

Farmers who built their own homemade tractors found an even more economical option. Any old motorized vehicle was a candidate for conversion; any mechanical components available were utilized. Out-of-pocket costs were nil. Since every farmer-created tractor was different, only a few accurate observations apply to all of them.

Heavy-duty rear axles were generally salvaged from trucks. In those days, trucks had axle ratios like 8-10:1 (car ratios were more commonly 4-5:1). Those lower gears were supplemented by using two transmissions. The first transmission could be put in first gear, which meant that first gear in the second transmission was multiplied three or four times. That provided enough power to pull agricultural implements.

Putting that power to the ground was a major problem because car/truck-based tractors lacked adequate weight for good traction. Cleated steel wheels partially made up for that handicap. When the power-to-traction equation was adequate, another problem raised its ugly head. The mechanical components utilized were rarely strong enough for the heavy work asked of them. Burned-out clutches, disintegrated transmissions and broken axles were common.

In spite of the drawbacks of homemade tractors, thousands toiled successfully on the farms of America and helped make horse-powered agriculture a thing of the past. Collectively they have been given the title “doodlebug,” and enthusiast organizations exist in some areas.

The Chili Dipper

Few of those ancient homemade tractors are still in use on a regular basis. I have one that is. The tractor’s builder, an old-timer who later served in World War II, named it the “Chili Dipper.” It began life as a 1931 Model A Ford pickup. During the Great Depression it was converted into a tractor. Although the actual metal modification is quite crude — some of it was forged and some welded with an early arc welder — the creativity it exhibits is phenomenal.

Both front and rear springs were eliminated so the front has a simple center pivot and the rear axle is bolted directly to the frame. The wheelbase was shortened. The rear axle is original but connected to two Model A transmissions. The mechanical brakes still work on the front wheels. Because the skinny Model A tires were hard to get and had poor traction, newer 15-inch rims and tires were fitted. That increased traction, but not enough to suit the builder, so he created his own way of mounting dual rear wheels. Unfortunately the Model A pickup axle was insufficiently strong so broken axles happened all too often. We have owned the Chili Dipper 43 years, and during that time we have utilized only single rear wheels.

Multi-tasking machine

We think of tractors being used to pull things. But they can do many other jobs, and the builder of the Chili Dipper wanted it to do almost everything. He built a scraper that fit on the rear that pivoted right and left as the need arose. Another rear attachment is a rather crude scoop that can be loaded by backing up into a dirt or gravel pile. When the operator arrives at the point the material is needed, a trip allows the scoop to dump its contents. (The spring that makes the trip work originally attached a bed mattress support to a metal bed frame.) Both of those attachments were raised and lowered by a novel cable mechanism that took its power off of a pulley welded between the two transmissions. By putting the rear transmission in neutral, the “power take-off” worked without the tractor moving.

After the war, modifications were made in an unusual manner. Because the builder lived next to the county road and bridge shop, he had his pick of castoff materials. Over time and at little or no personal expense, he salvaged various hydraulic components that had been retired from the county fleet.

Eventually all those early components were activated by hydraulics and a front blade was added, dramatically increasing the Chili Dipper’s usefulness. The fact that it doesn’t have as much traction as one might like is beneficial in that you don’t tear up other mechanical components.

Homemade tractor pulling its weight

The little homemade tractor has one other feature that I added many years ago. Anyone who deals with heavy objects needs some way to pick them up. A couple days’ work with a cutting torch and welder resulted in construction of a 10-foot boom that fits on the back of the Chili Dipper. It was built out of an old car frame.

The cable that does the lifting is powered by a Model A starter motor. When activated by a foot switch, the motor runs and, via a Hotpoint washing machine V-belt, turns the input shaft of an old car transmission. Shifting the transmission into either low or reverse (the other gears have been removed) determines the direction the cable moves. The cable is taken up on a homemade winch made from an old car steering box. Although the whole mechanism takes a lot of juice out of the 6-volt battery and the cable moves slowly, it will lift almost any heavy object. Weight of more than about 1,000 pounds causes the tractor’s front wheels to start lifting off the ground.

The Chili Dipper has been in our possession for almost half a century. It is so useful that it is utilized for one project or another many times every year. All four of our sons and I have spent hours and hours using it to doze snow, haul and level dirt and gravel, replace automobile engines and move vehicles around in the yard. It even made it possible for my then 6-year-old son and me to build a major addition to our log house. He could activate the electric winch while I located the logs in the proper place. The rafters were put up with it as well.  

The description “homemade” may bring to mind something simple and less useful than a commercially made product. In this case, “homemade” is a badge of honor for a little tractor that continues to be an indispensable part of our rural life. FC 

A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school. For more than 50 years he’s worked on his uncle’s hay and grain ranch during the summer. Currently they swath, rake and big bale 1,000 acres of dry land hay each summer. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net. 

Read more about homemade tractors in Homemade Tractor: Modified Farmall F-12 and Yankee Doodle(bug) Dandy: A Homemade Tractor From Ford Model A Parts.


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