Tracking the Truck: Early Motor Truck History

Tractor companies heavily influenced the development and history of trucks.
Bill Vossler
November 2002
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This old Avery truck, thought to be a 1910, 1911 or 1912 model
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Logically, early-20th-century tractor manufacturers might have been in the best position to understand the needs of farmers for harvest hauling – except that, prior to 1920, the concept of the truck was still in flux.

Often called 'motor trucks' at this time to distinguish them from the trucks, or platforms, on which many farm engines sat, trucks were labor-saving 'beasts of burden' for farmers, never more appreciated than during harvest time.

Because nobody knew a truck's best use on a farm at the time, early truck makers faced a dilemma: Should trucks be used strictly to haul loads around the farm – manure, implements or, most especially, harvested grain – or should they double as a tractor, as the early Allis-Chalmers tractor truck, first built in 1915, did?

The Allis-Chalmers was a half-track with artillery-style steel wheels in front for steering. It was powered by a T-head, four-cylinder, 68-hp engine, and was meant to plow as well as carry loads. Perhaps the dual use – compounded by the $5,000 price tag (almost 20 times what Henry Ford was charging for his model T truck at the time) – destined this truck to failure.

Avery trucks did better. The Avery Co. of Peoria, Ill., was well known for its steam engines and tractors, including the 8-16 and the 14-28. When the company ventured into the truck field in 1910, it was well situated in the agricultural field, with a dealer network in place to help let buyers know about the new product.

The Avery Co. described its motor truck as a "gasoline farm wagon" and "general farm power machine." The firm decided up front that its trucks would be most useful to farmers during the harvest season, so they included a large belt pulley that could be attached to the front crank shaft for powering grain separators and other belt-driven machines. Early Avery trucks also had cast steel wheels with holes into which wooden plugs could be driven, to give added traction; when the wood wore down, new wooden plugs were simply inserted.

Company advertising claimed the truck carried loads on its own body, pulled plows and other machinery in the field, and drove other machines by belt power: "You can do road work, field work or belt work, all with this one machine."

The 1-ton model was the most popular, but Avery also built 2- and 3-ton motor trucks with solid rubber tires. In 1921, the firm introduced a six-cylinder truck but went into bankruptcy shortly thereafter, leaving to speculation whether that model would have succeeded.

Deere & Co. entered the truck business in 1907 when they bought out the Clarkmobile Automobile Co. and moved that firm's machinery and equipment to Moline, Ill. There, they began building a 2-1/2-ton Deere truck with a horizontally opposed engine rated at 20 hp, a three-speed progressive sliding gear transmission and dual chain final drive. This truck didn't last either, probably due to a family-related conflict: Willard Lamb Velie, related by marriage to the Deere family, wanted to build trucks too. His trucks were called Velies, and their production began in 1911, after which the production of Deere trucks was stopped, so the vehicles wouldn't compete with each other. Velies were sold until 1929, except for the years 1925 and 1926.

Additionally, a Deere & Co. engineer, Joseph Dain, who was building experimental tractors for the firm, manufactured his own Dain truck from 1912 to 1917 in Ottumwa, Iowa. It also competed with the Deeres, and may have adversely affected Deere sales too.

International Harvester Co. began making high-wheeled 'auto wagons' in 1909 in its Akron, Ohio, plant. These trucks used wagon-type wheels that measured up to 44 inches in diameter. In 1912, the name of the vehicle was changed to 'motor truck,' and starting in 1914, model A and model M motor trucks also were built.

As farmers got used to the idea of trucks on the farm, IH began to offer additional models, developing trucks for different-sized farms and different farm uses. These included models H, F, K, G and L in 3/4- to 3-1/2-ton sizes.

Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co. was a well-known farm tractor firm that manufactured Twin City tractors. In 1918, the company decided to get into the farm truck business too. Farm Implements and Tractors magazine reported in its Dec. 31, 1918, issue: "The Automotive Engineering Department has been established by the Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Company. This department is where automotive apparatus such as tractors, motors and trucks are designed."

Minneapolis Steel built 2-and 3 1/2-ton capacity trucks. To test whether it would perform well under heavy farm loads, a 2-ton truck was piled with 4,700 pounds of payload and driven from Minneapolis to Peoria, Ill. The trip took five days but was successful, both going and coming. Twin City trucks were built until 1929.

Advance-Rumely Co. of LaPorte, Ind., was best known for Rumely OilPull tractors, but in 1919, to augment the tractors, the firm began building 1-1/2-ton trucks. The trucks were powered by four-cylinder Buda engines, had Fuller transmissions and what were called Sheldon worm-drive rear axles. The wheelbase was 144 inches.

That year, Farm Implements and Tractors wrote, "The entire (Rumely) truck is especially designed for farm service. It has a unit power plant with a heavy-duty motor, three-speed transmission and dry disc clutch. Other features are the large cooling capacity of the radiator, worm drive rear axle, the extra-heavy springs and the extra-heavy-type express body, suitable for hauling heavy grains such as wheat, shelled corn, etc. Suitable extensions will give it larger capacity for hauling oats, barley or other light grains, livestock, baled hay and other farm products. It will be distributed through the large Advance-Rumely dealer organization."

The October 1924 issue of The OilPull magazine had this short article: "Fay C. Hollenbeck of Albion, New York, gives some interesting side lights on the hauling strength of the Rumely truck in his recent letter: I have been running one of your trucks for the past three months and am well pleased with it. While it is only rated as a 1 1/2- to 2-ton truck, I find that it hauls three or four tons with ease. I haul three tons all the time, and have hauled four, and could not see but what the motor still had reserve power." The model A Rumely truck sold for $2,150 in 1925; Rumely trucks were discontinued in 1929 as the United States sank into recession.

Moline Plow Co., another of the big players in the early-day U.S. farm machinery industry, began manufacturing Moline trucks in 1920, also in Moline.

Electric lights, generators and starters cost extra, the Farm Implements magazine reported, noting, "The design also provides for a power take-off assembly as an extra, which can be put to many uses. It is so arranged that it can be set into operation from the driver's seat and started or stopped at will. A 12-inch pulley is regularly applied, or chain sprocket if desired."

One major advantage of the Moline truck for dealers was that it used the same engine as the company's Universal tractor, a Moline four-cylinder, valve-in-head type with large-size bearings and force-fed lubrication. Thus, repairmen and dealers would not only be familiar with the engine but also would have the necessary parts on hand to repair them. The magazine added that the truck "possesses an unusual amount of power for its size." The Moline truck was discontinued only three years later, though, probably because of the lingering effects of the early 1920s farm depression.

Another well-known company that built trucks was the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co., which bought an option in 1912 to purchase the Stephenson Motor Truck Co. of Milwaukee, Wis. Little information has been documented about these Case trucks, except that they were built in 1912, and perhaps 1913. Newspapers of the day reported Case actually purchased Stephenson, and the Stephenson firm apparently thought that was the case too, for it disbanded its dealer network. But when Case failed to pick up its option to buy, Stephenson went bankrupt, and the production of the trucks came to a halt.

In 1915, Case returned to trucks and made them until the 1920s. A New Bremen, Ohio, company also made 'Case' trucks from 1910 to 1913 but had no connection with J.I. Case.

General Motors Corp. built Samson trucks after William 'Billy' Crapo Durant bought out the Samson Tractor Works in an attempt to best Henry Ford, whom he hated. GMC built two different Samson trucks from 1920 to 1923 at its Flint, Mich., and Janesville, Wis., plants: the M-25, a 1 1/4-ton truck, which sold for $1,095, and the M-15, which was much more successful. Both trucks were built for farm use and were fitted with extension rims, which had plain cleats in front and shallow cleats in the rear for ease of driving over plowed fields. They only were built from 1920 to 1923 because Durant's egomania drove GMC to the brink of bankruptcy by then.

One of the oddest trucks ever used to harvest was the Bryan steam truck, built by the Bryan Harvester Co. of Peru, Ind. Farm Implements and Tractors wrote about it in 1920: "The expected has happened. The latest thing in the way of modern power farming ... is (that for) the first time in the history of the world, a threshing machine has been operated by a small steam tractor, accompanied by a steam truck being used to haul the grain to the machine."

As was the tradition of the day, the magazine hyped the machines: "The output of the Bryan factories is said to be contracted far in advance for nearly two years, and there has been a steady increase in the number of men employed for some time past. It is therefore planned that normal production will be under way in a comparatively short time." In 1923, the company no longer existed.

Other tractor-manufacturing companies also made trucks, including Morton, Shelby, Power and Traylor, as well as many companies outside of the farm implement sphere. Hundreds of truck-manufacturing companies sprang up, tried their hands at making trucks for farmers and just as quickly faded away. For the most part, it was not the companies that decided whether their product would survive in the marketplace. It was the farmers, who earlier had final say about which tractor companies and tractors - the other half of the harvesting equation - would survive. FC 

- Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com 


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