LET'S TALK RUSTY IRON

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Side view of the tractor

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Did a 1946 GM prototype tractor slip through the automaker's fingers?

Faithful 'Rusty Iron' readers may recall that General Motors Co. took a brief and disastrous fling at building farm tractors during the late teens and early 1920s. The initiative began in 1918 when William Durant, then GM chairman and chief stockholder, challenged Henry Ford and his popular Fordson's eminent position in the tractor world by purchasing the Samson Tractor Works of Stockton, Calif. Samson built the Sieve-Grip tractor, which derived its name from an open-faced wheel design, and was popular on the West Coast because of its light weight and low center of gravity.

General Motors then bought the Janesville Machine Co. of Janesville, Wis., and manufactured its Samson tractor line there. GM's first order of business was to replace the expensive Sieve-Grip tractor with the newly designed Samson Model M, a virtual Fordson knock-off. GM also bought rights to a motor cultivator, which became the Samson Model D Iron Horse (Farm Collector, October 2003). The M was a pretty good tractor, but the Iron Horse wasn't. The Iron Horse's failure - combined with the agricultural depression of 1921 -forced GM to reluctantly exit the farm equipment business in 1922 and to convert the Janesville facility to a Chevrolet assembly plant.

The four-year foray seemed to mark the end of GM's venture into the farm tractor business - or did it?

Look what I found

In 1991, Dale Hall of Mt. Washington, Ky., a collector of International Harvester-made machines as well as other unusual farm items, answered an advertisement in a local rag about an old truck for sale. When Dale went to inspect the truck, the seller also mentioned he was selling an old tractor parked in the barn. Dale had never seen another tractor like it, so he bought it and left the truck behind figuring old trucks come a dime a dozen. A tractor like this ... well, you never know.

The seller of this unusual tractor - a man in his mid-30s -explained to Dale how the tractor sat unused on his neighbor's farm ever since he was a kid. The young man finally asked his neighbor about the machine and was told he could take it. The unusual tractor was towed home and stored in the barn until Dale found it.

Another anecdote accompanied the tractor as well, a tale passed on from the original owner through the young seller and - finally - to Dale.

A tall tractor tale?

As Dale recalls it, the tale goes something like this: Chevrolet wanted to enter the tractor business after WW II, but the gigantic automaker was already allocating all available factory facilities to meet the huge, post-war demand for cars and trucks. Supposedly, Chevrolet employed an engineer - known only as Mr. Nutter - who was given a 1 1/2-ton Chevy truck engine and chassis, and told to build a prototype tractor. Mr. Nutter built the tractor in his garage at home since Chevrolet lacked suitable space in any of its factories. Once completed, Nutter presented the prototype to his corporate superiors at Chevrolet.

Evidently, Mr. Nutter had fashioned an emblem on the tractor, which also included the classic Chevrolet bow tie and his own name. According to the story, Chevrolet didn't agree with including his name on its tractor. Nutter supposedly didn't receive the criticism well, so he resigned from GM and took the tractor with him into obscurity.

The story ended on that note, and nothing more is known about the tractor. Dale doesn't know where this may've taken place, or how the machine reached its original owner.

Dale tried to research Mr. Nutter and to learn if he ever worked for GM or was a member of the American Society of Automotive Engineers, but turned up nothing. Mike Brazeau at GM Archives found neither an indication that an engineer named Nutter ever worked for the company, nor proof that GM was ever interested in building a tractor after the war.

The tractor languished in Dale's garage for a decade while he sporadically researched. Finally, in late 2002, Dale's wife, Marilyn, asked him to show it at the September 2003 Heritage Weekend in Lanesville, Ind. Dale started in January 2003 and had the tractor readied and in show condition, except for the gauges and the engine compartment side panels, by show time.

A closer look at the mystery machine

Equipped with a standard Chevrolet 216-cubic-inch engine, a four-speed transmission and a manual-shift, two-speed rear axle, the tractor looks similar to many other tricycle-type machines of the post-war period. A separate brake pedal and master cylinder operates each rear brake, and a padded seat - positioned atop the box that contains the fuel tank - provides a comfortable cushion for the driver.

The sheet-metal hood, cowl and grille appear professionally hand-formed, and the grille insert is made of expanded metal. All the edges are turned and smooth, and the rear fenders' outer edges are made of gracefully curved angle iron and bolted to the sheet metal. The rear wheel centers are flame-cut steel with notches around the outer edges, which allows the rims to be bolted on either the inside or the outside for different wheel spacings. Every hole is accurately spaced and drilled, and all the slots are precisely milled with no rough torch cuts evident anywhere. The hood is hinged at the rear with a latch at the front so it can be raised for service (there's even a built-in prop rod to hold the hood in the raised position). The braces and gussets on the hood's underbelly are as nicely finished as the rest of the sheet metal.

The tractor has a Hobbs hour meter, but - oddly enough -no governor. A rigid drawbar directly connects to the rear axle, and no provision is made for a power take-off, a belt pulley or a power lift of any kind. Dale says the tractor needs another gear reduction between the rear end and the rear wheels because the standard truck transmission and rear end are too fast.

Believe it or not

Is Dale's Chevrolet tractor a prototype? Based on the tractor's meticulously built characteristics, that certainly seems to be the case, although it's doubtful the tractor was actually instigated by GM. More likely, Mr. Nutter, who may not have even worked for GM at the time, built the tractor in the hopes GM or another firm would manufacture it. After World War II, farm tractor demand resulted in innumerable entrepreneurs who wanted to capitalize on the trend. It's highly unlikely that GM was one of them, however, since the firm had its hands full building cars and trucks.

Of course, the machine may've been built for Mr. Nutter's own use, as with many other homemade tractors in those days. If so, Nutter was a skilled craftsman and took extraordinary pains to craft such a detailed tractor. In any event, Dale owns a very special tractor -and one that should provoke plenty of discussion at antique farm shows.

- If anyone has any information about a Mr. Nutter who worked for GM in 1946, or anyone else who may have built such a tractor, please contact Dale Hall, 1516 Bogard Lane, Mt. Washington, KY 40047; (502) 538-7213; or contact Sam Moore by e-mail: letstalkrustyiron@yahoo.com