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Centaur tractors as adaptable as their mythical namesake

From Greek mythology comes the story of a King of Thessaly, named Ixion, who fell in love with (and tried to win) Hera, the goddess of women and marriage, who just happened to be the wife (and sister) of Zeus, chief of the gods. For his effrontery, Ixion was tied to an endlessly revolving wheel in the infernal regions of Tartarus, but not before he had sired a race of creatures called Centaurs, who had the head, arms and torso of a man, joined to the body of a horse. Centaurs were said to be very fleet of foot and great hunters, and usually were pictured with curly hair and beards, and armed with a bow and arrows.

Many centuries later, in 1921, the Central Tractor Co. introduced a small farm tractor named after that mythical half-man, half-beast because, as copywriters pointed out, the new tractor "Does the Work of Man and Horse."

Located in Greenwich, a small, neat town in north central Ohio, the firm's first offering was the Centaur Model F, which was intended more as a truck garden machine than a farm tractor. Powered by a 1-cylinder, 5 hp New Way engine, the Model F was built like a walk-behind garden tractor, with conventional plow-type handles for steering. Also available: a 2-wheeled riding sulky to which a plow or cultivator could be attached. Promotional materials noted it was intended to "take the farmer off his feet and put him on the seat."

In about 1926, a larger and more powerful Centaur was introduced. Intended to replace a team of horses on the average small farm, the Model G had a 2-cylinder LeRoi engine rated at 6 hp on the drawbar and 10 hp on the belt. The engine was water-cooled and the radiator was behind the engine, facing the driver. The tractor had one forward and one reverse gear, was chain-driven and could pull a single 12-inch plow. Although the Model G still had the drive wheels up front under the engine, a proper steering wheel reached back to the trailing sulky and steered the rig through a rack-and-pinion arrangement between the sulky and the power unit.

A pulley could be attached to the front of the tractor for driving small, belt-powered machines. Implements for the Centaur, probably built by the Oliver Corporation, included a plow, cultivator, harrows, seeders and potato digger, all attached to the riding sulky. Most any horse-drawn implement, such as a corn planter, mowing machine or a hay rake, could be substituted for the sulky by shortening the tongue and having the operator drive the tractor from the implement seat.

In 1929, the Central Tractor Co. became the Centaur Tractor Corporation and began selling an improved tractor, the Model 2G, which was virtually identical to its predecessor except for a slightly more powerful engine. The 2G's LeRoi Model T engine had a 1/4-inch larger bore and produced an additional 2 hp, although the tractor was still rated to pull one 12-inch plow. Indications are that the Model 2G Centaur was built until at least 1937.

During the 1930s, the firm built a variation of the Model 2G specifically designed for highway mowing. This little, 58-inch wheelbase tractor used the same clutch, transmission, differential and LeRoi engine (although with the radiator out in front) as were used on the Model 2G. A front axle and small rubber-tired wheels were added at the front, while the rear drive wheels had larger rubber-tired wheels. A rear-mounted sickle bar mower was provided, along with a belt-driven hydraulic pump to raise and lower it. Apparently, not many of these highway mowing machines were built, but a few have survived.

By the early 1930s, the front-drive, sulky-ridden tractors had become obsolete, with farmers demanding more power, more features and, especially, more comfort and ease of operation. This set the stage for a totally new tractor, the Model KV, which was introduced about 1935.

The Centaur KV, or "Klear View," was a conventional, four-wheeled machine, powered by a LeRoi 4-cylinder engine, with a bore and stroke of 3-1/8-by-4-inches. Advertised output of the 123-ci engine was 22 hp at 1,600 rpm. A 4-speed transmission gave operating speeds of 2.5, 5, 10 and 20 mph. The differential was actually in front of the driver, with the roller chain final drives and rear wheels extending to the rear along each side of the driver's legs. The seat was suspended just behind the fenders and right over the 1-bottom plow (or 1-row cultivator).

Centaur advertised 54 inches of clear row vision, allowing a fast, clean job of cultivating, whether the rows were straight or crooked. Capable of pulling one 14-inch plow, which was hand-lifted by the same lever as the cultivator, the KV had a 5-foot wheelbase and was just 45 inches high and 45 inches wide overall. This low and narrow stance made the KV an ideal machine for vineyard or orchard use, and company advertising called the Centaur "unbeatable for cultivating."

KV tractors came with 7.50-by-24 rear and 5.25-by-16 front tires as standard equipment, although steel wheels were available, as was a belt pulley. In 1935, very few farm tractors could be ordered with electric starting, but a starting and lighting package was optional on the KV series from the beginning.

The KV was streamlined in 1939, and equipped with an overhead-valve LeRoi engine. Centaur sold the Greenwich plant to LeRoi in 1940, and tractor production seems to have ended, probably due to wartime restrictions. After the war, many Centaur tractors were built for use as highway mowers and LeRoi got out of the agricultural market.

LeRoi also built a combined tractor/air compressor called the Tractair. In 1954, LeRoi became a part of Dresser Industries, and operations of the Centaur Division were moved from Greenwich to Sidney, Ohio. All tractor production ended sometime in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, all Centaur tractor records were destroyed at the time of the move from Greenwich to Sidney, so no one knows how many of the little gray tractors were built. Survivors are few and far between, but they are out there, especially in Ohio.

- Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@copper.net