Into Thin Air: The Maxwell Tractor

The much-heralded Maxwell tractor failed to materialize after its 1918 debut.

Maxwell tractor equippped for hard roads

The Maxwell tractor as equipped for use on hard roads. “The design is compact and follows the usual practice with the engine under a hood at front,” said Automotive Industries.

Photo courtesy Bill Vossler

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When it was announced to the tractor-buying public early in 1918, the Maxwell tractor came as a complete surprise. Manufactured by Maxwell Motor Co., Detroit, the machine made its debut after five years of carefully hidden development under an assumed name as it was being perfected on Louisiana sugar and rice plantations.

As Automobile Trade Journal reported in March 1918, “It was at the dinner of the Maxwell-Chalmers dealers (and distributors), which was held in Chicago during the week of the Chicago Show, that the latest addition to the Maxwell line – a new farm tractor – was revealed. It came as a surprise. During this nascent period, as it were, the tractor was known by the pseudonymous name of Chief, which concealed its real identity until such time as the maker saw fit to reveal it. The field engineer of the Maxwell Co., Detroit, Michigan, supervised the testing of the tractor.” Tractor Selling Opportunities magazine said the revelation “created much interest.”

Early entrant to industry

Maxwell Motor Co. was no stranger to motor vehicle production. In 1903, as noted in Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942, automotive innovator Benjamin Briscoe “happened upon Jonathan D. Maxwell, an engineer with experience at both Olds and Northern. (Briscoe) sold out his investment in the Buick (automobile) project and formed a new partnership.”

The company began in Tarrytown, New York, in 1904 as Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Co., with two-thirds of the capital supplied by famed industrialist J.P. Morgan, and the other third by Briscoe. Jonathan Maxwell came up with “a splendid little car featuring a 2-cylinder water-cooled engine.”

Maxwell autos were advertised in bizarre but attention-getting ways. The company was known to stage police chases or drive cars up the steps of venerable buildings. In 1909, the company even launched a cross-country trek by four women. All of the exploits were filmed for later showing. The tactic was successful; by 1910, only Ford and Buick were able to top Maxwell’s sales figures. More than 9,400 Maxwells were produced that year, including the very-popular “Dr. Maxwell” runabout automobile, built especially for physicians.

After its Tarrytown factory was destroyed by fire in 1907, Maxwell came roaring back, building the Indianapolis Foundry in New Castle, Indiana. At that time, it was the largest automobile factory in the world. Maxwell built others at Pawtucket, Rhode Island; Auburn, New York; and Cranston, Rhode Island. Maxwell also built delivery vans, buses and trucks, all using the same 20 hp engine as its cars.

Maxwell trucks highly regarded

The carefully calculated launch of the Maxwell tractor was typical of the company’s rigorous approach to research and promotion. In an article on Maxwell trucks, the Michigan Manufacturer Financial Record commented on the company’s deliberate approach in its December 1916 issue. “The Maxwell company is taking this step after a thorough investigation and experiments extending over a long period of time,” the article noted. “The 1-ton truck is the result of the best thought and the best effort that an efficient organization is able to put into it. Maxwell engineers have spent two years in experimenting and observing, with the end view of building and marketing a sturdy, low-price truck that will serve the needs of the largest number of users.

“In designing the Maxwell truck, the Maxwell engineers paid special attention to simplicity, because this truck is designed to meet the most diversified requirements – to serve successfully the small as well as the large user. The engine is of block design, the same engine that has enjoyed such conspicuous success in Maxwell cars. This is the engine that holds the world’s non-stop record of 22,022 miles.”

Taking on new partners

Eventually, Briscoe and Maxwell split and all the factories were sold. In 1917, Jonathan Maxwell relocated his base of operations to Detroit, where he started Maxwell Motor Co. The company almost immediately floundered during the rocky post-World War I economy, a financial downturn that knocked out many car and tractor manufacturers and stressed many others.

Two of those having difficulty – Chalmers Motor Car Co. and Maxwell Motor Co. – joined forces in a desperate attempt to hang on. In a subsequent lease agreement, Maxwell was allowed to use Chalmers facilities. With those two companies working hand-in-hand, a dinner for Maxwell-Chalmers dealers in Detroit must have seemed an ideal venue to announce the new Maxwell tractor. The exact date of the event is unknown, but it appears to have been held in late January or early February 1918.

The March 15, 1918, edition of Motor West magazine covered the launch of the new tractor in almost breathless terms. “The tractor was revealed for the first time, its presentation being by means of motion pictures. Several reels of films were shown. Some 500 dealers present were amazed by the completeness of the new product and the surprising new tractor features it embodied. Tests of the machine were made under the supervision of P.R. Janney, Maxwell field engineer, on sugar and rice plantations in Louisiana, and in other parts of the country.”

Automobile Trade Journal was equally impressed. “The influence of automobile design and practice is plainly evidenced in this new tractor, as might be expected,” its reporter noted. “The engine is of the removable L-head type and simple in design. It sits under the hood at the front. A horsepower of 29 is developed. The bore and stroke are 4-1/4 by 6 inches, respectively. The engine is governed to run at 900 rpm. The normal drawbar pull is 2,600 pounds, which is variable up to 3,000. The tractor is rated as a 3-plow machine capable of doing all farm work, either in the field or on the belt, and is provided with means for doing satisfactory road work.”

Greeted with acclaim

Perhaps reflecting to Maxwell’s prominent position in the market, trade magazines of 1918 were filled with full-page spreads on the Maxwell tractor. Automobile Dealer and Repairer, The Motor Truck, The Automobile, Automobile Trade Journal, Automotive Industries and Motor West published lengthy accounts in each issue, including pictures of “The New Maxwell Tractor at work.” Motor West noted that, “the company is on the eve of production for this addition to the Maxwell line.”

In a Feb. 7, 1918, article, Automotive Industries fairly gushed. “The tractor is, throughout, what may be called an automobile type, for, although nothing about it follows automobile practice, yet the layout is such as closely parallels automobile design.”

Automotive Industries also reported on another design influence. The writer noted the inclusion of three pumps for oil-pressure feed (“one pump being located at the forward end of the crankcase, one at the rear end, and the third taking the oil from the sump and delivering it to the three main bearings”). “With these three pumps, if the tractor has to climb a stiff grade, and the oil should run to the back of the case,” he wrote, “the pump at the rear will carry the oil back to the sump, where it will distribute to the main bearings. Should the tractor be inclined to the front, the front oil pump will act in the same way. Thus, in spite of the difference in purpose, a hint has been taken from aircraft practice.” In effect, the Maxwell borrowed successful technology from automotive and aviation industries of the era.

Backed up by convincing detail

Automotive Industries described the tractor’s design: “A frame construction is used, consisting of two deep angles with the flanges turned in so that the entire frame structure is virtually a U section. In this U rest the engine and transmission and all the working parts. The frame is 7 inches deep and is of semi-flexible nature, with a flexible front support at the center of a transverse spring mounted on the front axle.

“This construction gives a tractor that is not affected by the distortions due to inequalities of the ground. The construction of the tractor is of two main units, the power plant and the transmission.” The rest of the tractor – the power plant, water area, crankshaft, wheelbase, clutch, transmission, pulley – the great advantages of every part of the Maxwell tractor, are described in excruciating detail.

With all that detail about the tractor, the new release must have seemed unquestionably legitimate to any prospective buyers, as noted by Tractor Selling Opportunities, which said, “The crankshaft runs on three bearings 2-1/2 inches in diameter and 3-1/2 inches long, the crankpin bearings being, front 3-1/4 inches, middle 3-1/2 inches, rear 4-1/4 inches. The crankshaft is drilled for the combination pressure and splash oiling system that is employed. This is one of the interesting features of the Maxwell tractor as the lubrication has been worked out to provide for the severe conditions to be encountered in tractor practice.”

An account in Automobile Dealer and Repairer even focused on the tractor’s performance. “The tractor has three speeds on either drive or pulley gear reductions. A speed of 6 mph is attained on high at 900 rpm. Intermediate or plowing speed is 2-1/4 mph, low speed 1-1/4 mph. Transmission bearings are all anti-friction type with narrow center-to-center distances, not exceeding 14 inches at any point. The price of the new vehicle has not been fixed, but the figure will be low, it is said.”

Tractor evaporates into thin air

Signs of trouble were quick to emerge. The March 15, 1918, issue of Motor West magazine (the same issue in which the tractor’s debut was covered), reported a price increase in Maxwell vehicles. “The revised schedule shows an addition of $80 to the present price of all passenger cars and one of $100 to that of the Maxwell truck,” a company official said. “This action has been made necessary by the increased cost of doing business and curtailed production – due to shortage of materials, rising cost of labor and the increased cost of distribution due to transportation difficulties.”

In fact, Maxwell Motor Co. had a huge backlog (more than 22,000) of unsold automobiles at that point. The company likely could not afford to continue what would have been an expensive retooling of plants needed to produce Maxwell tractors.

In the many histories written on the Maxwell Motor Co., not one mentions the Maxwell tractor. That seems strange, especially in that Maxwell was the forerunner of Chrysler Corp. The company almost certainly produced at least one Maxwell tractor, but not more than a handful. Could there be a rusting hulk behind a shed in a rice or sugar field in Louisiana?

Of the 200 tractor companies this author has researched, the Maxwell tractor is on par with a handful of others described in great detail, but apparently never produced. Those include Pan Motor Co., St. Cloud, Minn.; Ford Tractor Co., Minneapolis, and a few others.

Perhaps the most conclusive answer to the Maxwell tractor mystery is found in P.S. Rose’s Manufactured in 1918 & 1919 Estimated, where he describes the tractor as “experimental nature.” FC


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