The Mystery of the Maxwell Crawler Tractor

Solving the mystery of a Maxwell crawler tractor from World War I

Left side view of the 5-ton tractor formerly owned by Harold Chambers, Winfield, Tenn.

Left side view of the 5-ton tractor formerly owned by Harold Chambers, Winfield, Tenn.

Photo courtesy of Harold Chambers

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Many years ago, I read a book by Pete Davies called American Road. The book was about the eight-and-one-half-week journey across the U.S. undertaken by the U.S. Army in 1919 that I wrote about in a 2003 Rusty Iron column. In his listing of convoy vehicles, Davies noted that a Maxwell caterpillar-style tractor had accompanied the expedition. That statement nagged at me ever since, as I could find no evidence that Maxwell ever made a tractor. The answer to the mystery finally appeared in an article in a British tractor magazine about the armored Holt 5-ton artillery tractor produced during World War I.  

Right after the “guns of August” kicked off the “war to end all wars” in 1914, Holt engineers arrived in England with a standard Caterpillar farm tractor and demonstrated it to the British army, who found it quite interesting. After the soil of the Western Front had been churned into a muddy morass by shell fire and trench warfare, Allied forces desperately needed a way to move heavy artillery and supply trains through the muck. Both the British and French armies began to look seriously at Holt’s crawler tractors.

The British, French and Russian armies placed orders with Holt, which eventually (although accounts vary) sent 1,200 to 1,400 Holt Caterpillar tractors of various sizes to Britain and France, and, before the Bolshevik Revolution, maybe 100 to Russia. This was during the early years of the conflict, before the U.S. entered the fray, when we were officially neutral and unable to sell armaments. Holt officials, truthfully enough, maintained that they were selling standard agricultural machines and had no responsibility for how the customer used them.

Resistant to new technology

The U.S. Army was slow to adopt crawler tractors and motorized trucks, even though Brigadier General John J. Pershing, who led the 1916 Mexican punitive expedition, said later, “The expedition ... would have been impossible without the tractor and motor truck.” Although the Army ran several tests on tractors as early as 1912, the big concern was that motor vehicles required a constant fuel supply, while the ubiquitous Army mule needed only a minimal supply of forage, which could often be obtained locally.

In May 1915, eight months after the European war started, the War Department authorized a test of a Holt 75 at the Rock Island Arsenal – provided the Holt company paid all expenses. More tests that fall at Fort Sill finally convinced the hidebound Army brass to convert the 9th Field Artillery Regiment, stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, to a fully motorized outfit.

Ramping up production

In 1916, the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps placed an order for a number of “Holt 45 tractors or its equal.” In response to this order, Holt developed the armored “Artillery Tractor 5-ton Model 1917,” although it wasn’t ready for another year.

The 4-cylinder gas engine was identical to the “Liberty” engine used in Army trucks built by several manufacturers. The 424-cubic-inch engine turned 56 hp at 1,200 rpm and had a vacuum fuel pump to supply fuel on steep grades. The 5-ton crank-start tractor had a 3-speed transmission, along with steering clutches operated by a tiller-type steering lever and individual brakes. Although the engine compartment and radiator were protected by 1/4-inch armor plate, neither the operator nor the two rear-mounted 17-gallon fuel tanks had any protection.

The Holt company was already committed to supplying tractors to England and France. War Department orders for another 3,000 or 4,000 crawlers stretched the firm’s capacity beyond its limit. Holt’s employees worked six-day, 48-hour weeks with lots of overtime and still couldn’t keep up. To ease the strain on Holt factories, manufacture of the Holt 5-ton armored artillery tractor was farmed out to two other companies, Reo Motor Car Co., Lansing, Mich., and Maxwell Motor Co., Detroit.

Proud heritage

Reo, of course, was named for the initials of its founder, Ransom E. Olds, who in 1899 had started the original Olds Motor Co. of “merry Oldsmobile” fame. Olds moved on in 1904 and formed Reo, building cars until 1936 and trucks until 1957, when Reo became part of White Motor Co.

Jonathan Dixon Maxwell and Benjamin Briscoe launched Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Co. in 1903 and built cars in several locations until Briscoe left in 1912 and Maxwell established Maxwell Motor Co. in Detroit. The firm built medium-priced cars until the early 1920s when it fell on hard times. Walter Chrysler took over the ailing company in 1924 and it soon became Chrysler Corp., still in existence today.

In 1917, Reo and Maxwell had reputations for building dependable products and both had extra manufacturing capacity, so they were licensed to build the 5-ton armored artillery tractor. One source tells us that Reo made 1,477 tractors, while Maxwell produced 2,193. The tractors made by Reo and Maxwell used the Liberty engine, had the letters “USA” cast into the top radiator tank instead of “Holt,” and bore their own company identification tags.

Swords into plowshares

After the war ended in 1918, all military contracts were abruptly cancelled, leaving Holt (and probably Reo and Maxwell, as well) with 5-ton tractors in inventory. Holt converted most of those to civilian use and sold them as 5-ton Model T11 tractors.

Of course, the Army still owned a number of 5-tons and probably used them for several years, explaining why a Maxwell 5-ton tractor accompanied the 1919 cross-country expedition.

One or two 5-ton armored artillery tractors survived, including the one shown in photos accompanying this column. Built by Reo, it was owned by Harold Chambers, Winfield, Tenn., who graciously provided the photographs for this story. Harold has since sold the tractor to a collector in England and the machine was featured in the British tractor magazine Vintage Tractor & Countryside Heritage, to which I’ve subscribed for several years.

I love it when I can solve a mystery such as the origins of the Maxwell tractor that accompanied the 1919 Army convoy. FC 

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@att.net.