Draw a straight line from Henry Ford’s Model T automobiles down the years through Model A’s to the Sears Economy tractor, and in the middle of it all you will find the fingerprints of John Morley, Forest Lake, Minnesota. “I had a couple of Model A and Model T automobiles, Model T grain trucks and Model T farm trucks at the time I heard about the Model T conversions,” he says. “Later, I learned about the Sears Economy tractor.”
John started collecting Model T conversion kits until he had five of them. “The idea was to use any old car, although mainly they were for the Model T,” he says. “The kit had two big wheels and the axle, so you could convert your car to a tractor in a day.”
Sears, Roebuck & Co. was one of the companies that sold conversion attachments, as C.H. Wendel notes in Farm Tractors 1890-1980, “whereby any Ford Model T or Model A could be converted into a small utility tractor. Priced at $100, this conversion was capable of ground speeds up to 2-1/2 mph. Various tillage equipment was also available for this unit.”
With the conversions, John says a dummy axle was attached either behind the Model T or A axle with the big “tractor“ wheel on it. A large cog was on the inside; a small cog was placed on the true axle, and when the two meshed, they moved the vehicle.
Kit manufacturers worked the versatility angle hard. Literature produced in about 1920 by Staude-Mak-A-Tractor Co. said, “With a Staude Mak-a-Tractor, you can plow in the morning, you can do your heavy hauling in the afternoon, and you can drive for pleasure in the evening.“ All bases covered!
The inside scoop on Sears
John got involved with old iron in the late 1960s when he was in the mini-storage business in Forest Lake. At that point, he had a couple of warehouses available. “I started picking up old tractors and putting them in those warehouses,” he says. “Then I began to see a few of those old conversion kits, which were rare and hard to find. I was interested in them because they were connected to the Model A’s and Model T’s.”
From 1966 through 1987, John owned a Sears catalog store in Forest Lake. During that time, he was immersed in the Sears operation – processing orders; installation, service and repairs; and farm-related sales, like stock tanks, fencing and even live chicks.
Along the way, he learned two important facts pertaining to tractor conversions. First, starting in 1930, Sears sold a Thrifty Farmer tractor conversion kit, which turned Model A Ford cars into tractors. Second, the 1938 Sears Economy (sometimes called the “New Economy”) tractor was an extension of those conversion kits.
“One of the big attractions of the Sears Economy tractor for me was that it was made out of Model A parts,” he says, “with a Model A engine and Model A transmission and Model A rear end.”
Tractor built from leftover kits
Starting in 1938, Sears apparently contracted with Peru Plow Works, Peru, Illinois, to use leftover engines and transmissions from their Thrifty Farmer tractor conversion kit to put together the Economy tractor, and then sell it through Sears, Roebuck & Co., catalogs. Some references say the tractors were built in 1938-39; others say 1938-41.
Wendel says that the Economy sold for $495 – about half the price of many similar tractors on the market at the time – and was powered by a rebuilt Ford Model A engine.
There was “some assembly required,’” John says. “They were shipped on the railroad, and would come either with enough parts to make a complete Economy tractor, or you could buy them without the transmission and engine, because you could find that on your own. Almost everybody had Model A or Model T engines and transmissions, or could get them cheap at a junkyard, so you could build your own.”
Stumbling onto an auction find
Despite his interest in the Economy, John didn’t run into one until 2007, when he attended an auction in Monticello, Iowa, where he’d gone to buy a Geneva Tractor Co. conversion kit. “The auction brochure showed a lot of big old trucks, but I didn’t see the Sears Economy until I was down there,” he says. “You go to a sale and you just see something different, and realize that’s what you want. It might be something rare, and something you don’t even know the name of, but you want it.
“That’s what happened with the Sears Economy,” he says. “When I saw it, I was really interested in it, because of the Model A parts, because it was rare and there weren’t very many of them around.” He was also attracted to the Economy’s simplicity. “It’s just an engine in there, powered by gasoline, and a rear end.”
The Economy was in decent shape. “All I had to do was fix a choke wire and a few other small things,” he says. “I didn’t buy it to use it for anything, but just to take it to a few shows, where I’ve run it a few times.”
The Economy came standard with lugs, but farm tires were available as options. “With this one, the lugs were taken off before I got it and a tire belt was bolted onto the wheel,” John says. “The tire belt was put on so you could drive it on a normal road. The job was well done, and they have stayed on real well.” His version has a belt pulley, along with a pair of handbrake levers and a foot clutch.
Connections from conversions
John says there aren’t many Economy tractors around. At shows, his tractor always draws a crowd. “When people see the Economy, they migrate to it,” he says. “They’re really interested in it. There’s always something different in the conversations that start around these models.”
For John, those chance conversations are a highlight of his hobby. “You bring this stuff out,” he says, “and a guy will come over and look at it, and talk about his old F-12 with the hand crank, like mine, and explain to his young daughter and young son how this works. ‘I cultivated a lot of fields with that …’ They talk about what they enjoy most, and what they did.” FC
The Truly Economical Economy
According to Sears advertisements, the Sears Economy tractor – a general purpose tractor – could be bought for less than $500 (roughly $8,300 today). It was, by far, the lowest-priced 2-plow tractor on the market, powered by a completely rebuilt Ford Model A motor and transmission, rebuilt to Sears’ exacting specifications. Production numbers are unknown but estimates suggest that 500 to several thousand Economy kits were sold.
The Economy could pull two 14-inch plows, and “takes care of all belt and power take-off jobs the average 2-plow tractor will handle. Brakes on each rear wheel. Two tread adjustments for row crop work. High clearance allows for cultivation of tall crops. Short turning – speeds up field work and minimizes crop loss. Regular equipment includes such tractor refinements as self-starter, air cleaner, special carburetor, governor and oil filter.”
Promotional material boasted about the time-tested power and stamina of the Model A engine, which was said to be “exceptionally quiet-running, considering the power it developed.” The basic Economy sold for $495, a complete tractor on steel wheels, not including optional fenders ($15.95), Rockwood belt pulley ($27.50) or power take-off ($32.75).
“Basic” in this case meant no engine or transmission, but “the radiator, air cleaner, and four-blade fan was included.” Most customers bought the Economy with a transmission and engine.
The company’s final sales push read, “Careful comparisons of many of the most important tractor features will prove to you that an improved Economy tractor matches up with other makes selling for $480 to $900. Piston displacement is one of the most important factors in tractor power and efficiency. The 201 inches of piston displacement in the Economy is as great as, or greater, than that of many tractors selling for more than $850. With a wheelbase of 90 inches, length of 136 inches, width of 82 inches and height of 62 inches, the Economy compares very favorably in dimensions with all 2-plow tractors at much higher price. Its belt power of 25 hp exceeds that of several tractors selling at $800 to $900.” – Bill Vossler
For more information: John Morley, 21661 Fondant Ave. N., Forest Lake, MN 55025.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.