The Versatile Tractor: A Tradition of Reliability and Innovation

Versatile tractors were large, four-wheel drive machines.

The new Versatile Model 550

Front view of the new Versatile Model 550.

Photo by Sam Moore

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When I was 7 or 8, my father and my uncle (who were partners at the time) swapped an old McCormick-Deering 10-20 tractor for a used Farmall F-30. The red F-30 paired with a 3-bottom John Deere plow was a big tractor at a time when most of the neighbors who had tractors were using 1- and 2-plow machines. Well, that big F-30 would have looked like a pedal tractor next to the huge Versatile 550 I saw displayed at a county fair I attended last summer.

A new life in a new land

Emil Pakosz, a young Polish emigrant, came to the U.S. in 1905, and by 1907 had married a Polish emigrant girl. At that time the Canadian government was giving 160 acres of western land to immigrants for $10, provided they improved and lived upon the land, so the young couple moved to Saskatchewan to take advantage of the offer.

They built a one-room log cabin and a small barn and bought a yoke of oxen and a plow to break the virgin soil for wheat. In 1911 their first child, Peter, was born. The elder Pakosh (who had Anglicized the name) prospered and kept buying additional land until by 1924 he owned a full section (640 acres).

From an early age Peter was mechanically inclined and loved to work on farm machinery. His father bought a steam threshing rig when Peter was 15 and entrusted the boy with its operation.

Starting out at Massey-Harris

The Great Depression hit the Pakosh family hard. Peter graduated high school in 1933 with poor prospects, so in 1935 he went to Winnipeg in Manitoba and studied to become a mechanical engineer. A year later he married and both he and his wife worked while Peter continued his schooling. In 1940 the young couple moved east to Toronto and Peter was hired as a draftsman at Massey-Harris. The young draftsman had an idea for an augur-type grain conveyor and sought a transfer to the M-H design department where he could pursue his ideas. He was turned down as being too inexperienced, so Peter built a prototype grain augur in the basement of his home.

The augur showed promise and Peter decided to build 10 more but lacked money to buy materials. His wife, Adaline, had been saving for a fur coat, but gave the money to Peter, who built the augurs in the basement and soon sold them all.

Canadian farmers liked the augur, and before long a field sprayer was added to the Versatile line, followed by a folding harrow drawbar for flexible diamond harrows. Pakosh and his brother-in-law, Roy Robinson, started Hydraulic Engineering Co. in Winnipeg. In 1954 the company introduced a self-propelled swather that became popular with grain farmers in the northwest.

Versatile flexes its muscles

In 1963 the company became Versatile Mfg. Co., and in 1966 the first Versatile four-wheel drive tractors (the D-100 with a Ford 6-cylinder 363 CID engine, and the G-100 powered by a Chrysler 318 CID V-8 engine) were introduced. These machines used heavy-duty axles and 12-speed transmissions and featured articulated hydraulic steering and hydraulic brakes. Peter Pakosh insisted on building simple, basic machines that did the job at a reasonable price and, as both tractor models cost much less than competing four-wheel drives, farmers flocked to the more inexpensive and dependable Versatile. Advertised as a “four-wheel drive tractor at a two-wheel drive price,” the Versatile’s speed and extra pulling power allowed farmers to work more acreage in less time. In a year or two Versatile was outselling all of its competitors put together.

Versatile kept ahead of the market for the next 10 years with bigger and more powerful tractors while experimenting with new designs. One of these was the 1977 Versatile 1080 nicknamed “Big Roy, the World’s Largest Tractor.” The 1080 had a 600 hp, rear-mounted Cummins engine, four axles (giving it eight-wheel drive), and weighed more than 28 tons when the 550-gallon fuel tank was filled. The center-mounted cab gave poor visibility however (especially to the rear), so a closed-circuit TV camera was added to give the driver a view of the drawbar; pretty heady stuff in 1977. Only one prototype was built. It is now part of the Manitoba Agricultural Museum collection in Austin, Manitoba; it was just too big and too expensive to go into production.

Also in 1977, Versatile introduced the Model 150 “push-pull” tractor that had a loader mounted on the rear, along with the ability to swivel the operator’s position in the cab to see in either direction. This concept was continued as the New Holland TV140 when Ford owned the company and has evolved into today’s New Holland TV-6070 bi-directional tractor.

Pakosh and Robinson retired in the late 1970s and Versatile went through several owners: first Cornat Industries, a Canadian firm, and then Ford New Holland in 1987. Fiat acquired Ford New Holland in 1993, but when Case and Ford New Holland merged in 1999, the U.S. government demanded that CNH divest itself of Versatile. In 2000, this resulted in its purchase by Buhler Industries of Winnipeg, which formed a subsidiary, Buhler Versatile Inc. That organization still builds Versatile equipment today.

Going strong in a new century

The Versatile 550 I saw at the fair is powered by a QSX15 Cummins 6-cylinder engine that displaces 15 liters and puts out 550 hp through a Caterpillar Powershift 16x4 transmission, with speeds from 2 to 25 mph. The tractor weighs 53,855 pounds and holds 400 gallons of fuel (that’s probably more than $1,300 per fill-up), is 18 feet wide and appears to be at least that high to the top of the cab. This tractor is designed for big equipment — the drawbar pin is 2 inches in diameter — and there are rows and rows of remote hydraulic outlets on the back.

The driver sits up high in what is touted to be the largest cab in the industry, with front and rear windshield washer/wipers and sun visors, four cup-holders and an air-ride seat that swivels 104 degrees for ease in looking at trailed implements. There’s a tilt steering wheel, a stereo sound system, large multi-directional vents, and coat hooks to keep the cab neat and organized. There’s also a place to put your laptop along with a 110-volt electrical outlet and a USB port to plug it into.

And, wonder of wonders! All this power, luxury and convenience can be yours for only $308,000!

Versatile also makes conventional tractors with front wheel assist from 190 to 310 hp, as well as other articulated models from 305 to 575 hp. The 450 and 550 articulated tractors are available with rubber tracks in place of wheels. Other Versatile products include self-propelled sprayers, a rotary combine, air grain drills and associated carts, discs and chisel plows, and precision ag systems. Versatile has come a long way from building grain augurs in the basement of the company owner’s home.

Peter Pakosh discovered the secret of successfully competing with the so-called “big boys” for nearly 70 years by offering simply designed and constructed but high quality implements. 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 email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.