Building Common Sense Tractors

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This shot of the Common Sense 8-cylinder tractor is unusual because most photos of the tractor show its right side. Here, the photographer put the focus on the engine, magneto, governor and carburetor, all easily accessible.
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With men gone to war during World War I, women learned how to run farm machinery like the Common Sense tractor.
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Common Sense was one of the first tractor companies to market to women, as shown in this 1918 ad.
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A 1917 magazine photo showing the Common Sense at work on the road. At Gettysburg, S.D., men who saw the Common Sense plow (including owners of other tractors) signed a statement that it was the only tractor ever brought into that vicinity to perform as promised.
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Early tractor companies set up schools to train farmers in tractor, auto, and gas engine care and operation. Most, though, were thinly veiled sales events promoting a particular line, in this case, the Common Sense.
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This advertisement for the Common Sense tractor says it "stays sold," a likely reference to the Little Bull tractor, which failed and was returned to the manufacturer in droves.
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A very early Common Sense tractor belted to a machine.
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This very simple ad touts the Common Sense as the first 8-cylinder tractor ever manufactured, "smooth and steady as a steam engine."
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A close perusal of this 1919 photo of a Common Sense 8-cylinder tractor shows several modifications from earlier models, including a more-rounded front hood, the number "8" on the gas tank and a smaller gas cap. The Common Sense Gas Tractor Co. built the first 8-cylinder tractor. A 20-40, it was rated for pulling four plows and sold for $2,200.
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This overhead view of the Common Sense 8 shows the sinuous lines that make it look more modern than most of the tractors of the era. Designed by H.W. Adams, the finished tractor reflected extensive research and development.
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This September 1915 Gas Review advertisement shows what is perhaps the earliest photo of a Common Sense tractor. This early version of the tractor (a 15-25) has a different, square front compared to later models.

When the Common Sense Gas Tractor Co., Minneapolis, entered the market in 1914, it was a difficult time for tractor builders. The market wasn’t the problem: Sales of tractors were skyrocketing. The real challenge was the lack of knowledge: How to build the best tractor? 

In the years leading to 1920, manufacturers were experimenting with tractor design. In 1915, a writer in Modern Gas Tractor reported, “Considerable interest is being displayed in the three-wheel constructions. In fact, most of the light tractors offered this year have a single traction member and two steering wheels,” exactly the construction of the Common Sense tractor.

The other stumbling block was the farmer, who had grown wary of too-good-to-be-true claims made by tractor manufacturers. Though it seems quaint today, prior to 1920 tractors were often built and sold without benefit of field-testing. The fastest-selling tractor of the time, for example, was the Little Bull. But when used in the field, the tractor was destroyed by dust grinding its open gears. Ford Tractor Co., Minneapolis, operated in a less than ethical manner (see Farm Collector, July 2008), and numerous other companies made exaggerated claims. Farmers were understandably nervous.

An educated design

H.W. Adams, tractor builder for Adams-Farnham Co., Minneapolis, from 1909-10, and Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co., from about 1911-13, took notice of those problems. From a Dec. 31, 1917, article in Farm Implements: “I knew that too many tractors were the result of theoretical experts who worked on drawing boards, instead of the results given by tractors under actual working conditions in the hands of farmers,” Adams said. “I saw where such tractors could not help but fall down, so I decided to start from the other end. I learned first the practical features necessary, and then worked out the proper mechanical methods of obtaining those results.”

Experienced with steam threshing machines, stationary gas engines and other power machinery, Adams assisted in designing and building a new tractor for Minneapolis Steel & Machinery in 1913. When the experimental tractor was shipped to North Dakota, he went along. “He watched the tractor buck up against actual working conditions,” noted a writer in Farm Implements. “And not just for a couple of passes up and down the field. Adams stayed there for two years, working out improvements in design while eliminating the weaknesses of the tractor, until he knew everything he could know. When he returned to the factory, he surprised the officials there with his knowledge and concepts that they hadn’t heard anything about.”

With that experience under his belt, Adams began to think about starting his own company, one that would design and build tractors. An implement dealer helped him make the decision. The dealer led him around the corner of the building where no one would overhear the conversation and said, according to the article in Farm Implements, “Adams, why in the world don’t you build a tractor with cut steel gears and enclosed transmission … ” – the exact machine Adams had had in mind for years. In fact, he had a very clear vision of the tractor’s design:

–No excess weight to waste power;
–An absolute center draft for the number of plows pulled, to ensure even plowing and decrease strain on the tractor frame;
–A drive wheel far enough from the furrow to get solid footing and prevent slippage;
–All lubricated parts enclosed and running in oil, not sand;
–Perfect accessibility of all working parts. He knew from experience if something went wrong and the farmer could easily get at the source of the problem to fix it, he would. If the offending part was hard to reach, however, it was less likely to be repaired;
–An engine of sufficient power and flexibility to handle all belt work;
–A careful selection of the very best material and equipment for every purpose, regardless of cost.

Talking common sense

Adams formed his new company in 1914 without a name. Farm Implements reported Adams saying, “One day I was explaining my ideas to a farmer, and he said, ‘Well, now you’re talking common sense; a tractor like that ought to run.’ So I decided to call my tractor the Common Sense, and the name stuck.”

In late 1914, along with five North Dakota men, Adams organized the Common Sense Gas Tractor Co. in Minneapolis. The first tractor was a 15-25 Common Sense. According to P.S. Rose’s 1915 pamphlet, Report on Tractor Companies, the first Common Sense was sold in March 1915 and at least six more were produced that year.

An early advertisement in Gas Review magazine shows the Common Sense tractor at work in a field, with a boxy front end and hood very different from later versions. This 4-cylinder machine had a bore and stroke of 4-by-4-1/2 inches, ran in the furrow at 2.5 mph and could pull four 14-inch plows. It cost $1,250. It was 156 inches long, 78 inches wide and 66 inches high, with a 62-inch-tall rear drive wheel that had a 24-inch face. The tractor weighed 5,900 pounds.

The boxy Common Sense was probably an early experimental model, as all subsequent photos and drawings show a rounded, streamlined tractor built very much on the lines of automobiles of the day. Farm Implements said the company took advantage of mechanical designs already proven in automobile manufacture.

From a September 1915 article in Gas Review: “This tractor is not of the baby variety, neither is it big and clumsy. It appears to be excellently constructed throughout, and, being rather narrow, the load can be hitched in direct line with the center of gravity of the machine, thus eliminating side draft.”

Making history: The first V-8 tractor

Perhaps in 1916, certainly by 1917, Adams produced his second model, a 20-40 with a 3-1/4-by-5-inch bore and stroke with two speeds forward and one reverse, capable of road speeds of up to 3.5 mph. The engine (a Herschell-Spillman 8-cylinder) could be revved up to produce 70 hp at the belt in emergencies. Painted red with a yellow hood, the tractor sold for $2,200 in 1919.

This Common Sense was the first tractor built with a V-8 engine. “The new tractor is no different from the others Common Sense Gas Tractor Co. has been putting out except for the larger motor,” reported an August 1916 article in Gas Engine. The tractor’s steady pull “means that it can go to places where they never would’ve attempted with the older machines and does the work with greater ease,” as well as more speed on the road.

“The 8-cylinder motor gives an absolutely steady pull to meet the steady load,” Common Sense promotional materials claimed. The company maintained the tractor could plow 20 to 25 acres a day using a half a gallon of gas and 3 quarts of oil per day. “Figure the low cost per acre for yourself,” the materials boasted. A later ad toned that down to 15 to 20 acres per day for the 6,000-pound machine. The company even offered a booklet explaining, “in plain English,” why the 8-cylinder engine was the best. The company acknowledged that the initial investment was steep but insisted farmers would see a return on their investment “through years of faithful service.”

Information on the 20-40 model is inconsistent: In one instance the tractor is identified as a 20-35; on another, it is identified as a 20-50. That confusion apparently existed before the engines had been tested, or else resulted from human error, as the latest information on Common Sense tractors mentions only the 15-25 and 20-40. One reference says the 20-40 had the same specifications as the 15-25, except for the larger engine and more power, while another said its size was bigger, 180 inches long, 72 inches wide and 66 inches high, which is probably accurate because of the larger engine.

No detail too small

Other advantages of the Common Sense tractors included a 10-inch running board, which prevented anyone from being thrown under the rear drive wheel. From company promotional materials: “You are at liberty to stand on this running board or go to the back of the tractor and watch the plows, or jump off and ride them if you desire.” The tractor was also said to have “perfect common sense steering” keeping the wheels in any furrow 2-1/2 inches deep, could be operated by men, girls or boys without danger, and featured an engine that could not be injured by operating it at high speed. Even the location of the operator’s seat merited extensive consideration. First, the designer noted, it must be the most convenient position for operation of the tractor, and second, it must be close to the engine, enabling detection of the slightest trouble by sound, “as trouble will first show in the sound of a motor.”

How many of each model were built? It’s difficult to discern, but the short answer is “not many.” In another P.S. Rose pamphlet, Manufactured and Estimated, 1916-1919, he said Common Sense Gas Tractor Co. built 15 tractors in 1916, 17 the next year, 18 the first half of 1918 (with an estimate of 40 for the second half), and a rosy prediction of 300 for 1919. There was no production breakdown by model.

Despite all the common sense injected into the company, something went awry. The Agricultural Depression of the early 1920s was still a year or two away, but more likely the tractor couldn’t get a foothold in a market glutted with output from some 200 tractor companies. In 1919, Farm Power Sales Co., Minneapolis, took over the company and sold Common Sense tractors, but probably didn’t manufacture them. By 1920, the first V-8 tractor produced began its slide into obscurity. 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 56569; e-mail:  bvossler@juno.com.

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