Built for the international market, Empire Tractors were designed for Marshall Plan and never intended to be sold in the United States.
Empire building is a real challenge. Great Britain may have been the greatest empire builder of all time. With at least one colony in every continent, England could, at one time, rightfully claim that the sun never set on the British Empire.
But not all builders of empires were so successful. Take the builders of the Empire tractor, for instance. Empire Tractor Corp., established in 1946 in New York City, may have been inspired by the moniker "The Empire State" in naming the line. More to the point, the company’s manufacturing facility was in Philadelphia, and the company was incorporated in the state of Delaware. So, before the first tractor came off the line, the company’s “empire” was already established in three states.
In the years immediately following World War II and the Lend-Lease Program, Empire Tractor Corp. intended to build tractors for the Marshall Plan, a plan developed by the U.S. to help European allies recover from the devastation of war.
Carl Hering, publisher of the Empire Tractor Newsletter, says Empire planned to export production to Poland, France and other European countries, as well as South Africa and South America. However, other than South Africa and South America, no one is sure where the tractors actually went. In any case, the company never intended to sell Empire tractors in the U.S. or Canada.
Empire built a small, general purpose, light duty, 2-bottom-plow tractor using primarily the same drive train components as those used in the famous World War II Willys-Overland jeep. It was built on conventional lines of an earlier period when channel iron and companion construction were common.
Hering says the Model 88 tractor used rebuilt military power components from World War II-era jeeps. It had a 4-cylinder, 40 hp Willys-Overland engine, a Model T-84 Spicer 3-speed transmission, Spicer transfer case with high and low speeds, Willys rear end, steering column and gearbox. It also had PTO, individual clutch-type rear brakes with a stop provided for parking and a rear belt pulley. The fuel tank and an Empire-style seat were mounted on a large operator’s platform. Its simple, basic gauges (ammeter, oil pressure and temperature), ignition switch and starter button also came from the jeep.
The 3-speed transmission with high-low gearbox gave speeds of 2.3 mph in first gear, 3.63 mph in second gear, 5.80 mph in third gear and 1.66 mph in reverse (all in low range), and in high range, 4.46 mph in first gear, 7.20 mph in second gear, 11 mph in third gear and 3.60 in reverse. At governed engine speed of 2,000 rpm, the Empire had a road speed of 18.5 mph.
From late 1946 to about the middle of 1947, some 3,000 Model 88 tractors were built for sale to South Africa, Argentina and other countries. By mid-1947, the Model 90 was in production.
The Model 90 used civilian-built power units rather than rebuilt military components, but was otherwise basically the same tractor as the Model 88. However, there were a few minor modifications: a Monroe E-Z ride spring-shock seat, a fuel tank under the operator’s platform, a tool box added to the platform and an altogether different transmission – a T-90 Spicer – to reduce ground speed. Its speeds were 1.52 mph in first gear, 2.75 mph in second gear, 4.29 mph in third gear and 1.12 in reverse (all in low range), and in high range, 3.75 mph in first gear, 6.75 mph in second gear, 10.45 mph in third gear and 2.75 mph in reverse. At governed engine speed of 2,200 rpm, its speed was 22.5 mph for road travel.
The tractor had ground clearance of about 23 inches, wheelbase of 76-1/2 inches, width of either 50 or 58 inches and length of 10 feet, 3 inches. It weighed 2,450 pounds. The front wheels were 4 x 16 and used 5.50 x 16-inch tires. The rear wheels were 8 x 24 inches and used 9.24-inch tires. The rear wheels were dished, giving an adjustment of 50 or 58 inches. Turning radius was 9 feet.
All Empire tractors were painted red at the factory (though some may have been painted yellow by distributors) and all came equipped with a starter and lights. With the high-low speed transfer case, the tractor had six gears forward and two reverse. It could be shifted to low speed for heavier farm work or high range for lighter work or a quick trip to town.
One of the most unique (and patented) features of the Empire was the straight bar hitch that pulled from its anchor point under the center of the tractor. This arrangement made it virtually impossible to overturn the tractor backward during a heavy pull. Some Model 90 tractors were equipped with a three-point hydraulic lift. That feature added a hydraulic pump, hoses and lift cylinder mounted under the rear of the tractor and attached to the drawbar to do the actual lifting. Before production ended in 1947-48, some 6,587 Empire tractors were built.
Unfortunately, the foreign export program did not go as planned for Empire Tractor. During 1948, foreign sales dwindled and the company was stuck with hundreds of tractors. Empire tried to sell its product in the U.S. and Canada, but because the machines were already outdated, they met with little success. Ill-suited for heavy-duty farm work, the tractor was more at home with orchard work and other light-duty chores. Additionally, the original asking price of $1,600 was much higher than that for comparable farm tractors such as the Ford 8N, which sold for less than $1,000. Bankruptcy proceedings were filed in 1948, the company’s assets were auctioned in 1950 and the Delaware Incorporation charter was declared inoperative in 1951.
Carl Hering began his Empire collection in 1952. He located other collectors and soon began publishing a newsletter distributed three times a year. Today, Empire Tractor Owners Club has about 175 members in more than 35 states, three Canadian provinces and three South African provinces. The group offers new parts, after-market replicas and manual reprints. The Empire Expo is held in conjunction with a major featured tractor in different areas of the U.S. each year. In 2009, the group will meet in Boonville, Mo.
Hering says the Willys engine and drive train that made the jeep famous during World War II made the Empire a very reliable and versatile tractor with a wide range of speeds. He claims it is a widely sought tractor and a major attraction at shows. The Empire tractor has a unique design, is mostly bright red and is generally mixed in with other tractors at shows. Look closely, though, and you’ll spot one of these red jewels once in a while. FC
James N. Boblenz grew up on a farm near New Bloomington, Ohio. He now lives in Marion, Ohio, and is interested in antique farm equipment, particularly rare and lesser-known tractors and related items. E-mail him at Jboblenz@aol.com.