A few years ago I saw a small Fageol marine engine at a local show. The owner told me it had been made in nearby Kent, Ohio. I knew that Fageol (pronounced fad-jl) made heavy trucks and busses during the 1920s and 1930s, along with the unusual Fageol tractor from the early ’20s, but that company was located in California. After some research, I found that the Fageol story reaches from Iowa to California and then Kent, Ohio, and involves cars, trucks, tractors, busses, marine engines, speedboat racing and race cars, with a few people movers thrown in along the way.
Starting in the heartland
William Fageol, who was born in 1880, and his brother Frank, who was born two years later, grew up near Ankeny, Iowa. As teenagers, the brothers – probably with the help of older brother and machinist Rollin – built an 8-passenger self-propelled vehicle. The machine (it’s unclear whether it was steam or gas powered) was claimed to be Iowa’s first car. The boys used the machine to haul Ankeny residents, for a fee, to the Iowa State Fair 10 miles away in Des Moines.
In about 1904, Frank and William relocated to San Francisco and went to work for a Rambler dealer named Louis Bill. Shortly after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Bill secured a Rambler agency in Oakland for the Fageol brothers.
In 1915, at the Panama-Pacific Exposition a ground transportation system was needed. Frank Fageol developed a small tractor powered by a Ford engine that pulled several 20-passenger trailers. The tractors and trailers were built at a factory owned by Fageol and were a great success.
In 1916, Charles Nash bought the Jeffrey Co., makers of the Rambler automobile, and took over the Fageol dealership. Bill lost his agency as well and joined the Fageols in a new enterprise in Oakland to build passenger cars, trucks and tractors. Probably only two Fageol cars were built. They used Hall-Scott aircraft engines and were big, luxurious and expensive, selling for $12,000 ($242,447 today). World War I demand for Hall-Scott airplane engines and other materials halted car production, but the truck and tractor business continued.
In 1915, California farmer Rush Hamilton patented a tractor on which the engine sat between the two front drive wheels and the operator rode a sulky at the rear. The Hamilton tractor cost $1,085 ($23,658 today) and had a pressed steel frame, a 4-cylinder engine, enclosed drive gears running in oil, and was advertised as pulling as much as a 4-horse team.
The Hamilton’s unusual drive wheels consisted of a steel center of about 3 feet in diameter, around which were a series of long steel blades or teeth, which could be covered with a smooth steel band for road use. Called a “walking tractor,” it was claimed that the teeth on the tractor’s front wheels enabled it to walk right over any kind of ground and that it could go almost anywhere.
The Fageol brothers acquired the rights to build Hamilton’s machine. It was the first product of the new factory, and the first Fageol farm tractor. An unknown number of these machines were built, although it seems only one rusty hulk has survived, indicating not many were sold.
The unique Fageol tractor
In about 1918, a 4-wheeled tractor of more or less standard layout began to roll out of the Fageol works. Each large rear wheel consisted of two thick, cast steel plates, into which were cut sharp, pointed teeth. The two wheel plates were mounted on the drive axle so the teeth were staggered. The radiator and hood, except for the row of louvers down the top center, were conventional, as were the steel front wheels. A Lycoming 4-cylinder, 3-1/2- by 5-inch engine drove a transmission with one forward and one reverse gear. There was no clutch and no differential, just a foot-operated internal expanding clutch in each rear wheel hub. Steering was accomplished by a tiller and, because of the lack of a differential, the clutch on the inside wheel had to be depressed when turning or both wheels would drive straight ahead.
The tractor cost a whopping $1,525 ($22,241 today) and weighed 3,600 pounds, a lot of weight to be teetering on those sharp points. Fageol claimed that because of the wedging action on the soil between adjacent tapered wheel teeth, the drive wheels would walk over and wouldn’t sink into even deep sandy soil. One can only imagine what they did in mud.
Without a clutch, it was a challenge to get the Fageol into gear. The operator’s manual said: “To start the tractor moving with the motor running, take the operator’s seat. Place both hands on gearshift lever bar. Press both clutch pedals down as far as they will go, then to go into forward gear, push right hand forward and pull with left. Do this with a quick motion to avoid rasping gears. Allow the clutches to come up evenly and tractor should get away in a straight line.”
Trucks and busses
Fageol built the tractor until 1923, when management decided to concentrate on trucks and busses. Horatio Smith, a Fageol Motor Co. director, started the Great Western Motor Co. in San Jose and built the Fageol tractor for another year or two.
Fageol trucks were rugged, powerful and expensive, and the company was never very profitable. After struggling through the Depression years, the factory closed in 1938. Tacoma, Wash., lumberman T.A. Peterman bought the factory and began to make the Peterbilt truck, which is today considered the Cadillac of heavy haul trucks.
After developing the Fageol Safety Coach in 1922, William and Frank Fageol founded the Twin Coach Co. in 1927 in Kent, Ohio, to build Twin Coach busses, so called because they were powered by two engines. The firm built busses, marine engines and airplane parts until the mid 1950s, when the business was sold.
Frank Fageol’s son, Lou, became a famous speedboat racer during the 1940s and ’50s, winning the 1951 Gold Cup in Slo-Mo-Shun V (powered by a Rolls-Royce engine). He also was interested in racecars and developed twin-engine, 4-wheel drive Indy cars. The big hit of the 1949 Indianapolis 500 was the Fageol SuperSonic, a wildly futuristic concept car built by Lou Fageol and his son Ray. Powered by a 404-cubic inch, 6-cylinder Fageol engine that turned 275 hp, the sleek coupe was test driven by Indy president Wilbur Shaw, who made several laps around the Brickyard at an average speed of 93 mph, only slightly slower than the eventual winner of the race.
So, you see, tractors were only a small part of the fascinating story of the Fageol family and their machines. 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 email@example.com.