Heck, why not make tractors and cars? It’s a question many American tractor manufacturers must have posed during the first two decades of the 20th century.
Those were heady years for manufacturers. How would a tractor look, or a car? Kerosene or gasoline? How many wheels? How much horsepower? Design considerations like those are taken for granted today. Decades ago the answers were less obvious.
Tractor manufacturers did not shy away from the challenge; a surprising number manufactured cars and trucks. Some were normal vehicles; others were unique, bordering on bizarre. Success (or lack of it) in building tractors was no guarantee of success (or failure) with cars and trucks. Truly, it was a wide-open period, and several companies enjoyed success in the new venture.
Otto Gas Engine Works
The Selden patent case centered on patent rights claimed by applicant George Selden, Rochester, N.Y., in his 1879 invention of “an improved road engine” powered by a liquid hydrocarbon engine. A decades-long legal battle ensued with Selden winning the battle but perhaps not the war. After Selden finally won his case in 1909, Judge Walter C. Noyes said that if Selden had “appreciated the superiority of the Otto engine and adapted that type (in his application), his patent would cover the modern automobile,” and Selden would have earned a royalty for every automobile engine made.
But Selden apparently didn’t know of the high quality of the superb Otto engines, the world’s first production 4-cycle internal combustion engines, invented in 1876 by Nikolaus August Otto. The engines were used in Otto tractors starting in 1896 and Otto automobiles in 1910.
In the June 1959 issue of Antique Automobile, Joseph H. Penrose of Neshaminy, Pa., recalled his parents’ purchase of a new Otto automobile when he was a boy. “In 1910 a friend of the family … was a salesman for the company. Although I was not very old at that time, I can remember very well his visits to our home. Mother and Father finally bought our first Otto, a five-passenger car. They knew the reputation of the Otto Gas Engine Company, and felt it was well-built and would be dependable. It turned out to be just that, and for 15 years it served us well.
“There was a large folding top but no windshield or front doors. When it got cold we really had to bundle up with buffalo robes, as the wind circulated around under that top. The roads were poor and often muddy, so the car was put away and sometimes jacked up in the winter – horses were still available when the going was tough.” He remembered an occasion when the Otto stalled on trolley tracks, and he worried a trolley car would strike them before his father got it cranked.
Penrose’s brother bought an Otto roadster with bucket seats and a center seat behind, all upholstered in genuine black leather. “This was a roadster, long, low, considered racy for that age,” he said. “The car was painted a cream color with black striping. With the large brass Gray & Davis headlights and two smaller brass lights on each side of the cowl, it made a very striking appearance.”
The Otto automobile had a wheelbase of 123 inches, which, along with the car’s low profile, made it look long and sleek. The 1910 roadsters sold for $1,950, and demi-tonneaus and five-passenger touring models for $2,000 each. In 1911 the company added six new models. The limousine and landaulet sold for as much as $3,250 each. The 1912 offering was renamed the Ottomobile, and featured 10 models (Model A through L, excepting C) at prices ranging from $1,850 to $3,250. Surprisingly, Otto struggled with poor marketing and the company’s automobile line ended in 1912.
J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co.
Case automobiles could easily have been classed the best of the best, for two reasons. First, J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co. of Racine, Wis., entered the fray at a most competitive time. And second, Case produced cars for 18 years, from 1910 to 1927. The only asterisk on the Case record is that instead of inventing its own automobile, Case bought an established car manufacturer.
The Aug. 11, 1910, issue of Motor Age magazine announced “Arrangements have been completed whereby the Case Co. have taken over the entire automobile output of the Pierce Motor Co. (of Racine) and the car will hereafter be known as the Case car.” Case had already financed the factory for two years at that time.
The first 1911 Case cars were simply rebadged Pierces. They were immediately entered into the 1911 Indianapolis 500. None finished; one was hit by another entry, a steering knuckle broke on another and the third suffered a seized piston. In 1912, four Case entries (including the 290 hp Jay-Eye-See) failed to finish at Indy. In 1913 a Case entry took eighth place. The company was long fascinated with racing. As early as 1895 Case tried unsuccessfully to perfect the rotary valve-design Raymond engine to enter the first-ever auto race in the U.S., held on Thanksgiving Day in Chicago.
All Case cars carried the eagle emblem modeled on “Old Abe,” the famed Civil War-era mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Regiment, and were sold by Case agricultural dealers. Case auto model letters ranged from K through O, T, R and U-Y, though they weren’t manufactured in alphabetical order. Model N, for instance, was built in 1913; Model M in 1915. Early 4-cylinder Case autos were followed by a Continental 6-cylinder in 1918. Three body styles were offered: touring, sedan and “sport,” an open four-seater. Automobile production ended in 1927.
International Harvester Co.
Various companies marketed hybrid vehicles to folks yearning for the old ways. Thus rein-drive tractors were marketed to horse-lovers, and Townsend tractors, which looked and sounded like steam traction engines, to those who missed the days of steam. International Harvester Co., Chicago, figured to do the same with its 1907 entry into the automobile market, the International Auto-Buggy.
“It is built nearly as possible like a buggy,” promotional materials noted. “This type of vehicle has been serving country-town and rural people for years, and there is no reason why a simple motor vehicle of this type cannot serve them in the future.”
The first 100 units were built at the McCormick works in Chicago before production was transferred to an International factory at Akron, Ohio. The Auto-Buggy was a 2-cylinder, friction-transmission high-wheeler with solid tires. It produced 14 or 16 hp and sold for $600 as a Model A passenger runabout or a Model B four-passenger Farmer’s Auto.
“It was probably the most rugged high-wheeler built in America, and among the most popular, some 4,500 units being built,” wrote Beverly Rae Kimes in Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942.
But the handwriting was on the dashboard. IHC added air- or water-cooled 4-cylinder standard models to the line in 1910 (the same year “IHC” began to appear on the vehicles), but after 1911, the company quit making cars, with three exceptions. Until 1916 “Sunday-go-to-meeting” seats were available for installation in the back of high-wheeler truck models, effectively converting them into cars. In the 1930s, an occasional IHC car was built on the company’s smallest truck chassis. And from 1961 to 1980, IHC manufactured the four-wheel drive Scout cross-country vehicle in a wide range of open or closed bodywork, and the Travelall station wagon in two- or four-wheel drive with 6- or 8-cylinder.
Moline Plow Co.
Moline Plow Co. of Moline, Ill., became an automobile manufacturer in 1916 when it announced it was “forced to embark in this line, due to the decline in demand for farm vehicles (like their Moline Universal tractor) and buggies.” With G.A. Stephens heading the company, the new car was named the Stephens. The prototype was designed by E.T. Birdsall, who designed the Selden automobile and many others.
The first Stephens Salient Six cars (five-passenger touring model or three-passenger roadster) sold for $1,150 in 1917. Seven models were manufactured for eight years, including 6-cylinder engines of 57 and 59 hp in 1923. The Stephens’ success translated into boom times for Root & VanDervoort Engineering Co., in nearby East Moline. Fully 80 percent of all R&V orders at that time were for automotive engines used in Stephens cars, and Moline Plow soon bought out its engine supplier. Another big name in automobiles, John North Willys, bought a controlling interest in Moline Plow in 1919.
But the Agricultural Depression of the early 1920s loomed on the horizon. Despite strong sales from 1920 to 1923 (2,064 in 1922, and more than 3,000 in each of the other years), the Moline automobile department was separated from the agricultural arm of the company and phased out in 1924. In 1929, Moline Plow Co. merged with others to form the Minneapolis-Moline Co.
Little is known of the Avery Glide Touring Car 30, manufactured in 1915 by the Avery Co., Peoria, Ill. Though apparently sold as an Avery that year only, the car had a long history of success, as Avery Co. President J.B. Bartholomew had dabbled with automobiles for many years. A Motor Age article from about 1910 says he ” … did a good portion of the machine work on the original Duryea motor car built back in 1893.”
He also built the Bartholomew prototype auto in 1901, and founded the Bartholomew Co., which built the Glide-mobile (then Glide) auto in Peoria from 1903 to 1920. The Avery Glide five-passenger roadster sold for $1,195 (including a top, top hood, electric lighting, electric self-starter, windshield, speedometer and demountable rims).
The Glide was a winner when it came to advertising, offering clever slogans like “As good as the best and better than the rest” and “Ride in a Glide and then decide.”
Failed attempts were the hallmark of other tractor manufacturers who tried to enter the automotive market. In 1898, Best Mfg. Co., San Leandro, Calif., built an experimental gasoline carriage, using huge wagon wheels and a 2-cylinder, 7 hp engine that sprayed gasoline into the cylinders.
“I remember when automobiles first came into vogue, about 1893, I believe,” recalled pioneer tractor manufacturer Daniel Best in his memoirs. “I was smitten with the automobile fever, and accordingly set about to construct one. I tell you, that machine was a work of art – in my own opinion. Solid rubber tires of a size capable of carrying 10 passengers, a lot more in an emergency and with all the grace of a mud scow. I ran it 11 years, and later gave it to my son, who in turn traded it for a piano. I think the piano man was cheated. I have often thought if I had stayed with automobile manufacturing, I could have out-Forded Ford. Perhaps.”
The Fageol, built by Fageol Motors Co., Oakland, Calif., was touted to be the finest passenger car ever made, powered by the famous Hall-Scott 125 hp military hydro-aeroplane engine. When Fageol came out with a car in 1917 and tagged it with a price of $12,000, the Chevrolet factory sent flowers with a card reading, “From the lowest to the highest-price car.” World War I stopped the Fageol effort after only three cars had been made.
Fairbanks, Morse & Co. of Chicago built a touring car in 1908 powered by a 4-cylinder engine. It sold – or more accurately, didn’t sell – for a whopping $3,850. Hart-Parr made 2-cylinder runabouts for use only by their executives and traveling salesmen.
Tractor manufacturers had mixed results when they dipped into passenger vehicles. The transition was equally challenging for well-known tractor manufacturers – John Deere and Ford, for instance – who made the move from cars to tractors. Read about that in Part 2 of this article in the July issue of Farm Collector.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; email: firstname.lastname@example.org