The Once Mighty Velie

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The neat looking 1918 Biltwel tractor. Compare it to the crude Avery, OilPull, International or Case tractors of the day.
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Front and rear view of the circa 1918 Velie Biltwel 12-24 Tractor.
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Factory photo of a circa 1918 Velie truck.
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This 1923 Velie four-door sedan was "...the most choicely appointed car of its field, complete in its equipment, even to such niceties as the vanity case, smoking set and flower vase."

One of the lesser known tractor names among rusty iron collectors (although it may be familiar to vintage car enthusiasts) is Velie. Dedicated students of the history of Deere & Co. have undoubtedly heard the name as well. Information about the Velie tractor is scarce, but I’ll tell you what I know (which isn’t much) about the tractor and the Velie company.

Joining the family business

In May 1860, John Deere’s 20-year-old daughter, Emma, married 30-year-old Stephen H. Velie, a Rock Island, Ill., businessman. Three years later, Velie joined the Deere family business, still a small local firm, and worked closely with his brother-in-law, Charles Deere, for the next 32 years. Deere & Co. was incorporated in 1868, with Velie as secretary and chief financial officer, a post he held until his death in 1895, by which time the firm had become a major farm equipment manufacturer.

Emma and Stephen had three sons, Stephen H. Jr., Charles and Willard L., all of whom were closely associated with Deere & Co. throughout their lives. Stephen Jr. worked for many years at the Kansas City branch, becoming manager in 1904, while Charles spent most of his long career at the Minneapolis branch. The youngest, Willard, worked for Deere from 1890 to 1900 before leaving to start Velie Carriage Co. The only Velie son to serve on the Deere & Co. board of directors, Willard was elected to that post after his father’s death in ’95 and stayed on the board for many years, resigning in 1921.

Striking out on his own

Popular lore has it that Willard Velie saw his first automobile when Hi Henry’s Minstrel Show (it’s unclear whether the minstrels traveled by auto, an unlikely occurrence at the time, or used one in their act) came to town in May 1901, but he continued to build buggies and carriages until July 2, 1908, when Velie Motor Vehicle Co. was incorporated. His first car, the 1909 Model A, was well built and had a 4-cylinder, 30 hp engine. The Velie was a success, with more than 500 cars sold the first year at $1,750 ($41,160 today) each. In 1910, Velie used a Lycoming engine, but started building his own power plants in 1911.

In 1911, Velie began building a successful line of motor trucks. At about that time, the U.S. Army was exploring the possibility of using motor trucks to supply units in the field. The first test, which started Feb. 8, 1912, covered 1,509 miles from Washington, D.C., southwest to Atlanta, and then northwest across Tennessee and Kentucky to Fort Benjamin Harrison near Indianapolis. Four trucks (White, Autocar, FWD and Sampson) made the initial run. The Sampson burned out its rod bearings after only 39 miles and was sent back, but the other three slogged on through the mud with many breakdowns, finally reaching Fort Benjamin Harrison on March 28.

Although not considered a great success (especially by cavalrymen), trucks were given another test. This time, a provisional regiment would march from Dubuque, Iowa, to Sparta, Wis., and was to be wholly supplied by truck. The original FWD, White and the Sampson (now repaired) joined three additional 1-1/2 ton trucks (a Kelly-Springfield, a Mack and a Kato) as well as six 3-ton models (one each from White, Packard, Graham, FWD, Saurer and Velie). Again the test results weren’t great, but none of the troops starved and trucks were later used with great success by General Pershing in Mexico. When the U.S. became involved in World War I in France, thousands of trucks were used, many of which were Velies.

Expanding the line

Velie merged his truck and car manufacturing concerns into Velie Motors Corp. in 1916 and began building a farm tractor. The Velie Biltwel 12-24 tractor reflected Velie’s expertise as an automobile and truck builder, being of lightweight design with a fully enclosed engine compartment, along with rounded, full rear fenders. Rated by the factory to pull three 14-inch plows (the tractor was usually demonstrated pulling a 3-bottom John Deere plow), the Biltwel had open drive gears and was powered by a Velie 4-cylinder, 4-1/8-by-5-1/2-inch bore and stroke engine with force-feed lubrication. Equipped with a canopy over the driver’s compartment, the 12-24 weighed 4,500 pounds and sold for $1,750.

For 1917, the Biltwel 12-24 was improved with enclosed drive gears and a more streamlined hood. The canopy was gone, but the tractor still cost $1,750, almost four times the price of a Fordson. Although the Biltwel 12-24 was well designed and a high quality machine, the price was just too high and in 1920, Velie exited the tractor business.

Velie continued to build his high quality cars, which starting in 1917 featured 6 cylinders. The 1925 Model 60 Royal Sedan was a sleek, closed body, five-passenger car with a prominent visor over the windshield. With a 118-inch wheelbase and 58 hp, the Royal sedan cost $1,635.

In 1927, Velie made his son, Willard Jr., vice president and general manager of the company. The next year, a Model 88 with a 90 hp, 8-cylinder Lycoming engine and a 125-inch wheelbase joined the lineup.

Willard Velie Sr. died of an embolism on Oct. 24, 1928. The 1929 Velies were little changed from previous models and were the last offerings by the Velie Motor Corp., as Willard Velie Jr. died of a heart attack on March 20, 1929. In April 1937, Deere & Co. bought the idle Velie plant and machinery and finally closed the books on the firm in 1943.

Tractor remains elusive

Velie built almost 75,000 cars, some of which survive in the hands of collectors. I don’t know how many trucks or tractors were built, and I’m unaware of any of these being preserved. Chuck Hoaglund of the Official Velie Register, who provided the images of the Velie tractor, told me he once saw a Velie tractor in a junkyard somewhere in south central South Dakota, central Nebraska or north central Kansas but didn’t know what it was at the time. It had a huge “V” cast in the center of the drive wheels like the “V” used in Velie advertising. That was in the mid-1960s. Others have had no luck in finding it as far as he knows.

If anyone out there has a Velie tractor or more information, please let us know. 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.

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