Farm Collector


Ivel tops field of English old-iron ‘firsts’

The year 2002 marked the 100th anniversary of the Ivel Agricultural Motor, considered by most British historians to be the first successful farm tractor built in the British Isles. The inventor, Dan Albone, was born Sept. 12, 1860, in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, a small village on the Ivel River, 50 miles north of London. Dan’s father, Edward, was a market gardener, and Dan was the youngest of eight children.

Early on, the boy exhibited an interest in mechanical things, especially after he was given an old bicycle at the age of 9. Soon, he got into bicycle racing, and at 13, built his own bike. In his early teens, he apprenticed with a local engineering and millwright firm, and soon afterward, he began building bicycles on his own in a shed behind his home.

In 1880, Albone established the Ivel Cycle Works, famed throughout Great Britain for its Ivel Racing Bicycles. Biggleswade, where the bicycles were made, became known as the home of modern safety bicycles, and modern cycle road racing and touring.

Sometime in the 1890s, Albone put one of the newfangled gasoline engines into a tricycle-type frame, and followed that quickly with a two-wheeled motorcycle. He also built a few Ivel motorcars that were equipped with his own ball bearings, which he had been using for some time in wheels he built for horse-drawn vehicles.

About 1900, Albone began experimenting with a farm tractor called the Ivel Agricultural Motor. He patented his prototype in early 1902 and successfully tested the tractor that summer on local farms. Among the dignitaries and farmers in attendance at one of the tests was a member of Parliament named Lord Compton, who pronounced the tractor a great success after it pulled a hay mower through the field for more than an hour and a half without any breakdowns.

Another observer was so taken by the tractor that he offered to buy the machine on the spot, remarking that’… it was a splendid thing,’ and that he ‘always believed in having such things at once if they were good.’

On Dec. 12, 1902, Ivel Agricultural Motors, Ltd., was incorporated to build the new tractor, and production began in January 1903. The Ivel was a tricycle type, with a single wheel in front and two larger drive wheels at the rear. In those days of heavy, awkward steam and gas traction engines, the Ivel’s 2-ton weight seemed positively nimble, yet it was capable of pulling a three-bottom plow. An 8-hp, two-cylinder, horizontally opposed engine of 6-inch bore and stroke powered the machine. The engines, which may have been built by either Aster or Payne & Bates, used atmospheric intake valves, burned petrol (gasoline), and were hopper cooled, with the water in the large, square tank at the driver’s left elbow. The stack on top of the tank is to keep the water from spilling out on hillsides.

Ignition on the early machines was achieved by a glass battery, a vibrating coil and spark plugs. Later models used the battery and coil for starting, but switched over to a magneto after the engine was running. Power was transmitted to the rear wheels through a friction cone clutch, a single forward and reverse transmission and then, a chain drive. Steering was accomplished by a gear and chain on the vertical steering wheel shaft that pulled cables running to the T-bar at the top of the front wheel fork.

The Ivel went on to win silver medals from the Royal Agricultural Society for two years running and many additional medals at agricultural fairs in the countryside because of its unusual speed and efficiency. In 1906, Albone even cut grain at night by pulling two grain binders behind an Ivel tractor – each binder and the tractor fitted with a large acetylene headlight.

The Ivel became very popular, with sales outlets in at least 25 countries in addition to Great Britain, and some 900 of the tractors are reported to have been made. But also in 1906, Albone died of a stroke; he was 46 years old and had been the driving force behind the Ivel Agricultural Motor Works. Without him, the firm went into decline, struggled through World War I, and in 1918, fell into receivership.

Apparently, the Ivel never caught on in the United States. At any rate, this writer has found no references in U.S. agricultural history, and only one in British literature – a brief paragraph in a 1908 British Implement and Tractor paper that points mysteriously to a U.S. connection. It reads: ‘The Chicago capitalists who have acquired the American rights to the Ivel patent have had a machine built in Austin, Chicago.’

Reportedly, changes were made to the design to adapt the tractor to U.S. conditions, including making it larger than the English prototype. Weighing 5,000 pounds, the American Ivel was supposed to have had a 25-hp, double-opposed engine and two speeds, 2 1/2 and 5 mph, in both directions. A photograph of what was called ‘the American Ivel’ appears in the 1908 British paper, but nothing that resembles that tractor appears in any U.S. tractor reference books. Although no confirmation has been uncovered to date, the machine may have been built by the F.C. Austin Co., a Chicago construction machinery manufacturer of the day. In 1918, Austin introduced a crawler tractor that was built for a couple of years, and in 1920, an Austin 15-30 wheeled tractor, but that machine looked nothing like the Ivel, either.

In his Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, C.H. Wendel documents a three-wheeled motor cultivator listed in the 1919 Austin catalog, but reports he could find no photograph of the machine. It weighed only 800 pounds and was powered by a 15-hp LeRoi engine. The Austin company’s tractor production ended about 1920.

At least two British Ivels exist in running condition. John Moffitt of Stocksfield, Northumberland, England, owns a 1903 Ivel, which he exhibits at rallies in the United Kingdom. He also has researched Albone and the Ivel, and is preparing to publish a book. The other surviving Ivel tractor, also a 1903 model, is owned by Norman McKenzie of Cumnock, New South Wales, Australia. Norm’s Ivel was the oldest tractor to take part in the April 2001 Guinness World Record attempt in New South Wales, which drew almost 300 vintage machines. FC

Ivels still ‘competing’

Norm McKenzie’s 1903 Ivel wasn’t the only example of the marque to take to the field in a Guinness World Record attempt. The madness started Aug. 6, 1995, when 322 of Harry Ferguson’s tractors, ranging in age from 1936 to 1963, and each with an implement, all took to the field at the same time to work the soil.

The tractors included Ferguson-Browns, Ford-Fergusons, Ferguson TE 20s and Massey-Fergusons; the plowing took place at the Cooley Vintage Festival between Belfast and Dublin, Ireland, on the edge of Dundalk Bay. Guinness recognized the record, but not much was heard about the event at the time.

Next was the Great 100 Working on April 10, 1999, at Sandstone Estates in South Africa; there 109 pre-1965 tractors of various makes, plus one team of 12 oxen, raised the dust in the same field, setting another Guinness record.

Rusty iron enthusiasts in Australia issued the next challenge, and a new record was set April 15, 2001, in New South Wales, Australia. McKenzie’s Ivel took part in this event, at which 298 tractors and implements all worked in the same field at the same time.

A year later, on April 20, 2002, South Africa had another go at the record and seemed to decisively raise the ante with more than 800 pre-1970 tractors, jeeps and steam traction engines in the field. Some folks (mostly ‘Yanks’) opined that the only chance of mustering enough tractors to beat this would be to mount a U.S. attempt.

Never underestimate the Irish, though! On Aug. 4, 2002, the Cooley Vintage Festival was again the scene of a massive record attempt. By the time the machines all roared off at about 3:30 p.m., some 1,850 pre-1970 tractors had entered in the field, including John Moffitt’s 1903 Ivel.

According to accounts of this event, the number of units taking part would have been even larger, except that many trucks loaded with tractors couldn’t get near the field because of traffic jams.

Where will it all end?

– Sam Moore

-Photographs and historical documentation provided by John Moffitt and Norm McKenzie.

-Sam Moore became interested in agricultural machinery while growing up on a farm in western Pennysylvania. Now, he lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items.

Ignition on the early machines was achieved by a glass battery, a vibrating coil and spark plugs.

  • Published on Jan 1, 2003
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