The Colorful History of Oliver Tractors

Launch of the Model 70 inspired contests where farmers “voted” for their favorite tractor color scheme.

| November 2020

State and county fairs have long been a popular venue for tractor manufacturers to show off the latest and greatest. This Oliver 88 – a 1948 model – came along well after 1937, when the Oliver Farm Equipment Co. sponsored a contest at fairs across the country to select color combinations for their Model 70 tractor. Farmers who “voted” in the promotion were given commemorative leather key cases. 

Tractor colors have been chosen for varied reasons. Henry Ford’s 9N, for instance, was painted a light “battleship gray” from 1939 until 1948, when Ford’s grandson, Henry Ford II, came out with the Ford 8N painted in what is now referred to as a “red belly” and a lighter gray hood, fenders and wheels. Since cast iron tends to rust more quickly than sheet metal, Ford’s designers decided to paint the body red. That way, when the paint wore down to the red primer, it would be less noticeable. 

During World War II, all-orange British Fordsons were easy targets for German bombers. The decision was quickly made to paint all British Fordsons (new and old) green to blend into the countryside. Harry C. Merritt, once manager of the Allis-Chalmers tractor department, is said to have been on a train to California in 1929, when he saw fields of brilliant orange poppies in full bloom. He reportedly liked the color so well that he had AC tractors painted the same color. Persian orange soon replaced the dark greens and grays used previously.

Cockshutt and Oliver 70 Standards, side by side. The Cockshutt 70, built by Oliver, was identical to the domestic Oliver 70 except for its paint job: red with cream grille and trim, and yellow lettering. Photo by Robert N. Pripps.

From the time Hart-Parr began building tractors (a word said to have been coined by a Hart-Parr sales manager, who found it smoother on the tongue than “traction engines”), the company’s tractors were painted green with red wheels and white lettering. After merging with Oliver Chilled Plow Works, South Bend, Indiana; American Seeding Machine Co., Richmond, Indiana; and Nichols & Shepard Co., Battle Creek, Michigan, the lettering at first said only “Hart-Parr,” but gradually came to include the “Oliver” name in small letters. 

As time went on, the “Oliver” name grew bigger as the “Hart-Parr” name grew smaller, until 1935, when the famous Oliver 70 was introduced with only a very small reference to Hart-Parr. Beginning in 1938, the Hart-Parr name disappeared completely from subsequent models.

A new look for a new model

Launch of the Oliver 70 was a watershed event for the tractor industry. It reflected both an improving economic situation and an increase of the automotive influence on tractor design. Durable goods manufacturers were beginning to see that product differentiation had a positive effect on sales. For automobiles, multi-cylinder engines were replacing the typical four cylinders, with some going to as many as 16 cylinders. Radiator grilles, covering the usually exposed radiator, had become a hallmark of modern styling. All this influenced design of the Oliver 70.

Clad in the traditional Hart-Parr palette of green with red wheels and white lettering, the Hart-Parr 28-50 was a true heavyweight: This tractor weighed in at nearly 5 tons. Photo by Robert N. Pripps.

Although there had been attempts at tractor styling before, the new Oliver 70 was so car-like that it overshadowed the competition, influencing tractor design from that point on. It was styled and had a grille, it was powered by a 6-cylinder engine, it could be equipped with an electric starter and lights, its high-compression engine was designed to run on 70-octane (hence the model designation) gasoline, and it had an instrument panel and fingertip controls. 


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