The Colorful History of Oliver Tractors
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.
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.
A new look for a new model
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.
The Oliver 70 was available in four configurations: row-crop, standard-tread, orchard and high-crop. Each configuration offered the option of the HC (high-compression) gasoline engine or the KD (kerosene-distillate) engine. A 4-speed transmission was provided for row-crop versions, and a 6-speed unit for the others (the 6-speed transmission provided a top road speed of 14mph). Differential (steering) brakes were standard on all versions.
The launch of the Oliver 70 in 1935 signaled a new era in tractor design. In 1937, Oliver conducted a poll inviting farmers to “vote” for their favorite tractor color palette. Photo courtesy Andrew Morland.
Farmers’ ballots counted in Oliver contest
In August 1937, the contest was kicked off with a big parade at Hart-Parr’s annual picnic in Charles City, Iowa. Charles City residents and farmers from all around turned out to view a 2-mile-long parade of Oliver farm equipment. A news account of the day reported that “Six of the prettiest young ladies in the Oliver organization” were chosen to drive the six tractors – each with a different color scheme – in the parade.
An Oliver Model 660 and a Model 550, both from the early 1960s, clad in the meadow green/clover white paint scheme. Photo by Robert N. Pripps.
The Oliver fair exhibit consisted of a voting table surrounded by the six specially painted Model 70 tractors. Farmers were invited to look over the variously painted tractors and indicate their favorite on a ballot. The six contenders – selected by a “nationally known color specialist” – included chrome green body, red trim and ivory lettering; regatta red body, aluminum trim and white lettering; chrome green body, tangerine trim and white lettering; yellow body, black trim and red lettering; China gold body, tangerine trim and ivory lettering; and ivory body, China gold trim and red lettering. Each farmer who cast a vote was given a premium, “a handy leather pocket key case.”
Changing times, changing colors
A White-Oliver 1655 tractor, circa 1965. Photo by Robert N. Pripps.
On Nov. 1, 1960, just before John F. Kennedy was elected president, White Motor Corp. bought Oliver Corp. as a wholly owned subsidiary. In 1962, Cockshutt was added as a subsidiary to Oliver. Minneapolis-Moline was added in 1963. All continued to operate under their own brand names and colors until 1969, when all assets were brought together under the White Farm Equipment banner. Production of Oliver tractors continued until 1976, when the last tractor with the Oliver name (a Model 2255) rolled out the door of the Charles City factory. It was painted meadow green with clover white wheels, grille and lettering.
A 1937 Oliver 70 in a red color scheme. Photo by Ralph Sanders. Reprinted with permission of Quarto Group.
November 1993 marked the end of an era for Charles City, Iowa, the place that long called itself the birthplace of the tractor industry. In 1993, the White-New Idea factory (opened in 1900 by Charles Hart and Charles Parr) closed for good, and its equipment was sold at auction.
The historic Hart-Parr No. 1 – the world’s first successful production tractor – was produced in that factory in 1901. In its heyday, the plant employed 3,000 workers. Thousands of Hart-Parr, Oliver, Cockshutt and White tractors were built there over the years. By the time the plant closed, the workforce was down to just over 400, a sad testimony to the trying times encountered by the agricultural industry in the last decades of the 20th century. FC
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