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The Colorful History of Oliver Tractors

Author Photo
By Robert N. Pripps

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. 

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.

Initially, the traditional all-green color scheme was used, but with a red grille and trim and white letters outlined in red. A unique silver (middle-buster) plow hood ornament topped it all off.
 

Farmers’ ballots counted in Oliver contest 

One of the most interesting marketing ploys associated with the introduction of the Model 70, however, was the Oliver 70 tractor color voting contest. To draw attention to the new model on display at state and sectional fairs, Oliver Farm Equipment Co. invited farmers to cast a vote for their favorite of six color schemes for the Model 70. 

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.”

Echoing Hart-Parr’s original colors, the winner was option number one (chrome green body, red trim and ivory lettering). The new scheme was then used on the restyled 1938 Model 70 and the company’s Fleetline series tractors. Surviving photos of those tractors, however, show the green bodies, red wheels and trim with yellow or (possibly ivory) grilles and lettering. In 1944, when Oliver bought Cleveland Tractor Co. and its Cletrac crawler line, Oliver continued the green, red and yellow paint scheme. For 1958, a new paint scheme was introduced with a meadow green body and clover white wheels, grille and lettering.
 

Changing times, changing colors

Several models of Oliver and Hart-Parr tractors were built for the Canadian Cockshutt company. These were identical to the domestic versions except for paint colors. Hart-Parr tractors were red with yellow lettering; Oliver tractors were red with cream grilles and trim and yellow lettering. After World War II, Cockshutt developed its own line of tractors with distinctive colors and styling by famed designer Raymond Loewy.

 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.

The late 1970s and ’80s brought more financial and political turmoil to the agricultural industry, and in 1980, White was taken over by Texas Investment Corp. (TIC). Following some very rocky times and additional ownership changes, White was acquired by Allis-Gleaner Co. (AGCO).

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


After 36 years in the aircraft industry, Bob Pripps returned to his first love and began writing about tractors. He has authored some 30 books on the subject and several magazine articles. Pripps has a maple syrup farm near Park Falls, Wisconsin. In harvesting the maple sap, he relies on a Ford Jubilee and a Massey Ferguson 85.

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