No. 179

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The Bryan steam tractor owned by Justin Click of Lake Station, Indiana. (Photo by Sam Moore)

Talk about rare tractors – at the Wauseon, Ohio show some years ago, I saw a Bryan tractor, a large, conventional looking (at least from a short distance away) tractor of that era, although the engine block appeared to be huge. The tractor was owned by Justin Click of Lake Station, Indiana, and there’s something very unusual about the Bryan, besides its rarity. 

George Alfred Bryan of Albuquerque, New Mexico, worked for the Santa Fe railroad during the early part of the twentieth century. His career with the SF encompassed every job one could perform on a locomotive, from wiping to firing and then operating the big steamers and finally, chief inspector. Based upon this experience, he became an expert on steam locomotives and seems to have become consumed with the idea of building lightweight steam vehicles using a liquid fuel, such as kerosene.

Bryan has a string of inventions relating to steam vehicles to his credit. He designed a burner that atomized and efficiently burned the fuel. He also developed a firebox that kept the flame separate from the boiler tubes, aiding in complete combustion and eliminating carbon buildup on the tubes, while allowing for quick steam buildup.

The flexible tubes themselves were bent into a zig-zag configuration and were connected at each end by a tapered plug and clamp arrangement that not only made the individual tubes easy to replace, but made the connection unlikely to develop leaks. Other patents related to how the engine should be mounted and the layout of a tractor chassis were issued to Bryan during the early 1920s.

According to The Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805 – 1942, Bryan built a steam car as early as 1913, which he tested in the mountains and heat of New Mexico. Apparently, it worked well and Bryan founded the Bryan Harvester Company in 1916 along with his father. However, New Mexico was a long way from supplies of steel and other raw materials and a pool of skilled labor, not to mention the large agricultural market they would need in order to sell their tractors, so, in 1918 the Bryan Harvester Company was moved to Peru, Indiana. 

It’s unknown how many Bryan steam cars were actually built – most sources claim that only six were produced between 1918 and 1923, and several of these were built for Bryan Company officials. A photo of a 1922 model in the above mentioned catalog shows a typical four-door touring car of the 1920s, with wooden-spoke artillery wheels, a light colored body and black fenders, and big, nickel-plated headlights.

As far as the Bryan steam truck, it seems that a prototype was probably built during this period, but it never went into production; the early 1920s were a period of post-war recession, particularly on American farms.

The Bryan steam tractor apparently was slightly more successful than the car and truck. Again, it’s a mystery as to how many were actually built (one account claims “hundreds were manufactured and shipped throughout the United States), but only a few have survived.           

As mentioned earlier, the Bryan steam tractor looks a lot like the average gas tractor of the day, and nothing at all like the big Case or Reeves steam traction engines. Out front is a large radiator which serves as a condenser for the steam boiler. In the engine compartment is a large, rectangular steel box, inside of which are the boiler tubes and beneath which is the kerosene burner. Unlike the steam traction engines we’re used to seeing that operate at less than 200 pounds per square inch boiler pressure, the Bryan vehicles were designed to run at around 600 psi.

Just behind the boiler is a two-cylinder steam engine, mounted horizontally. A spur gear at the center of the engine crankshaft meshes directly with the first gear in the transmission gear train. The engine pistons are four inch bore and five inch stroke and operate at speeds of 20 to 800 RPM. Tractor ground speed can be varied between one-eighth MPH to seven and a half MPH. The Bryan tractor was never tested at Nebraska and was initially rated at 26HP on the drawbar and 70 on the belt, although the drawbar HP was later lowered to twenty. 

 A shaft driven from the transmission case runs along the left side of the engine and boiler and drives a fan behind the condenser. A large belt pulley on the right side, just inside the rear wheel, is driven from the transmission case.

Mr. Bryan also developed a home heating system that used his boiler. Apparently, he realized that steam powered vehicles were past they’re “use by” date and opted to concentrate on the home heating business and other applications for his steam equipment.

Around 1925, Bryan changed the name of his firm to the Bryan Steam Corporation and gave up vehicles. The company still exists in Peru, today called Bryan Steam LLC, and still specializes in Bryan “Flexible Water Tube” boilers. 

It appears that there are only some half-dozen Bryan tractors in existence today and several of these are exhibited in museums, with only a couple in running condition; one appeared at the Rollag, Minnesota show several years ago, and belonged to Peter Mandt of Wahpeton ND, and the one owned by Justin Click that was exhibited at Wauseon.

I got some photos of the Bryan steam tractor while it was being filled with water and was standing there when they took off. As the driver advanced the throttle, the tractor moved off smoothly with just a faint chuff and a little steam from the exhaust.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment