A Model D Worth Waiting For

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Below: Norm Kuper enjoys driving the Model D in parades, but says that it is still work to drive. From this angle, the black Remy Co. starter and generator/governor can easily be seen.
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Left: The bare-bones operator station on the Moline-Universal Model D, while Spartan, placed the governor control (black box above the seat), steering and other hand controls in relatively easy reach. However, it is easy to see that it was no place for a youngster, especially considering that if the operator were to become dislodged from the seat, it was likely he or she would get plowed under, quite literally.
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Above: This 2-row cultivator was designed by the Moline Plow Co. specifically for the Universal Model D. Norm found this implement in Tea, S.D., after he had finished the tractor’s restoration.Left: Norm’s Moline-Universal Model D was delivered with this 2-bottom plow, which also provided the rear wheels. The black box visible above the seat is the dial-control for the tractor’s electric governor. Norm added the rubber tread to the wheels so he could drive the tractor in parades.Below: Wichard Ruhaak with the Model D shortly after it was pulled from the trees.
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Above: Even the drive wheel’s outer bearing was sealed from the environment with this attractive cover displaying the company’s logo. The rough texture surrounding the cap is concrete that was cast through the right hand (furrow side) drive wheel’s spokes for ballast.

“I never got to drive it when I was a kid,”
Norm Kuper explains, as he proudly wipes a thin layer of South
Dakota dust off the engine of his beautifully restored
Moline-Universal Model D. “I had to wait 50 years.” Soon after his
father brought the tractor home in 1934, this Lennox, S.D., man
says he was ever-eager to take the controls, but his father never
let him – he was just too young.

“I was 10 when he sold it in 1937, and I thought I was plenty
old enough (to drive the tractor), but really I wasn’t,” Norm

When first released in 1917, the Moline-Universal Model D was
arguably a tractor well ahead of its time. The small, relatively
lightweight, 2-bottom plow machine was ideal for farmers who wanted
to replace horses, but had no need for the large steamor
petroleum-powered traction engines that still prevailed on the
prairie. However, like the larger tractors of the time, the Model D
was cumbersome to operate, and was no match for a youngster at the
controls. But for the farmer who had been used to using horses, the
Model D was a mechanized marvel.

Universal appeal

“I was young, but I knew it was a special day when Dad bought
the tractor,” Norm explains. “It took him nearly three hours to
drive the 9 miles home.” It is easily imaginable that the
three-hour wait was excruciating for a young farm boy in the
mid-1930s, but imagine anticipating one day driving the tractor,
only to see it sold before getting the chance. “I was disappointed
when Dad sold it,” Norm says.

Norm isn’t certain what kind of life the tractor had before his
father purchased it; however, it didn’t appear to have been abused.
“It was already 15 or 16 years old, but the tractor and plow were
in good condition as I remember,” Norm says. “Dad used it to move
the broiler house around and for some other chores,” Norm says.
“But I don’t think he plowed much with it.”

In the years that followed, that Model D toiled as the primary
tillage tractor for brothers (and bachelor farmers) Wichard and
John Ruhaak. “The Ruhaaks used it with the 2-bottom plow to work
their ground until the mid-1950s,” Norm says. “They never had
indoor plumbing, but they made things last.” That the Model D
lasted into the second half of the 20th century as a working
tractor is testament to both its robust design and to the care its
owners took to maintain it. Eventually, though, the Model D was
parked in the shelterbelt.

When the Ruhaaks retired the Model D in about 1955, Norm was
busy with his own farm and young family. “It wasn’t until quite a
few years later that I thought about trying to buy that tractor,”
Norm explains. In fact, it was in the mid-1980s, about 30 years
after the Ruhaaks had retired it, that Norm and his brother Luverne
went to see if the Model D was for sale. “John (Ruhaak) had passed
away, and Wichard, who still baked his own bread on a corn cob
stove every Friday for the week, told us he didn’t need any money,”
Norm says. “We were both a little disappointed at first.”

After some thought, Wichard explained he needed a snow-blower,
and noted that if the Kuper boys could get him a good one, he would
take it in trade for the Moline-Universal. “Luverne and I headed
right into Sioux Falls and bought him a top-of-the-line ‘blower,”
Norm says looking out the window of the house he and his wife built
while still on the farm – the house now comfortably situated on a
city lot they purchased in Lennox after retiring. “I bought that
‘blower back at Ruhaak’s sale – it comes in handy since we moved
the house to town.”

Out of the woods

When Norm and Luverne pulled the old Model D out of Wichard’s
shelterbelt, they were pleasantly surprised by what they found. The
wheels hadn’t been rusted through, although they were partially
buried, and the drive train wasn’t frozen, so it was easy to roll.
“The tractor didn’t look the greatest, but the engine was still
loose,” Norm says. “It didn’t run, and the wiring was a mess, but
it was all there.” The Kuper brothers hauled the tractor and its
original 2-bottom plow and cart to Luverne’s shed, and embarked on
a project that would take the better part of the next two years.
“It didn’t take long to get it apart,” Norm says. “But putting it
back together was a different matter.”

The Model D’s Moline Plow Co.-built 192 cubic-inch displacement
engine was in remarkably good shape, although the cast iron pistons
were worn enough they really needed replacing. Long absent from the
parts shelves of Minneapolis-Moline, White and AGCO dealers, new
replacement pistons for the old tractor were not an option. Good
used parts are also virtually impossible to find for the Model D,
so Norm and his brother turned to another antiquated source for

“They made a lot of 6-cylinder Chevy engines back in the 1940s,”
Norm explains. “So there are plenty of new replacement parts still
available.” And as it turns out, the Model D’s 3 1/2-inch cylinder
bore was close enough to a common Chevy bore that a local
automotive machine shop was able to fit brand-new aluminum Chevy
pistons to the Model D engine’s four cylinders.

The original connecting rods, rod bearings, crankshaft and
poured babbitt main bearings were all good enough to reuse. The
Model D’s operator’s manual advises changing the engine oil every
10 days, and judging from the overall good condition of the
engine’s bottom end, Norm speculates the advice may well have been

Norm found the engine’s cylinder head, cam, lifters, pushrods
and rocker arms to be reusable, but the super-sized valves
themselves were not salvageable. Considering it had been over 60
years since that engine had been produced, finding new valves, or
even good used valves, was every bit as unlikely as finding
pistons, so Norm again searched elsewhere. “We found those big
valves in some big equipment,” Norm says with a wink. “Turns out
Caterpillar had some that fit fine after turning them down a
little.” Norm’s friend, Robert Meyer, Lennox, helped with the
machining to fit the valves, and also rebuilt the tractor’s Holley
carburetor. “It might never have gotten done without my friends,”
Norm says.

Another high-wear component of many liquid-cooled engines is the
water pump, which is often missing or non-functional in 60-year-old
relics. Norm was relieved to discover that the Model D’s engine
relies on the thermo-siphon principle to circulate coolant rather
than a pump, because water pumps tend to be very specific to an
engine model, and are often impossible to repair or replace. The
thermo-siphon principle relies on the fundamental density
difference between warm and cool water to drive its circulation.
Warm water rises and flows from the engine to the top tank of the
radiator. As the water flows through the radiator and cools, it
becomes denser and flows into the bottom of the engine’s water
jacket where it is again heated. To get the tractor’s cooling
system functioning well, Norm needed only to patch a few leaks in
the radiator with JB Weld.

The Model D’s driveline was also in remarkably good condition
for the amount of exposure the tractor had endured. While their
competitors were still using oil cups and engine sump drains to
drip-lubricate exposed drive systems, the Moline Plow Co. designed
the Model D’s clutch housing, transmission and final drives to keep
dirt and water out, and lube in.

“Everything is enclosed on the tractor,” Norm explains while
pointing to the clutch, transmission and final drive housings. “But
it must have been taken care of, too, considering the (lack of)
wear.” Norm cleaned and adjusted the tractor’s clutch,
transmission, differential and final drives, but even the aged
bearings were in good condition.

Once the mechanical components of the Model D were in place,
Norm turned his attention to the electrical system. The tractor’s
Remy Co. (before Delco-Remy) starter and ignition components were
still intact, and required only cleaning to function properly. The
charging system, however, and electric governor needed some major
work that included rewinding the coils in the governor. With the
electrical components rejuvenated, Norm rewired the tractor and it
was nearly ready to run. But before driving the Moline-Universal,
Norm had to mount one of the tractor’s rear attachments.

The Moline-Universal’s design is reminiscent of an oversized
2-wheeled garden tractor, but it was never intended as a walking
tractor. Rear wheels on the Model D were supplied by host of
available trailing attachments. So before Norm could drive the
tractor, he first had to complete the restoration of one of its
attachments. “The 2-bottom plow was standard equipment, so I
tackled that first,” Norm says. And in spite of the scores of years
of use, the tractor’s plow, like the rest of the tractor, needed
relatively little work to make it into a showpiece. Norm has since
also restored the tractor’s cart and a cultivator he obtained

Finishing touches

Once Norm’s Moline-Universal Model D was ready to roll, he
called on friend Robert Meyer to paint it, along with the
attachments. The tractor was sprayed with several coats of Moline
Plow Co. red, and the attachments were painted red with yellow
wheels. Norm then added rubber tire-tread to the lug-lacking drive
wheels and the plow’s smooth steel wheels so it could be driven on
pavement. “After all that work, I wanted to be able to drive it in
parades and shows,” Norm says with a smile. “But I still have the

In 1987, just about 50 years after the Model D left the Kuper
farm, Norm finally got the chance to drive it, and says it was well
worth the wait. The tractor’s early form of articulated steering is
simple and relatively easy to use, but it takes coordination and
strength, especially when the throttle, clutch, gear selector and
implement adjustment are also made by hand. “After driving it in
parades and shows, I can see why Dad never let me run it,” Norm
says with a smile. “But I am glad that I finally got the

Norm Kuper now limits his show-going to events close to home,
where he enjoys displaying the old Universal along with the plow,
cart and cultivator, and driving it in parades. With the passing of
his brother Luverne, Norm says the tractor holds an extra special
fondness now.

Always on the lookout for other Moline-Universal Model D
attachments, Norm can be contacted by mail at 204 S. Ash St.,
Lennox, SD 57039

Oscar “Hank” Will III is an old-iron collector and freelance
writer who retired from farming in 1999 and from academia in 1996.
He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and his
farm in East Andover, N.H. Write him at 243 W. Broadway,
Gettysburg, PA 17325; (717) 337-6068; e-mail:

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