The Auto Tractor

Early Auto Tractor utilized automobile engine's power

| September 2000

Back in 1988, when I "retired" for the first time, I decided to give all the pictures I had shot for various farm magazines to the public, by making them available to the University of Illinois Archives. Bob Chapel, the archivist, showed me where they would be filed. In the process, I "discovered" a box of pictures filed there in 1920. It was a veritable treasure trove of old tractors, many of which I'd never heard of. 

I commented to Bob then how fortunate I thought it was to have discovered this "lost" file. He chided me for the use of the word lost. "What do you mean, 'lost'?" he asked. "They've been here all the time."

True enough, but no one had checked out any of the pictures I selected – including those of the Auto Tractor – since 1920.

The Auto Tractor's origins are shrouded in mystery. I cannot find the name of the inventor in any of the available literature. Adding to the puzzle is this: In a search of patent office files, I found an "Auto Tractor" invented by H.T. Preble, with paperwork filed on Nov. 13, 1912. However, Preble's invention looks more like an army halftrack. It had an automobile body, but featured a set of tracks to drive it.

Also, C.L. Best of California – the father of the present-day Caterpillar tractors – filed a patent on an "Auto tractor" on June 4, 1912. Best's machine looks like a tractor. It has tracks at the center, an obviously heavy engine, and a huge roller in front to control the steering. It is easy to see in this patent how Best anticipated present-day crawler tractors.

That said, consider the Niles, Mich., Auto Tractor. As outrageous as it looks, I think that more than other tractors of its day (probably 1912 or earlier), the Niles, Mich., Auto Tractor anticipated the lighter-weight school of tractors, putting the farm horse out of business. The Auto Tractor made use of car-size engines, those from 20 to 90 horsepower. Also, while high in price for its day, the Auto Tractor was a more affordable alternative for most farmers.