The Auto Tractor

Early Auto Tractor utilized automobile engine's power

| September 2000

  • A touring car was backed over the under carriage of the Auto Tractor
    A touring car was backed over the under carriage of the Auto Tractor. Notice the hub gear which will be meshed with a bull gear on the huge steel traction wheel; the rear wheel is raised off the ground. When fully hitched, both rear wheels act as flywheels, and the undercarriage rests on the ground. When hitched, it will be tied to the front axle of the car. The driver's seat is on the vehicle's right side.
    Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives
  • The hub gears and rear axle saddles
    The hub gears and rear axle saddles. It would be absolutely essential for the automobile to be held firmly so that the hub gears could engage and operate the large bull gears. Note the absence of tire tread.
    Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives
  • The Auto Tractor unit went under and behind the automobile
    The Auto Tractor unit went under and behind the automobile. Note the huge bull gear inside the traction wheel. Hub gears from the car mesh with this gear when aligned. There must have been extensive wear on those gears operating in the open. The contraption had to have been noisy as well. No doubt the hub gears had to be replaced frequently. Additionally, there is a smaller gear inside the traction wheel. We can only speculate that it had to do with driving the belt pulley. The additional radiator can be seen on the axle between the traction wheels. Note the hoses near the front of the frame which connected with the car engine. Presumably a car would slide back and stop at the angles on the rear of the frame, and was held in place by the forementioned saddles.
    Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives
  • The Auto Tractor pulling a road grader
    The Auto Tractor pulling a road grader: Hard to believe, but this is the direct ancestor of today's road patrols. This picture gives a good perspective on the relation of the rear car wheels to the traction wheels. Also, this is an "action" photo: Note the  blur of the rear wheel spokes.

  • A touring car was backed over the under carriage of the Auto Tractor
  • The hub gears and rear axle saddles
  • The Auto Tractor unit went under and behind the automobile
  • The Auto Tractor pulling a road grader

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.