Building a Nilson Tractor

Scratch builder creates a replica Nilson tractor from period illustrations.

| November 2007

To get a look at a Nilson tractor, Gary Johannessohn had to take extreme measures: He had to build one. "I've had a love of old tractors for most of my life," Gary says, "and the odder and more peculiar they are in appearance and design, the more I seem to appreciate them!"

Today, Gary is the proud designer, builder and owner of a replica Nilson. The project celebrates an exceptionally rare line he discovered a few years ago when his son-in-law gave him a copy of American Farm Tractors by C.H. Wendel.

"I spent hours studying the different tractors described in it, especially the 3-wheel models," he recalls. "A number of companies manufactured 3-wheel tractors in the teens of the last century, and the Nilson tractor really got me exited. I liked the shape and design of it, and the way in which the operator sat on it. In fact, I could see a forerunner of such tractors as the Ford 9N, 8N and other utility-type tractors where the operator sat to the front of the drive wheels."

An active member of the Lake Itasca (Minn.) Region Pioneer Farmers, Gary collects and restores gas engines, tractors and vehicles. Those experiences gave him another insight to the Nilson tractor design.

"I think there was a vision of safety incorporated into the tractor, as opposed to so many other tractors in which the operators were perched precariously up on the right rear fender or behind the tractor and over the drawbar," he says. "Some of those designs persisted into the late 1930s and 1940s. But every Nilson model built had the operator located in the center of the tractor."

The Nilson tractor also had a channel-iron frame and a roller chain drive to the single rear drive wheel. It featured regular automotive-style steering, a non-pivoting front axle and an in-line vertical engine, all of which, Gary notes, "had powerful appeal to me."