Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Sam Moore explores the history of the Graham-Paige Motor Car Corporation, the Rototiller and the lost Frazer two-plow tractor.
How many of you have seen a Frazer two-plow tractor? No one? Well, that's not surprising, as it seems only one working prototype was ever built, and only one photo of it has survived, as far as I know.
The Frazer tractor was one of the postwar dreams of Joseph Washington Frazer, former president of Willys Overland and a long-time Chrysler sales manager.
In 1926 the Paige-Detroit Motor Car Co. and Graham Brothers' truck-building firm merged to form the Graham-Paige Motor Car Corporation. Graham-Paige built automobiles until the war started, and produced the neat Graham-Bradley tractors that were sold by Sears and Roebuck in the late 1930s. During World War II, the company built torpedoes, engines for PT boats and airplanes, and the amphibious landing tractors the Marines called "alligators." In September 1944, Joseph Frazer gained control of Graham-Paige Motors and became company president, and Joe was bursting with ideas for the glorious day when peace would break out.
The Tractor Field Book for 1940-41 describes several models of the Rototiller, built by Rototiller, Inc. of Troy, N.Y. Based on a Swiss invention, Rototillers were available in cutting widths of 14 to 36 inches. The ads claimed: "Not just another 'walking tractor,' Rototiller plows, discs and harrows to provide an incomparably better seedbed in a single trip over the ground. In a class by itself."
Early in 1945, Graham-Paige secured the rights to build the medium- and large-sized Rototillers, as well as exclusive use of the Rototiller name. G-P established a Farm Equipment Division in August 1945, and announced that Rototillers and a new tractor, as well as other agricultural machinery, would be built at a subsidiary: Warren City Manufacturing Company in Warren, Ohio. Vern R. Drum, vice president and general manager of the plant, said the company planned to operate an experimental farm in the Warren area for the testing and development of new machines. Drum also said that the details of the new Frazer tractor, which was to have many exclusive features, would be announced at a later date. Apparently, Rototillers were built for a time at the Warren facility, but no evidence exists that the proposed experimental farm was ever established.
Frazer's main ambition was to revive Graham-Paige's car business, and the G-P ads of 1945 trumpeted: 'There's a new kind of car a-coming! And Joseph W. Frazer is getting set to build it — at Graham-Paige.' But Graham-Paige didn't have the money to develop the new Frazer, as the car was to be called, so Joe approached Henry J. Kaiser, who had become famous (and rich) by building almost one-third of the thousands of U.S. merchant ships used during World War II. Kaiser had been keen to enter the car business for several years, although in 1944 Motor Magazine commented snidely that "Fear of Kaiser competition has driven none of (the prewar auto makers) into a nervous breakdown."
A Kaiser-Frazer partnership seemed to serve the interests of both parties, so in August 1945 a new Kaiser-Frazer Corporation and Graham-Paige became equal partners. K-F would make the Kaiser car, while G-P would build the Frazer, and, as a separate operation not connected with K-F, agricultural machinery as well. Kaiser-Frazer, with Henry J. Kaiser as chairman of the board, and Joe Frazer as president and general manager, leased the huge Ford bomber plant that now lay idle in Willow Run, Mich. Both the medium-sized Frazer and the smaller Kaiser were to be built at Willow Run, along with Graham-Paige's tractor, farm equipment and Rototiller lines.
Starting in April 1946, Rototillers were built at Willow Run and sold through Kaiser-Frazer car dealers, along with some lawn, garden and farm equipment dealers. Powered by a Graham-Paige (Simar-Swiss) one-cylinder, two-cycle, air-cooled 5 hp engine, the machine had a 20- or 26-inch cut. The company claimed to have 100,000 orders for the tillers, and the future looked bright.
A March 1946 ad discussed the proposed Frazer tractor, and claimed it would be built to the modern power farming requirements that farmers themselves had demanded; i.e., it must have ample power, and it must save time and labor. The new tractor would meet these requirements, being a universal-type with power to pull a two-bottom plow under the toughest conditions. It would have hydraulic controlled, quick-hitch attachments, and many other long-desired features, as well as be available at a popular price.
A running prototype of the Frazer tractor was built in April 1946, but not much is known about it, except that is had a flat-head, four-cylinder Continental engine. The one known photo of this machine is a poor quality, three-quarter view of the left rear. It looks like a conventional, tri-cycle tractor of the day, with 10'x38' tires on the same Motor Wheel Company wheels used by Cockshutt and several other tractor builders. There are clamshell fenders on which the headlights are mounted, an unusually high seat, a power take off and a rear-mounted hydraulic pump (although there is just a swinging draw bar with no sign of a quick hitch for attachments). The rounded, sheet metal nose has rows of oval holes instead of a screen, while the engine compartment is completely enclosed with full, louvered hood sides. The chassis and sheet metal are painted a light color, and the wheels are dark; the actual colors are unknown. The Frazer name is in dark, slanting letters at the front of the hood side, with two dark stripes extending back along the sides.
Development of the tractor was suspended, 'due to post-war material shortages,' and never resumed. Graham-Paige ads in the farm magazines of the day featured Rototillers, as well as eight-foot, tractor double discs and a four-section, spike-tooth harrow that could 'fold to 11 feet for gate clearance.' It seems doubtful that any of these implements were ever built.
Although Rototillers sold well initially, Graham-Paige made only minimum profit on each one, and none of the other farm equipment was ever produced. By the end of 1946, Graham-Paige was losing money, and couldn't meet its financial obligations to K-F. Early in 1947, Frazer sold G-P's automobile operation to Kaiser, although he retained the Frazer Farm Equipment Company, which he moved to a plant in York, Penn. Joe Frazer stayed on the K-F board for a few years, but he was gradually eased out by Henry Kaiser and his son, Edgar, who succeeded Frazer as K-F president.
Frazer Farm Equipment struggled on for several years, and even built a small, one-plow tractor in some quantity. That story, however, will have to wait for a future column.FC
Ever since his days as a boy on a farm in western Pennsylvania, Sam Moore has been interested in tractors, trucks, and machinery. Now a resident of Salem, Ohio, he collects antique tractors, implements and related items.