Let's Talk Rusty Iron: With only 725 made, the Hart-Part Little Devil tractor is a rare collector's item today, but farmer's weren't impressed when it was introduced.
More than 10 years ago, the Donald Sell estate sold a large collection of tractors at auction in Perryton, Texas. One of those machines was a super-rare Hart-Parr Little Devil that brought $33,000, a big price for an antique tractor in those days, but not so much today, when such a tractor would probably bring six figures.
The Floyd County Historical Society in Charles City, Iowa (where Hart-Parr, Oliver and White tractors were built from 1901 to 1993), started raising money as soon as members heard about the auction, and managed to accumulate enough to buy the Little Devil and another rare Hart-Parr, a circa-1914 Model 20-40.
The Floyd County Museum's Little Devil, which was restored by Mr. Sell, is one of three known surviving examples of the tractor. There is (or was 10 years ago) a fairly complete but unrestored Little Devil at the Western Development Museum at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada. The late Harold Ottaway, Wichita, Kan., spent more than 12 years tracking down enough parts to restore another that is now owned by John Tysse of Crosby, N.D. Mr. Tysse's Hart-Parr Little Devil is exhibited every year at the Divide County Pioneer Threshing Bee in Crosby, S.D. (The 2007 show will be held July 20-22.)
Introduced in 1914, the Little Devil tractor was Hart-Parr's answer to the demand for a light, inexpensive tractor. A total of 725 Little Devils were built over the following two years. At the time Hart-Parr was probably the most respected tractor builder in the country, but the new offering was a technical disaster, and the company spent a lot of money recalling the tractor that came to be known as Hart-Parr's biggest embarrassment.
Weighing slightly more than 3 tons, light for the time, the Little Devil rode on three wheels: a single, centered rear drive wheel, 64 inches in diameter and 26 inches wide with open, v-shaped lugs, and two smaller front wheels set far enough apart to straddle two corn rows for cultivating.
The Hart-Parr-built engine was a 2-cylinder, 2-cycle design that ran at 600 rpm. The horizontal cylinders had a 5.5-by-7-inch bore and stroke, and were cooled by an "automatic, anti-freezing (oil), cooling system."
Hart-Parr described the Little Devil's engine as having "No cams, cam gears or pushrods. No valves, valve levers, springs or flippers of any kind and no valve timing. (With) not one thing about them to adjust or get out of adjustment." Rated at 15 hp on the drawbar and 22 hp on the belt, the machine was advertised as "A Good LITTLE Devil" that will "Fit your farm to a T." Another ad said: "The Little Devil does the work of eight bang-up good horses." Another urged farmers to "Let the Devil Do Your Work." In 1915, you could make a pact with the devil to do your work for just $850, F.O.B., Charles City, Iowa.
There was no differential, since there was only a single drive wheel, and the simple transmission provided only forward and reverse. Since the engine was 2-cycle, it would run equally well in either direction and this feature provided two speeds forward and two in reverse. With the engine turning in a clockwise direction, the tractor would run at 3.3 mph forward and 2.25 mph backwards. If the engine was turning counterclockwise, the speeds would be 2.25 mph forward and 3.3 mph in reverse.
An interesting story about that feature was told to Harold Ottaway by an old-time Hart-Parr dealer named Roy Kite of Bird City, Kan. If hard going was encountered while plowing with a Little Devil, it seems that the engine could lug down to the point where it would kick back and start running in the opposite direction. As you can imagine, this resulted in the tractor immediately backing into, and probably over, the plow at full throttle.
One former owner said of his Hart-Parr Little Devil: "It wasn't worth a damn when it was new. I could have done as much work with a pair of oxen!" After several repair calls on this man's Little Devil, the Hart-Parr dealer offered to trade him a used 30-60 Hart-Parr for the Little Devil, apparently at no expense to the farmer. He gladly accepted and got the 30-60, with which he was well pleased. The Little Devil was never picked up and its remains furnished parts for Mr. Ottaway's restoration.
Another former owner, who bought a used Little Devil and a 3-bottom plow for $125 in 1922, was a little more charitable. In a letter to Mr. Ottaway he wrote: "Well, I plowed that fall until the ground froze - turned over better than 100 acres. I learned to go from farmyard to the field on one cylinder as the engine, like most 2-cycles, did a lot of missing unless it was under a load. Then it settled into a beautiful deep exhaust and sounded exactly like a big 4-cylinder. It had no trouble pulling the three 14-inch bottoms, but I never stopped the engine from morning until night. The motor, once it was hot, usually started very hard."
One Little Devil advertising folder from 1915 contains an intriguing remark: "Our 'LITTLE ANGEL' Oil Tractor, FOR ORCHARD CULTIVATION, with specifications very similar to the 'Little Devil' is built low down: height only 5 feet overall. If you have an orchard to cultivate or want a low down tractor for any other purpose, write for prices and full description of the 'LITTLE ANGEL.'" I can find no evidence that Hart-Parr ever actually built any Little Angel tractors, but finding one would be a real coup for any collector.
An interesting aside: In December 1916, Ivel Agricultural Motors Ltd. of Biggleswade, Bedfordshire in England, announced that it would market the Hart-Parr Little Devil in Britain as the "Ivel-Hart." It's unknown if any Little Devils were actually shipped to England.
The author is indebted to articles by Harold Ottaway and Ray Hoffman in Antique Power magazine for some of the information on the Little Devil tractor, as well as to Mary Ann Townsend at the Floyd County Museum for information and photos.
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at email@example.com