Let’s Talk Rusty Iron

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Opposite left: A 1937 Model KVW, or “Klear View Wide,” once owned by the author. It’s the same length and height as the KV, although a wider front axle and a 6-inch spacer between the rear axle housing and the final drive on each side give it a wider stance. The cultivator has Oliver shovels and pin-break shanks, while two foot levers allow the gangs to be steered on crooked rows. Centaur also used Oliver bottoms, coulters and jointers on their plows.
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Above: A postwar LeRoi Tractair. The engine and air compressor used separate cylinder blocks, but shared a common crankshaft.
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Below: A Centaur Model 2G with a LeRoi engine.
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Left: A Centaur highway mower from the 1930s. The LeRoi engine is the same as that used on the Model 2G, except the radiator is in the front. (Photos by Sam Moore.)
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Below: A Centaur Model F with a New Way engine and two handles for steering.
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Above: Cover of a sales brochure for the Centaur KV, showing the view from the driver’s seat.

Centaur tractors as adaptable as their mythical
namesake

From Greek mythology comes the story of a King
of Thessaly, named Ixion, who fell in love with (and tried to win)
Hera, the goddess of women and marriage, who just happened to be
the wife (and sister) of Zeus, chief of the gods. For his
effrontery, Ixion was tied to an endlessly revolving wheel in the
infernal regions of Tartarus, but not before he had sired a race of
creatures called Centaurs, who had the head, arms and torso of a
man, joined to the body of a horse. Centaurs were said to be very
fleet of foot and great hunters, and usually were pictured with
curly hair and beards, and armed with a bow and arrows.

Many centuries later, in 1921, the Central Tractor Co.
introduced a small farm tractor named after that mythical half-man,
half-beast because, as copywriters pointed out, the new tractor
“Does the Work of Man and Horse.”

Located in Greenwich, a small, neat town in north central Ohio,
the firm’s first offering was the Centaur Model F, which was
intended more as a truck garden machine than a farm tractor.
Powered by a 1-cylinder, 5 hp New Way engine, the Model F was built
like a walk-behind garden tractor, with conventional plow-type
handles for steering. Also available: a 2-wheeled riding sulky to
which a plow or cultivator could be attached. Promotional materials
noted it was intended to “take the farmer off his feet and put him
on the seat.”

In about 1926, a larger and more powerful Centaur was
introduced. Intended to replace a team of horses on the average
small farm, the Model G had a 2-cylinder LeRoi engine rated at 6 hp
on the drawbar and 10 hp on the belt. The engine was water-cooled
and the radiator was behind the engine, facing the driver. The
tractor had one forward and one reverse gear, was chain-driven and
could pull a single 12-inch plow. Although the Model G still had
the drive wheels up front under the engine, a proper steering wheel
reached back to the trailing sulky and steered the rig through a
rack-and-pinion arrangement between the sulky and the power
unit.

A pulley could be attached to the front of the tractor for
driving small, belt-powered machines. Implements for the Centaur,
probably built by the Oliver Corporation, included a plow,
cultivator, harrows, seeders and potato digger, all attached to the
riding sulky. Most any horse-drawn implement, such as a corn
planter, mowing machine or a hay rake, could be substituted for the
sulky by shortening the tongue and having the operator drive the
tractor from the implement seat.

In 1929, the Central Tractor Co. became the Centaur Tractor
Corporation and began selling an improved tractor, the Model 2G,
which was virtually identical to its predecessor except for a
slightly more powerful engine. The 2G’s LeRoi Model T engine had a
1/4-inch larger bore and produced an additional 2 hp, although the
tractor was still rated to pull one 12-inch plow. Indications are
that the Model 2G Centaur was built until at least 1937.

During the 1930s, the firm built a variation of the Model 2G
specifically designed for highway mowing. This little, 58-inch
wheelbase tractor used the same clutch, transmission, differential
and LeRoi engine (although with the radiator out in front) as were
used on the Model 2G. A front axle and small rubber-tired wheels
were added at the front, while the rear drive wheels had larger
rubber-tired wheels. A rear-mounted sickle bar mower was provided,
along with a belt-driven hydraulic pump to raise and lower it.
Apparently, not many of these highway mowing machines were built,
but a few have survived.

By the early 1930s, the front-drive, sulky-ridden tractors had
become obsolete, with farmers demanding more power, more features
and, especially, more comfort and ease of operation. This set the
stage for a totally new tractor, the Model KV, which was introduced
about 1935.

The Centaur KV, or “Klear View,” was a conventional,
four-wheeled machine, powered by a LeRoi 4-cylinder engine, with a
bore and stroke of 3-1/8-by-4-inches. Advertised output of the
123-ci engine was 22 hp at 1,600 rpm. A 4-speed transmission gave
operating speeds of 2.5, 5, 10 and 20 mph. The differential was
actually in front of the driver, with the roller chain final drives
and rear wheels extending to the rear along each side of the
driver’s legs. The seat was suspended just behind the fenders and
right over the 1-bottom plow (or 1-row cultivator).

Centaur advertised 54 inches of clear row vision, allowing a
fast, clean job of cultivating, whether the rows were straight or
crooked. Capable of pulling one 14-inch plow, which was hand-lifted
by the same lever as the cultivator, the KV had a 5-foot wheelbase
and was just 45 inches high and 45 inches wide overall. This low
and narrow stance made the KV an ideal machine for vineyard or
orchard use, and company advertising called the Centaur “unbeatable
for cultivating.”

KV tractors came with 7.50-by-24 rear and 5.25-by-16 front tires
as standard equipment, although steel wheels were available, as was
a belt pulley. In 1935, very few farm tractors could be ordered
with electric starting, but a starting and lighting package was
optional on the KV series from the beginning.

The KV was streamlined in 1939, and equipped with an
overhead-valve LeRoi engine. Centaur sold the Greenwich plant to
LeRoi in 1940, and tractor production seems to have ended, probably
due to wartime restrictions. After the war, many Centaur tractors
were built for use as highway mowers and LeRoi got out of the
agricultural market.

LeRoi also built a combined tractor/air compressor called the
Tractair. In 1954, LeRoi became a part of Dresser Industries, and
operations of the Centaur Division were moved from Greenwich to
Sidney, Ohio. All tractor production ended sometime in the
1960s.

Unfortunately, all Centaur tractor records were destroyed at the
time of the move from Greenwich to Sidney, so no one knows how many
of the little gray tractors were built. Survivors are few and far
between, but they are out there, especially in Ohio.

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 e-mail at
letstalkrustyiron@copper.net

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