Into Thin Air: The Maxwell Tractor

The much-heralded Maxwell tractor failed to materialize after its 1918 debut.

| June 2015

When it was announced to the tractor-buying public early in 1918, the Maxwell tractor came as a complete surprise. Manufactured by Maxwell Motor Co., Detroit, the machine made its debut after five years of carefully hidden development under an assumed name as it was being perfected on Louisiana sugar and rice plantations.

As Automobile Trade Journal reported in March 1918, “It was at the dinner of the Maxwell-Chalmers dealers (and distributors), which was held in Chicago during the week of the Chicago Show, that the latest addition to the Maxwell line – a new farm tractor – was revealed. It came as a surprise. During this nascent period, as it were, the tractor was known by the pseudonymous name of Chief, which concealed its real identity until such time as the maker saw fit to reveal it. The field engineer of the Maxwell Co., Detroit, Michigan, supervised the testing of the tractor.” Tractor Selling Opportunities magazine said the revelation “created much interest.”

Early entrant to industry

Maxwell Motor Co. was no stranger to motor vehicle production. In 1903, as noted in Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942, automotive innovator Benjamin Briscoe “happened upon Jonathan D. Maxwell, an engineer with experience at both Olds and Northern. (Briscoe) sold out his investment in the Buick (automobile) project and formed a new partnership.”

The company began in Tarrytown, New York, in 1904 as Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Co., with two-thirds of the capital supplied by famed industrialist J.P. Morgan, and the other third by Briscoe. Jonathan Maxwell came up with “a splendid little car featuring a 2-cylinder water-cooled engine.”

Maxwell autos were advertised in bizarre but attention-getting ways. The company was known to stage police chases or drive cars up the steps of venerable buildings. In 1909, the company even launched a cross-country trek by four women. All of the exploits were filmed for later showing. The tactic was successful; by 1910, only Ford and Buick were able to top Maxwell’s sales figures. More than 9,400 Maxwells were produced that year, including the very-popular “Dr. Maxwell” runabout automobile, built especially for physicians.

After its Tarrytown factory was destroyed by fire in 1907, Maxwell came roaring back, building the Indianapolis Foundry in New Castle, Indiana. At that time, it was the largest automobile factory in the world. Maxwell built others at Pawtucket, Rhode Island; Auburn, New York; and Cranston, Rhode Island. Maxwell also built delivery vans, buses and trucks, all using the same 20 hp engine as its cars.