Power Grab: The Tractor Horsepower Race

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courtesy Robert Pripps
Case built 110hp steam engines like this between 1913 and 1925.

In 1781, as the story goes, Scotsman James Watt struggled to convince skeptics to buy his new steam engine as a replacement for their draft horses. To prove his machine’s superiority, he measured the pulling force of a horse walking in circles to turn a mill grindstone. Multiplying its pulling force (approximately 180 pounds) by the distance covered in one minute (a little over 180 feet), Watt came up with a new unit of measure: horsepower.

Perhaps the horse could have pulled harder, or could have been urged to go faster – or Watt could have gotten a bigger horse. Nevertheless, what Watt came up with – 550 foot-pound-seconds – was established as horsepower, a rate of doing work.

Watt’s steam engine, by the way, proved to be the equivalent of 33 horses. With that, he began the trend that would eventually, almost completely, replace the horse with mechanical horsepower. On the farm, where the problem is that all the work needs to be done at once, more horsepower has helped to provide the solution.

direct haulage plowing
In the latter half of the 19th century, steam provided the needed horsepower. Watt’s 18th century engine, however, was a far cry from the steam engines we now see at antique farm power shows. Metallurgy limitations in the 16th and 17th centuries precluded the manufacture of accurate cylinders, and the cylinders of that era could not withstand much pressure. In fact, Watt’s early engines used evaporating steam to evacuate the cylinder so as to allow atmospheric pressure to force the piston to travel its stroke.

The romance of steam

The mystique of the steam engineer seems to be universal. People of all ages look up to steam engineers as they pass by, high up in the chuffing behemoth’s cab, be it on rails, the farm or at a thresheree. This was also the case at the dawn of the 20th century, especially on the farm. The main jobs of the steam engine then were plowing and driving a thresher. Steam also powered the sawmills that made the lumber that built America’s cities.

Steam-powered custom threshing was an institution in rural America for decades. In its heyday, the ranks of traveling custom threshermen rose to as many as 75,000 grease-besmirched, tobacco-chewing, and dedicated individuals, who worked long hours, sometimes sleeping outside, for financial rewards that were modest at best.

Steam engines of 20hp to 50hp were used to power and pull the threshers. With more power, larger threshing machines could be used, increasing the amount of grain threshed in a day. In 1911, engine builders began using brake horsepower (bhp) in their ratings, rather than the previously used “nominal horsepower,” which could mean almost anything. With brake horsepower, force (load) and speed (rate) were simultaneously varied to find the highest horsepower that the engine was capable of.

It was in plowing that the steam traction engine really proved its mettle. It was said that the vast prairies west of the 100th meridian had long been neglected because of the lack of power to break the stiff virgin sod. By 1904, engine power began to increase. Gang plows with multiple bottoms were available, as were steam plow-lift attachments. This led to the ultimate steamer, the 110hp Case. Experiments indicated that it took 8-10hp to pull a 14-inch plow through average soil. The big Case steamer was demonstrated with a 14-bottom plow.

Gasoline fueled tractors – and an industry

Early development of the gasoline tractor followed that of the steam engine. Initially, stationary engines were mounted to skids to make them portable. Wheels were added, then a drive mechanism and then a means of steering. Finally, a drawbar was added and the concept was complete.

The first such tractor was built by Charter Gas Engine Co., Sterling, Illinois. John Charter’s 1889 patent covered the use of liquid fuel (gasoline). Prior to that, engines had been fueled by everything from natural gas to coal dust. The need for lubricants in the machine age had brought forward the petroleum industry. When refining petroleum to make oil and grease, a highly volatile byproduct – gasoline – was distilled. Because of its flammability, it became like a drug on the market.

With the acceptance of gasoline as an engine fuel, both the petroleum and engine businesses took off. Charter mounted his 20bhp gasoline engine on a Rumely steam engine running gear. He was able to sell six of these single-cylinder machines, even though they were incapable of reversing.

Froelich tractor sets the pace

The first tractor capable of propelling itself both backward and forward was the 1892 Froelich. John Froelich, of Froelich, Iowa, mounted a Van Duzen 20bhp gasoline engine on a Robinson Co. steam engine frame. The engine was a single-cylinder type, equipped with a flyball governor and battery ignition. He devised his own drive and steering systems. Later, Froelich joined with venture capitalists to form Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Co., Waterloo, Iowa. That company later built the Waterloo Boy tractor. John Deere purchased the company in 1918, thereby getting Deere into the tractor business.

These early gas tractors soon became known by two horsepower ratings: belt and drawbar, the two means the machine had of doing work. Drawbar power was usually about half of the belt power. The power required to move the tractor over the ground was about half of that available. The advent of rubber tires in the early 1930s vastly reduced rolling resistance, changing that formula.

In the 15 years that gas tractors had been available to farmers, two characteristics emerged. First, the tractors took on the general appearance of steam tractors, and second, like steam engines, they got bigger and bigger. While the Froelich tractor was relatively small (20hp and weighing about 2 tons), the average tractor size was soon more accurately represented by the 1913 Avery 40-80, which weighed more than 11 tons.

The famous Winnipeg Trials focused attention on the plowing acreage-per-hour rate that the big tractors were capable of making. The 21,000-pound International Harvester Titan demonstrated a plowing rate of 2.54 acres per hour in 1913. That, of course, was impressive, especially if you farmed in the Great Plains of the U.S and Canada, or had one of the huge California spreads. But at the turn of the 20th century, fully two-thirds of American farmers were working less than 40 acres of land. By the time they pastured and hayed enough land to feed a team of horses or mules and several cows, there was not much land left for cultivation. There was no way such farmers could even consider power farming.

The debut of the lightweight tractor

By 1913, several factors combined to change the plight of the small-acreage farmer. The first was the drive to consolidate small farms into larger holdings. The second was the opening of the vast areas of the Great Plains to homesteaders, with 160 acres of land allotted to each. And finally, in September of that year, a tractor sensation – the Little Bull – was offered for sale at the affordable price of $335 FOB (the rough equivalent of $8,681 today). The price of the Little Bull was about the same as that of a good team of horses.

Bull Tractor Co., Minneapolis, introduced its lightweight Little Bull at the Minnesota State Fair in 1913. It employed a single driving wheel on the right side, an un-powered balancing wheel on the left, and a single front wheel for steering (also on the right). The front wheel and drive wheel were to run in the previously plowed furrow. A leveling arrangement was included with the balance (or idler) wheel, so that the tractor could run level whether or not its two right wheels were in a furrow.

Equipped with a 2-cylinder horizontally opposed engine, the Little Bull was rated at 12hp on the belt and 6hp on the drawbar. This trim little 3,000-pound machine rattled the industry. By the end of 1914, more than 4,000 had been sold. Bull Tractor Co. quickly became the industry sales leader, displacing mighty International Harvester.

But prosperity was fleeting for the fledgling Bull Tractor Co. By the end of the year, many (if not most) buyers were howling that they had been stung. The Little Bull had not been sufficiently tested. Soon, manufacturing difficulties and reliability problems drove Bull Tractor Co. into bankruptcy.

Nevertheless, Bull left a lasting impact on the tractor industry. A plethora of lightweights – some good, some not – soon flooded the market. Some were not truly lightweights, such as the 26-44 Wallis Cub, at about 4,000 pounds; the 15-30 Waterloo Boy, 6,000 pounds; or the International Harvester 10-20 Titan, 5,700 pounds. Tractors in this class, although expensive, were more likely to satisfy their owners.

Fordson takes the field by storm

The advent of World War I spurred unprecedented change in rural America. Initially, it caused the demand for tractors to increase, as American farmers were called upon to provide food for much of the world. As the build-up accelerated, many young farm workers were inducted into military service. At the same time, the armed services acquired all the horses for the war effort that they could get their hands on.

Perhaps the most significant development in the history of the tractor occurred at this time: the Fordson. From the genius of Henry Ford, the 20hp (belt) – 10hp (drawbar), 2,700-pound tractor set the standards for farm tractors for the next several decades. Just as Ford revolutionized the automobile market with his inexpensive and reliable Model T, the same phenomena occurred with the Fordson tractor. Ford’s amazing assembly-line practices were applied to the production of the Fordson, and farmers soon realized they could not afford to be without one. The Fordson became the largest-selling tractor in the world with prices dropping to below $400.

The onslaught of the Fordson caused a winnowing of the tractor market. Only the fittest survived. Full-line firms, such as Case and International Harvester, met the competition head-on, developing first-rate tractors that went beyond the limitations of the Fordson. The IH Farmall established the trend toward row-crop configuration tractors.

Row-crop all-purpose tractors ruled the field of the under-100-acre farmer until Henry Ford did it again. In 1939, Ford teamed with Harry Ferguson of England to produce their Model 9N: a 20/18hp, 2,000-pound tractor (rubber tires were standard), which relied on Ferguson’s hydraulic 3-point implement hitch for traction. The little Ford-Ferguson could plow 1 acre per hour – a rate only equaled by tractors with twice the horsepower pulling trailer plows. The Ford-Ferguson established what became known as the Utility configuration, which eventually supplanted row-crop models.

Big Bud 747 was powered by a 760hp V-16 engine

The tractor horsepower race

The post-World War II years ushered in another age of consolidation. Farm size grew as men returned home from the war with ambitions for specialized work, fueled by the offer of college under the G.I. Bill. When sons and daughters moved away from the farm, small farmers sold out to their neighbors. Soon, 300 acres was considered a small farm. Grain, corn and soybean farms often exceeded 1,000 acres. Now more horsepower was needed.

At first, tractor manufacturers didn’t see the need. Farmers handy with a wrench found ways of getting the horsepower they needed by swapping engines, or pairing two tractors into a conversion that delivered twice the power and four-wheel drive. During the war, Ford made pickups and vans with the 4-cylinder Ford tractor engine in place of the 6-cylinder or (V-8) as a fuel-saving measure.

Enterprising entrepreneurs soon realized that the switch could be made the other way and began selling conversions, putting Ford 6- and 8-cylinder engines in the Ford tractor. Even at governed engine speeds of 2,500rpm, the little tractors became the most powerful commercially available tractors of the day. Thousands were sold. One handy individual even installed a Lincoln V-12 in one, but he probably did not work it too hard.

In 1960, the average farm tractor had 40-50 belt (now PTO) horsepower. Today, that is the average for compact tractors. The largest of the two-wheel drive tractors today has more horsepower than some four-wheel drives of the 1970s. Also, in the ’70s, tractor power (except for lawn tractors) went exclusively to diesels. Toward the end of the century, however, tillage practices and high costs led to a decline in horsepower from its peak in the 1980s.

Crossing the 100hp barrier

With its RD-8 crawler, Caterpillar was the first manufacturer to break the 100hp barrier in 1936 as recorded by the University of Nebraska. The 34,000-pound tractor featured a 6-cylinder diesel engine of 1,246 cubic inches. Cletrac soon followed with both its FD (diesel) and FG (gasoline) crawler models.

The first two-wheel drive wheel-type tractor to exceed 100 brake horsepower was the 1962 John Deere 5010. Its 53-cubic-inch, 6-cylinder diesel made 121 PTO horsepower. To harness this two-wheel drive power without excessive slippage, 24.5×32-inch rear tires were used with a burdened weight of more than 17,000 pounds. Allis-Chalmers also entered a two-wheel drive machine in 1963 at 103hp, the Model D-21.

Once the 100hp genie was out of the bottle, everyone wanted one. All the manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon. The Case 1031 and the Minneapolis-Moline G-1000 were entered in 1966 as two-wheel drive models. Four-wheel drives came into the picture with the Steiger brothers of Fargo, North Dakota, in 1958, and in 1959, with the John Deere 8010, the International 4300 in 1962, and the Case 1200 in 1964.

The Steiger and the Deere were also the first farm tractors to exceed 200hp. The Minneapolis-Moline G-706 LPG was the first 100hp-plus tractor tested at the University of Nebraska with front-wheel assist (FWA) arriving in 1963. FWA did not become popular until the 1980s, however.

Big Bud, built in 1968 in Havre, Montana, led the horsepower race. Their 1976 KT-450 had a 450hp Cummins engine. The Big Bud 1978 model used on some California and other western farms boasted of a 16-cylinder 760hp engine. Although rarely used on farms (except for deep sub-soiling), the giant $2 million Caterpillar D11 is still the horsepower champion at 850.

So, you have a 10hp Farmall Cub and a single-bottom 12-inch plow. You should be able to plow your field just as well as the big boys. It will just take you longer! FC

After 36 years in the aircraft industry, Bob Pripps returned to his first love and began writing about tractors. He has authored some 30 books on the subject and several magazine articles. Pripps has a maple syrup farm near Park Falls, Wisconsin. In harvesting the maple sap, he relies on a Ford Jubilee and a Massey Ferguson 85.

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