Remembering the Days When Small Tractors Did It All

article image
courtesy of Sam Moore
An Allis-Chalmers Model B, which cost $495 at the time (the rough equivalent of $9,100 today), and the A-C Model 40 combine.

When I was a kid during the 1940s, my grandfather owned two adjoining farms in western Pennsylvania totaling about 300 acres. Much of the land was taken up by woods, pastures, and orchards, and I suppose we actually raised crops on less than half of that acreage. Most of the farms around ours were probably about 50 to 150 acres.

Virtually every one of those farmers had a single tractor with which they did all the work required, although a few supplemented the tractor with a team of horses. When I think of those tractors, I’m struck by how much work was done with relatively tiny machines, at least when compared to today’s monsters.

I remember a Fordson in the neighborhood, plus a couple of Allis-Chalmers WC’s and several A-C B’s and C’s. One of the larger farmers had horses and a Farmall F-20, which was later replaced by a Farmall C. There was a Farmall H or two and one Farmall A. On our farm, we at first had a McCormick-Deering 10-20 and two teams of horses. A Farmall F-30, which was a big tractor for the area, replaced the 10-20, and sometime during the early ’40s, the horses were replaced by a Ford-Ferguson tractor.

Wrangling implements on a single tractor

During the 1940s, many farmers managed with a single Allis-Chalmers C (21hp), Farmall H (24hp), John Deere B (18hp), or a Ford-Ferguson (17hp). Hardly anyone had more than one tractor, meaning that mounted implements, such as cultivators, mowing machines, and buck rakes had to be wrestled on and off the tractor several times during the summer as requirements changed.

That was one reason our little Ford-Ferguson was so handy. As the 3-point hitch plow or cultivators took only a few minutes to attach or remove, even a boy like me could do it. The mowing machine was a different matter, however. At some point, we retired the old horse-drawn mower with a cut-off tongue that we’d been using and acquired a brand-new Ferguson agricultural mower.

That mower was a bear to put on. According to the sales literature, the mower “can be taken off or put on quickly and easily, by means of simple connections to built-in brackets on tractor rear axle.” Right! To mount the mower, the 3-point hitch lift arms had to be first removed, and then the heavy mower had to be maneuvered into position so it could be attached to the axle brackets. The lift chain was then hooked to the left hydraulic lift arm, and the PTO connected. At least, the mower could be left in place while using the buck rake, but it had to be removed in order to cultivate.

How big can they go?

The tractor horsepower race began in about 1950 and has continued pretty much unabated for the past seven decades. Farms kept getting bigger, requiring ever-larger implements, which in turn required more power to pull them. The big boys in 1950 were the Massey-Harris 55 with 52hp, the Minneapolis-Moline G with 47hp, the McCormick W-9 with 44hp, and the John Deere R with 43hp.

In 1957, the Steiger brothers built a four-wheel drive, articulated tractor in Minnesota that had a 238hp Detroit Diesel engine. Deere’s 8010 diesel of 1959 had a 215hp Detroit engine.

International Harvester trumped everyone else in 1961 with the 4300. Powered by an IH-built, 300hp turbocharged diesel engine, and equipped with four-wheel drive and steering, the 4300 was the most powerful wheeled agricultural tractor until then.

Unfortunately for IH and Deere, the mass market wasn’t quite ready for such expensive and high horsepower tractors. Through the 1980s, most tractors were between 100hp and 200hp, although each manufacturer offered a line of small machines, many of which were built in Japan.

Today, Case-IH offers the Steiger 620, a four-wheel drive behemoth with a 680hp CIH 12.9-liter engine, available on wheels or tracks. The 620 weighs more than 30 tons with ballast and has a 470-gallon fuel tank, plus an 85-gallon DEF (diesel exhaust fluid) tank. Just imagine filling that tank every day with diesel fuel selling for almost $3 per gallon, while DEF is around $3 to $5 per gallon.

Deere has a 620hp tractor as well, the 9R Series. These big boys, also available in four-wheel and four-track versions, are powered by a Cummins 14.9-liter engine and tip the scale at about 30 tons.

Today’s tractor delivers power – and comfort

No more Arctic Carhartt coveralls, ear flaps and two pairs of gloves while picking corn, or dripping sweat and getting sunburned while baling hay! The operator’s cabs on these beauties are safety glass-enclosed for 360-degree visibility, insulated and soundproofed for quiet running and shirt-sleeve weather year-round. The driver’s seat is as comfortable as your favorite recliner in front of the TV, and usually an additional passenger seat is furnished as well, while a handy lever at your right hand controls speed, gear ratio, and other functions. With GPS controlling the tractor’s direction, and all this comfort, it’d be difficult not to doze off while crossing a long field (I have been known to go to sleep while cultivating corn, much to my father’s disgust at the number of corn plants I took out, and that with no climate-controlled cab and a hard tin seat).

Now the Association of Equipment Manufacturers reports that four-wheel drive tractor sales are down 15 percent this year, while those of smaller machines, under 40hp, have risen by 8.7 percent. I don’t know if this means the tractor horsepower race is coming to an end, or if the high cost of the giant machines along with the price of fuel is having an effect.

Hmmm; I wonder if, in 2099, a well-restored John Deere 9620RX will be some tractor collector’s pride and joy. FC

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

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment