John Crofoot and his Thrifty Farmer.
John Crofoot of New Era, Michigan, was familiar with his Thrifty Farmer tractor long before he bought it in 2014. The tractor was once owned by Leonard Clous, longtime president and founding member of the Buckley Old Engine Club. A member of the northern Michigan club for many years, John drove the Thrifty Farmer in several parades at the club’s annual show in August.
John’s Thrifty Farmer tractor is based on a 1928 Model A Ford with a conversion kit sold in the 1930s by Sears, Roebuck & Co. The kits sold for about $100 and initially were available for Ford Model T or Model A vehicles only. Later, kits became available for the 1929-31 Chevrolets. All of those early cars had 4-cylinder engines.
Thrifty Farmer kits were listed in Sears spring and fall catalogs from 1932 to 1941. By 1935, Sears had added kits for newer Ford V-8 powered cars along with Plymouth, Dodge and Chevrolet autos with 6-cylinder engines.
The kits were produced by Peru (Illinois) Wheel Co., about 60 miles southwest of Chicago. On John’s tractor, PERU and parts numbers are cast in the front wheels and the rear wheel “hub caps.”
John’s Thrifty Farmer is based on a 1928 Ford Model A.
Pulling power of two to four horses
A 1932 Sears Thrifty Farmer booklet notes that, “With the Ford body removed, and without drilling a single hole, you can in a few hours convert the old Ford into a tractor that has the pulling power of two to four horses, depending on the condition of the motor.” The working speed of the engine after the tractor conversion was 1,200rpm. The motor in a new 1928 Model A was rated at 40 brake horsepower at 2,200rpm.
The final drive system was fairly complex, employing a jackshaft and a series of four gears on each rear wheel. The gears are mounted “high off the ground away from loose soil and trash” and are “covered on top and sides by a strong steel hood to keep out mud and protect the operator.”
Within two years, Sears released a less complicated version of the kit. Transferring power to the rear wheels now employed nine-tooth pinion gears, attached to each rear axle, which engaged large diameter ring (bull) gears mounted on each wheel. The rear end (differential) of the car had to be flipped, end for end, as part of the assembly process. If it weren’t flipped, there would be three reverse speeds and one very slow forward.
The rubber tread on the tractor’s front and rear wheels was salvaged from a skid-steer.
Peru Wheel Co. also supplied kits to Montgomery Ward & Co., called a Utility Tractor Unit, a few years before they began supplying a very similar kit to Sears. The main differences in the two kits were the diameters of the bull gears and rear wheels. The Sears gear measured 37 inches in diameter with 108 teeth, while the Wards gear was 40 inches and 120 teeth, mounted on 45-inch and 50-1/2-inch wheels respectively. Since Montgomery Ward part numbers were cast into the bull gears and the axle clamps used by both of the large retailers, people were often misled as to which kit was used to build a particular tractor.
Early conversion kits were sold before 1920. Ultimately, more than 100 kit manufacturers operated coast to coast. Some of the brands available in the U.S. and Canada included Staude, Knickerbocker, Shaw and OTACO.
Special attention to the wheels
Although many old cars were converted to light-duty tractors, John wonders how many have survived. His tractor was found, many years ago, in a fence row and was put back into running condition “as is.” In 40 years, he has seen only a few of them at tractor and engine shows in Michigan and Florida.
When he got his Thrifty Farmer, the rear wheels were equipped with spade lugs. With these in place, John was reluctant to drive the tractor onto his trailer, afraid that it would damage the wood deck. Instead, a forklift was used to set it in position. Back home, before removing it from the trailer, he jacked the tractor up and removed a total of 48 lugs, each one attached with two bolts. “It was a lot easier to do that when it was up in the air,” he says.
He planned to add rubber to the wheels. A neighbor had a set of take-off rubber tracks from a Caterpillar skid-steer loader that John thought he could use. He only needed one track, but was told he had to take both of them for free – a deal he couldn’t refuse. The first thing to do was remove the drive lugs molded to the underside of the track.
The conversion kit used on this Thrifty Farmer cost about $100 in the 1930s (roughly $1,700 today).
Where the rubber meets the road
For that operation, a chainsaw was the tool of choice. First, he cut across the track so it could be positioned flat across two sawhorses. Amid smoke and rubber sawdust, he successfully cut off the lugs. He used a Sawzall to slit the track lengthwise into two strips for his 7-1/2-inch-wide wheels with very little material left over. He mounted his new “tires” to the 45-inch-diameter rear wheels with carriage bolts.
The front wheels, supplied in the kit, had non-skid attachments. The two attachments were formed of arc-shaped sections of 1-3/4-inch angle iron, each covering half the wheel. When bolted on, they formed a narrow steel rib in the center of the wheel. That made steering easier, especially in loose soil.
John removed these before adding rubber to the front wheels. He got two used pickup truck tires, in the exact diameter needed, from another neighbor. He cut off the sidewalls, pried the treads on the wheels and bolted them in place. He could then drive the tractor onto his trailer, and anywhere else, without causing any damage.
The driver’s seat came with the Thrifty Farmer kit; John added the passenger seat, steps and a storage box.
Sending a Model T down the road
John enjoys driving the Model A, with a conventional 3-speed transmission and a familiar electrical system. For two years he also owned a Thrifty Farmer built on a 1925 Model T chassis with its more complicated foot-shift transmission and old-style electrics. He decided to sell that tractor in 2017.
An ad in Yesterday’s Tractors resulted in a call from Keith Ladage, a Sears tractor collector in Illinois. A week later, Keith showed up with an envelope holding the asking price in cash. All concerned were happy that day. Since then, John has occasionally experienced a pang of seller’s remorse, but feels the old T went to a good home. And in fact, Keith now owns three Thrifty Farmer tractors.
The tractor’s Model A engine.
Making it his own
Early on with the Model A, John spent some time repeatedly cleaning rust out of the gas tank. With the rust-free tank, the old tractor ran fine. About five years later, he rebuilt the water pump. The tractor does not run fast, less than 4 miles per hour, but in high gear on a road, it’s noisy. “It sounds like it wants to come apart,” he said.
This tractor has been personalized over the years. John added a step on each side to make it easier to get on and off the tractor. The driver’s seat came in the kit. Later, a passenger’s seat was added. The rear-mounted storage box, with a seat built into the lid, was constructed in the wood shop of the Buckley Old Engine Club. It is also equipped with guards over the bull gears. He’s heard from other collectors that few Thrifty Farmers survived with the guards intact.
The pinion gear engaged in the large ring (or bull) gear.
Sears offered special tillage equipment. From the booklet: “These implements are built in the famous David Bradley factory. There, our engineers designed this equipment especially for the Thrifty Farmer.” Included were three types of cultivators, a weeder, a tiller and attachments for a walking plow.
John has kept all the original parts he has taken off the tractor and will have them available to whoever might end up with this Thrifty Farmer in the future. However, that future may be far off. Even though his real passion is for hit-and-miss and other vintage engines, he does enjoy both displaying and riding on his tractor based on a 91-year-old Ford automobile. FC
This diagram from a Sears brochure shows the early model Thrifty Farmer multi-gear drive system.
The author gratefully acknowledges Chad Elmore, Dave Elmore, Glenn Heim and Keith Ladage, who provided background material.
For more information: John Crofoot, phone (231) 301-4867; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Freelance writer Jerry Mattson writes articles on tractors, other farm-related equipment, automobiles and motorcycles. Email him at email@example.com.