A Minnesota man assembles a set of rare and unusual garden tractors.
Ron Gittins’ goal in life is to procure unusual old iron. By most accounts, he’s achieved his goal. Between the garden tractors he uses and those he restores, he’s built a collection of 20 rigs – and there’s nothing common in the mix.
Ron, who lives in Buffalo, Minnesota, launched his collection innocently enough. While sifting through an online auction in April 2005, looking for parts for his 1994 Wheel Horse 520-H garden tractor, he saw something unusual. “I found a 1971 Wheel Horse Bronco garden tractor with two 8 hp Kohler engines,” he says. “I decided I had to have it, and that’s the one that started my collection.”
The out-of-the-ordinary Bronco (built by Wheel Horse Products Co., South Bend, Indiana) was a good fit for a man with a preference for what he refers to as “the odd stuff.” And having worked on a farm as a kid, Ron found that relics like the Bronco are a tangible link to days gone by.
The Bronco’s front engine has an electric start that powers a centrifugal clutch. “When that engages,” Ron says, “it starts the front engine, which runs the hydro transmission. You can have one or both engines running at any given time, but to move the tractor, the rear engine must be running.”
Ron’s introduction to his 1955 David Bradley Tri-Trac also had a certain random quality. His first glimpse of the unit, which was built by David Bradley Equipment Co., Bradley, Illinois, for Sears, Roebuck & Co., was in reprinted manuals he found online. “When I saw those line drawings,” he says, “I had to have one.” After finding one advertised online, he hooked a 16-foot enclosed trailer onto his Dodge 3/4-ton pickup and set out for California, Kentucky.
When Ron’s Tri-Trac was built in 1954, it was sold by Sears for $495 (about $4,320 today). “I heard it took them seven years to sell all of them, because the Tri-Trac was a 3-wheeled machine, and the people they were intended for – small farmers mostly – felt that it was a little tippy. And because of the three wheels, it is. Otherwise, it drives very well and is easy to turn. I use mine just for shows, although it does run.”
Catalog pricing is solid evidence of a lackluster market response. Sears began cutting prices almost immediately. In its first year of production, 1954, the Tri-Trac was offered at $595. A year later, the price dropped to $495; a year after that, it dropped another $100, to $395.
A later entrant into the company’s line, the 1955 Sears Craftsman garden tractor is a compact package – literally. When Ron bought a Craftsman in Pennsylvania six years ago, he figured shipping it via FedEx (for $200) would be cheaper than a road trip. “It came to me in three boxes,” he says. “It just weighs 110 pounds. When I got it, I had it painted and assembled it. It didn’t take much to put it together. I could figure it out just by looking at it.”
At least some of the Sears Craftsman tractors were built by Hiller Engineering Corp., Redwood City, California. Hiller also built Yard Hand tractors for three years in the 1950s. The Yard Hand and the Craftsman wore different colors (the Craftsman was gray and black with blue stripes; the Yard Hand was red and black), but were otherwise identical. Ron recently added a Hiller pull-behind mower to his collection, and it fits his Craftsman tractor like it was designed for it – which it basically was.
“The Yard Hand was offered with a reel mower and a grass catcher,” he says. “It sold for $258 in the mid-1950s.” The Craftsman is a rare tractor, he adds. “I saw one for sale online two years ago,” he says, “but I’ve never seen another one at a show.”
Like several of Ron’s tractors, his COPAR Panzer Model A is a combination, in the sense that it has a Chrysler rear end and an 8 hp Briggs & Stratton Model 23 engine. Ron’s Model A was built in 1954 by COPAR Mfg., then based in College Park, Maryland, in the line’s first year of production.
The 3-speed tractor has odd engineering. “There are three pulleys of different diameters for the speeds attached to the motor,” Ron says, “the engine has to be shut off to change them. The forward drive goes from the engine to the belt pulley, using a belt to go to another pulley below the first one, to a shaft driving a chain sprocket down to the rear end.”
Pedals near the rear tires are the individual brakes; a friction disc puts the unit in reverse. Other than replacing a front tire, Ron hasn’t done anything to the Model A, which he tracked down in Bangor, Pennsylvania.
According to Panzer Tractors, just 350 of that model were produced in College Park, Maryland, and fewer than 50 still exist. “COPAR was not good at keeping records,” the site notes, “and most likely did not build the tractors in sequence.”
Model A Panzers were painted red and had cast iron pulleys on both the engine and jackshaft. “College Park, Md.” and “Mod A” were cast into the Model A jackshaft; “Laurel, Md.” was cast into parts on later models. Though most had 6x16-inch tires, at least one confirmed original Model A has 8x16-inch tires. The jackshaft casting and pulleys were made of cast iron. In 1955, production moved to Laurel, Maryland, where the Model A was renamed the Model T102.
Bantam Model 5000
Ron took another road trip – this one to Okeana, Ohio, near Cincinnati – to add a 1953 Bantam Model 5000 to his collection. The Bantam has a 5 hp Briggs & Stratton Model 14 engine. Ron bought it in the condition it’s in today.
“It was originally available with a mower deck and front- mounted blade, which didn’t come with my model,” he says. “I use it for mowing lawns, clearing snow and light dozer work.” The Bantam was produced by Standard Mfg. Co., Lebanon, Indiana, from 1950 to 1956. The Bantam is a rare bird; Ron says he’s seen just three others in the past 10 years.
Most American manufacturing operations suspended production of consumer goods during World War II, shifting instead to military needs. Harold Pond’s Speedex Model B, though, remained in at least limited production, likely to support the Victory Garden program. Ron’s collection includes a rare relic from that era. But his 1942 Model B (with a Briggs & Stratton Model Z engine) won’t win any beauty contests. “Because of how it looks,” he says, “many people think it is a homemade model.”
The Model B’s patchwork appearance reflects the use of varied parts, including a Model T automobile transmission and a Model A automobile rear end. “It’s the original engine as far as I know, and because it was built during the war, it has steel wheels, because rubber wasn’t available (for non-military production),” Ron says. “Most of the earlier models were on rubber.”
It has other unusual features as well. “It doesn’t have a steering wheel; you use a lever to steer,” Ron says. “When you pull it forward, you go left; if you pull the lever back, it goes right.”
The clutch on the Speedex Model B works backward from most other clutches. “You have to push the clutch in to engage the transmission, and go,” Ron says. “It’s backward of everything else. It messes me up every time.”
Harold Pond formed Pond Tractor Co. in Ravenna, Ohio, in 1935. Production of the Speedex Model B got underway that year. Pond was part of a unique family in the garden tractor world. He earlier worked for Shaw Mfg. Co., Galesburg, Kansas, which produced Shaw garden tractors. His brother, Elmer, and nephew, Cecil, developed the Wheel Horse tractor and his brother-in-law, Glen Heilman, developed the Garden All line.
Ron’s 1958 Lawn-Boy Loafer with friction drive also stands out from the crowd. “It has a separate engine on the mower deck,” he says. Friction drive maneuvers the machine forward and backward, and all tires are semi-pneumatic, made of hard rubber.
“It has no throttle adjustments, only on and off,” Ron says, “and two engines, one for the mowing deck and one for moving the Loafer along.”
The Loafer’s 2-cycle engines are in fine original condition. Ron bought the unit from the original owner. “It’s the deluxe model with the original seat cover over the steel seat, and it runs,” he says. “When people see it, they just can’t believe there is still one of these around yet.” At the time the Loafer was produced, Lawn-Boy was a division of Outboard Marine & Mfg. Co., Waukegan, Illinois.
Ron found his 1953 Page ZA12FM tractor close to home, in East Bethel, Minnesota. “It reminds me of an Allis-Chalmers Model G,” he says. The tractor has a 6 hp Wisconsin AKN engine. There are no belts or chains to drive the wheels, and the semi-pneumatic front tires are made of hard rubber. “The transmission is just forward and reverse,” Ron says, “and the front and rear wheels are adjustable for track width.”
“It found me at a show last year when a guy asked if I’d be interested in a Page tractor,” Ron says. “He showed me photos of it, so I got his telephone number and called him a short time later and went and got it. I’ve never seen another one.” Page garden tractors were built by Pioneer Mfg. Co., Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
A classic in the category, Ron’s 1947 Bolens Huski Ridemaster is the full package. “I was lucky enough to get a moldboard plow, cultivator, spike-tooth harrow and sickle mower with it,” he says.
The Ridemaster is equipped with a 5 hp Wisconsin AKS engine. The unit’s front tires, which are 6 inches apart, drive the tractor. The rear wheels are adjustable for width and height. It only runs forward and reverse (belts for forward, and a disc for reverse). The Ridemaster was built by Bolens Products Division of Food Machinery Corp., Port Washington, Wisconsin.
For Ron, the Tri-Trac and the Speedex Model B stand out from the rest. “With the Speedex, it’s because of the steel wheels,” he says, “and for the Tri-Trac, it’s the oddity of its appearance.”
But he’s not ruling out a new favorite. He remains an active collector, spending at least an hour a day on the Internet, looking for rare and unusual garden tractors. Between that and time spent retrieving and restoring relics, he invests a lot of himself in his hobby. “For me,” he says, “the best thing of all is that I have a very understanding wife.“ FC
For more information: Ron Gittins, 3205 Darrow Ave. S.E., Buffalo, MN 55313; (763) 972-2076; or via email.Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; or via email.