The Allis-Chalmers Co.: Leading with Innovation

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Harry C. Merritt
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An 1877 engraving of Allis-Chalmers founder Edward P. Allis.
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An Allis-Chalmers Model U on rubber hauling a train of five wagonloads of sweet corn to a cannery.
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A 1935 cartoon.
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An Allis-Chalmers Model UC fitting ground for planting.
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A 1937 Allis-Chalmers UC.

Although the last orange tractor rolled off the assembly line at West Allis, Wisconsin, on Dec. 6, 1985, Allis-Chalmers Co. – which advertised itself at one time as the “Company of the Four Powers – Steam, Gas, Water and Electricity” – had a long run, and much Persian Orange paint can still be seen at tractor shows today.

In early 1861, Edward P. Allis bought Reliance Works, a French buhr mill manufacturer in Milwaukee, at a sheriff’s sale for a reported $22.72. This was the beginning of the firm eventually called Allis-Chalmers. In addition to the farm equipment we’re all familiar with, over the years, AC also produced sawmills, large flour mills, large electric transformers, generators and motors, Buda diesel engines, air compressors, mineral and ore handling machinery, heavy hydraulic machinery (the hydraulic water turbines at Hoover Dam are AC products), huge gas and steam engines, heavy hoists, motor graders and scrapers, large pumping machinery and steam turbines. AC was a huge conglomerate.

Strong comeback

By 1911, however, AC was bankrupt and Delmar Call and Otto H. Falk, a retired National Guard brigadier general, were appointed receivers. Call later resigned and Falk, a strong leader, soon turned the company around. One of his masterstrokes was the hiring of Harry C. Merritt as manager of the moribund tractor department in 1926.

Merritt was a big man (a photograph of him in his shirtsleeves reveals that he must have weighed 300 pounds), but he was an astute manager and enthusiastic about tractors. One of his coups was choosing Persian Orange as the color for AC tractors and machinery, replacing the dark greens and grays used in the past. Before long, nearly all tractor builders came out with bright colors of their own. Legend has it that Merritt was on a train to California in 1929, when he saw fields of brilliant orange poppies. He reportedly liked the color so well that he had AC tractors painted the same color.

However, Merritt’s advertising manager, Harry Hoffman, told a different story. United Tractor & Equipment Corp., Chicago, had been selling Fordson tractors, which were discontinued in this country in 1928. United asked AC to build them a replacement and chose Persian Orange for the color. The deal didn’t last long and AC began to make the former United tractor under its own name as the Model U and retained its orange color.

Industry-leading innovation

AC’s first row-crop tractor was a tricycle version of the U called the UC. Both the Model U and UC had Continental 4-cylinder, 4-1/4- by 5-inch engines until 1933, when a slightly larger AC engine was used. The U and UC had unit construction where the engine, transmission and rear end castings were all bolted together to form the tractor’s backbone. The UC had a mechanical power lift, a 4-speed transmission, belt pulley and PTO, and featured an easy hook-up drive-in cultivator attachment.

Shortly after AC bought Advance-Rumely in LaPorte, Indiana, in 1931, Harry Merritt heard of Robert Fleming in California. Fleming had developed and patented a threshing cylinder that used flexible bristles instead of steel teeth to knock the grain from the head. In addition, Fleming’s cylinder was as wide as the cutter bar and positioned directly behind it for straight-through operation. After seeing it demonstrated, Merritt paid $25,000 for shop rights to build the combine, which became the highly successful All-Crop Harvester.

Selling farmers on air tires

Another of Merritt’s “harebrained” ideas that everyone said wouldn’t work, but that changed the face of tractor farming for all time, was putting air tires on tractors. Actually, a few experiments had been made with truck tires, but Merritt took it a big step further. He got with Firestone Co., which initially resisted the idea, but finally furnished a pair of large airplane tires like those used on the airliners of the day such as the Ford Tri-Motor. The tires had no tread, but were mounted on French & Hecht rims and put on an AC Model U tractor on loan to Albert Schroeder, a Wisconsin farmer. After just one week of using the tires, Schroeder loved them. Firestone was convinced, geared up to make V-tread tractor tires, and in 1932 the Allis-Chalmers Model U became the first-ever production tractor to offer air tires as standard equipment.

This was at the height of the Great Depression, however. Most farmers believed rubber tractor tires provided much less traction than steel lugs, and they figured they’d cost more too.

AC’s sales manager put faster truck gears in a couple of Model U tractors with rubber tires and took them to most of the state fairs around the country where Barney Oldfield, Ab Jenkins and other famous race car drivers of the day raced the tractors around the tracks. At the Wisconsin State Fair in 1933, Albert Schroeder first plowed up the infield and then turned the machine over to Frank Briscoe, who set a new tractor speed record of 35.4 mph. Later that year, Barney Oldfield hit 64.28 mph in Texas and Ab Jenkins 67.87 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. All these gimmicks created a huge amount of publicity. One source claims that by 1936, 65 percent of all tractors sold by AC were on rubber with the industry average being just 15 percent.

Hitting it out of the park

The Models U and UC were 3-plow tractors and too large for many farmers, while for many other very small operations, truck farmers, part-timers and the like, they were completely out of reach. So Harry Merritt turned his chief tractor engineer, C.E. Frudden, and engineer Walt Strehlow loose on the problem of designing a 2-plow, rubber-tired, low-cost tractor that hopefully most farmers could afford to buy. Introduced in late 1933 for the 1934 season, the famous and popular Model WC was the result. From then until 1948, more than 178,000 Model WC tractors were built, making it the most popular Allis-Chalmers tractor ever made.

One of these days I’ll write about the WC, as well as the almost-as-popular 1-plow Model B Allis-Chalmers tractor that appeared in early 1938 as “the successor to the horse.” 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.

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