The Allis-Chalmers Co.: Leading with Innovation

Chronicling the contributions to the tractor industry that the Allis-Chalmers Co. made, including offering air tires as standard equipment.


| February 2016



Harry Merritt

Harry C. Merritt

Photo courtesy Sam Moore

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.