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The Allis Answer to the Fordson

Author Photo
By Jim Lacey

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Mark Stearns’ 1930 Allis-Chalmers Model U tractor in its current state. Hopefully it will stay as it is.
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The operator’s area on the Model U. Note rather harsh seating, similar to that of early Farmall tractors.
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This photo suggests that the tractor’s governor weights may have left rather quickly (nice brazing though).

Allis-Chalmers was the featured tractor line at the Historic Prairie Village 55th annual Steam Threshing Jamboree, west of Madison, South Dakota, in 2017. Prairie Village is just a local show, but there were a fair number of orange tractors present.

Inasmuch as I have been helping with parades there for several years, I get the opportunity to visit with individuals about their tractors, especially the unusual ones, so that I’ll have information to use when announcing them in the parade.

Mark Stearns, Madison, works with pictures for a living and with old tractors for a hobby. He bought this Model U (serial no. 2017) from collector Roger Ayers west of Madison.

The tractor is interesting from several points of view. It seems that in about 1928, a group of manufacturers operating under the name United Tractor & Equipment Co., Chicago, Illinois, asked Allis to build a tractor to replace the Fordson line that United had been selling, as Fordson was losing too much money on them in the U.S. and was halting production.

Allis redesigned its existing 20-35, coming up with a 4,821-pound tractor with speeds of 2-15 mph, depending on which advertising brochure you read. Power for the first 7,500 tractors was furnished by a flathead Continental. The next 30,000 built had an OHV Waukesha engine, perhaps influenced by the fact that Otto Falk, president of Allis-Chalmers from 1913 to 1940, owned a farm near Waukesha, Wisconsin. The United group soon fell apart; Allis continued on. Hence, the United tractor became the Allis-Chalmers Model U.

The tractor shown here is a 1930 model, which by that time sported an Allis-Chalmers badge cast into the top of the radiator tank. Earlier models had a United badge (I found a top tank with that badge on it in a scrap pile near a well we were drilling). Apparently Cockshutt had an interest in the venture as well, as under the backside of the unit is a faded, barely legible decal that reads “Built for Cockshutt Plow Co.”

Allis designed the tractor to be on rubber tires, experimenting with them by using old airplane tires with very low pressure. In the process, they discovered tractors had much more useable power when on rubber tires than on steel. Farmers, being careful, were slow to accept this, in the same way that they initially resisted steel moldboards, believing they would poison the soil.

Mark said he got the tractor going just in time for the Prairie Village show. He had the magneto rebuilt the Sunday before the show and cleaned out the carburetor the Thursday before.

A bit of history from a book I read suggests that Allis Tractor Department Manager Harry Merritt, who joined the organization in 1929, came up with the Persian Orange color used by Allis after seeing fields of poppies in California. However, his co-worker, Advertising Manager Harry Hoffman maintains that the Persian Orange color was originally used by the United group and Allis just continued with it. You can take your pick of which version to believe.

Fact is, Allis had several significant firsts: air tires, quick-change wheel spacing, first turbo farm tractor and first with power steering. Between us, my brother Ted and I have three reversed Allis-Chalmers WC tractors with loaders dating from the late 1930s, and all still carry their loads just fine. So it goes. FC


Jim and Joan Lacey operate Little Village Farm, a museum of farm collectibles housed in 10 buildings at their home near Dell Rapids, South Dakota. Contact them at (605) 428-5979.

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