Oddball: The Distinctive Fageol Tractor

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A Fageol 9-12 tractor; note the hood vents.
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An early Fageol orchard tractor or walking tractor. The company started making them around 1918.
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A Fageol tractor in the field.
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The distinctive Fageol "spuds."
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The spuds on the Fageol 6-15 tractor were more like spikes than triangles.

Fageol tractors were anything but ordinary. The best-known model, the Fageol 9-12 (sometimes identified as an 8-12), was down right odd looking because of the shape of its rear wheels, which had teeth or ‘spuds.’ Also, the first Fageol tractor really was more of a train than a tractor: it was built for carting passengers around the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition grounds in San Francisco.

The Fageol Motors Co., owned and operated by brothers Frank and William Fageol, opened in 1917 in Oakland, Calif., but Frank and William’s first contact with vehicles can be traced to 1899 in Iowa, when at the tender ages of 17 and 19, respectively, they built that state’s first automobile. It was a steam-driven, eight-passenger vehicle, and the brothers ferried passengers in it, for a fee, from their hometown of Ankeny, Iowa, to the Iowa State Fair near Des Moines, a distance of about 10 miles.

After moving to California, Frank and William worked on an orchard tractor called the Fageol Walking Tractor without a great deal of success. Then, they got the contract to solve the transportation problems at the Panama Pacific Exposition. As J.H. Fort writes in the book The Fageol Success, ‘The Fageols proposed to solve the problem by building a small tractor, using the motor of a popular automobile to draw the passenger trailers. The idea amused and appealed to the directors; the Fageols (required to print ‘Fadgl’ in large letters on the sides of the tractors so people could pronounce their name) received the transportation concession.’

They used Ford auto motors for power to pull 20-passenger, open-sided trailers around the 635-acre exposition grounds. The tractor/train looked more like a small car with four small wheels, a barrel-shaped hood and a large, mesh-filled front bumper. The wheels of the trailers were shrouded so passengers wouldn’t catch clothing or feet in the spokes as they sat in the small cars with their legs dangling off the edges; if they stretched, they could touch the ground with their feet. A sight-seeing trip cost 10 cents, and the project proved wildly popular. After the exposition, the trains were shipped to Chicago and used there, in Lincoln Park.

Building on that success, the Fageol brothers decided in 1917 to construct their own factory. Two thousand people attended the groundbreaking, where the men announced that their newly minted company, Fageol Motors Co. of Oakland, would build military tractors, cars, and trucks.

The end of World War I, a year later, squelched the military tractor plans, but regular tractors were made, and although the Fageols were inventors, their tractors were actually the invention of another man. He was Rush Hamilton of Geyserville, Calif., and he had patented his tractor, and other inventions, in 1915 and formed the Hamilton Tractor Co. His concept was an odd-looking orchard tractor built to tow wagons full of fruit. Instead of flattening ground in front of a plow or harrow or other machinery being pulled, this tractor drew implements along after having loosened the soil by means of its rear wheels, which had long, blade-like teeth.

The Fageols claimed that the blades, or teeth, on the rear wheels of the tractor enabled it to ‘walk right over’ almost any kind of ground. The first Fageol tractor out of the factory cost $1,085, and it was basically a two-wheeled power plant, with a ride-on dead axle at the rear. It was classed as the equivalent to a four-horse team and steered by gearing around a quadrant at the back of its frame, which was pressed steel. The engine had four cylinders, and drive to the wheels was made possible by internal gearing, all of which ran immersed in oil. Despite weighing only1,730 pounds, the tractor exerted considerable drawbar pull, thanks to the special wheel teeth, which could be covered with bands for road travel.

The orchard tractor was called a ‘walking tractor,’ and the spiked driving wheels did work. A company called Butler-Veitch contracted for all of the Fageol orchard tractors, and Fageol became a sales agent for Butler-Veitch in 1918 in Oakland. Although no documentation is available on the nature of the Butler-Veitch business, it may have been another tractor company; in the early days, these businesses often sold each other’s products.

In the drum of each driver was an internal expanding clutch, which coupled the solid live axle to the drive wheel; there was no differential on the axle. The tractor had a Lycoming four-cylinder, 3 1/2- by 5-inch bore-and-stroke engine, and only one forward gear. Steering was by tiller, and an enormous, replaceable air filter took care of the California dust. The carburetor was a Tillotson, and the magneto ignition was a Dixie. The whole transmission was generously provided with ball and roller bearings. Total weight was 3,600 pounds — more than double the orchard tractor — and the price was correspondingly high, $1,525 in 1922, which resulted in few sales.

The March 1922 issue of Pacific Service Magazine includes this report on the Fageol company: ‘Delivery of tractors for farm and vineyard purposes began in 1918. Foreign trade was developed until now the company supplies the Pacific Coast and is sending its tractors to the Pacific Islands, many countries of Europe, and the Far East.’

There is no known count of how many Fageol tractors were manufactured, but there are reports that about two dozen are known to still exist.

In 1923, though, the manufacture of Fageol tractors ceased. The production halt probably can be attributed to a combination of the following factors: an agricultural recession under way at the time, the relatively high cost of the tractor, and the company’s need to focus on making trucks under government contract, which offered more security than selling tractors to the public.

After Fageol Motors Co. quit making tractors, a few more Fageol tractors were made in San Jose, Calif., by a former director of the Fageol firm. His name was Horatio W. Smith, and he owned the National Axle Corp., which he renamed the Great Western Motors Co. ‘It appears,’ says Bob Johnson, reference librarian of the California Room of the San Jose Public Library, ‘that H.W. Smith somehow took over the company, renamed it and began manufacturing tractors instead of axles.’ The company also was listed in the 1925 city directory as ‘Tractor manufacturers, 13th corner Berryessa Road.’ Using leftover components from the original Fageol factory, Smith apparently manufactured the tractors in 1924, 1925 and 1927, after which no more were made, thus ending the saga of the odd-looking, spud-driven Fageol tractors — but not of the company itself.

Fageol Motors Co. continued to make other vehicles. By 1931, the company was operating 13 factory branches along the Pacific Coast and selling Fageol trucks and buses into many foreign countries, including Australia, Java, Japan, China, Mexico, Guatemala and Canada.

No Fageol orchard tractors are known to survive, although many people think someday, surely, one will turn up somewhere in California. FC

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm toys.

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