International Harvester Company comes out of the 1957 Recession with a grand showing and a return to the large tractor.
"Red Tractors 1958-2013" (Octane Press, 2013) is author Lee Klancher's meticulously researched look at the history of International Harvester Company, a landmark American company that defined agricultural business for a century.
Red Tractors 1958-2013 (Octane Press, 2013) is an authoritative and unparalleled look at the tractors built by International Harvester Company and Case IH. Author Lee Klancher leads a research team that has collected more than 380 pages and 700 images, documenting these beloved machines built in America and abroad. In this six-part series, Farm Collector shares the first chapter of Red Tractors, "1958-1959 The Hinsdale Connection." The following excerpt covers International Harvester’s initial forays to weather the 1957 Recession, and a decision to once again make the large tractor a focus of their business.
"If we are able, in our engineering, to keep abreast of, or ahead of, any competitor, there isn't any question about this business going on indefinitely."
— John McCaffrey, Harvester World, 1958
In 1917, International Harvester purchased a 414-acre farm just 20 miles from downtown Chicago. The original Farmall was tested on the farm’s gently rolling hills, along with hundreds of other pieces of agricultural equipment. Annual demonstration outings for International Harvester Company executives and staff were held there, complete with orchestra accompaniment, circus tents, and lavish catered meals. In the early years, the place was known as the Hinsdale Farm, and it later became known as Burr Ridge.
During heavy investment into research and engineering in the 1950s, Hinsdale was selected as the site for the $5 million Farm Equipment Research and Engineering Center (FEREC). The eight-acre site would consolidate Harvester’s engineering efforts and put 1,360 engineering and support staff together under one roof. FEREC was state-of-the-art, complete with an indoor “field” used for tractor and implement testing, a tractor-sized photographic studio, and temperature-controlled rooms capable of exposing machinery to 130 degrees of heat and 50 degrees below zero.
When the plans for the new center were made public in 1956, a nearby community decided to change the name of their village from the Hinsdale Countryside Estates to Harvester, Illinois.
All of this was part of a concerted effort to make up for lost time. In the early 1950s, Harvester had spread their development resources among many products. While cash was funneled to construction, trucks, and refrigeration divisions, tractor development focused on refinements and accessories rather than new platforms. The hundred series and the 30-50 series were both re-skins of existing platforms with upgraded features such torque amplification to ease on the fly shifting and Fast Hitch. Too many of the upgrades were gimmicky additions, such as Electrall, a heavily promoted portable electric generator unit that sold so miserably they are rare and prized collectibles today.
Also, management expressed interest in the urban market, feeling that the agricultural market was becoming saturated. They had successfully developed small tractors, and continued to enjoy success in that segment. As late as January 1958, Harvester World ran a feature describing the increasing losses of farmland to suburban sprawl. Unfortunately, however, Harvester underestimated the farmer’s interest in larger, more powerful tractors.
Not enough time and money had been invested in tractor development, particularly the large machines so popular with farmers working larger and larger areas.
International Harvester Company adjusted in the mid-1950s and turned their eyes toward the large tractor prize. More horsepower and more features were needed to satisfy the needs of the power farmer. The engine came from the crawler line, whose proven D282 diesel was used as the base for the new series’ gas engine. Features were one of the things Harvester had been developing steadily since 1939, and they offered a series of improvements in their hitch system, hydraulics, and power takeoff system. Time was not on their side — the program to develop the 40 and 60 series began in the mid-1950s — but the pieces were mostly in place.
As the new FEREC center was built and prototypes of the new 40 and 60 series tractors were tested, changes were taking place at the highest levels of IHC. In May 1958, McCaffrey retired and was replaced by another lifelong company man, Frank W. Jenks, who came from the credit and merchandising side. After nearly a decade of sliding deep into debt, electing a new leader with a fiscal background made perfect sense.
Jenks stepped in as the late 1957 recession was beginning to wane. Investments in research and engineering were paying off. A brand-new line of tractors was ready to roll out late in the year. The line had fresh styling and sheet metal, six-cylinder engines repurposed from the truck line, and a host of new features.
Months before Jenks replaced McCaffrey, plans were laid for a new model introduction to exceed any previously put on the by Harvester or anyone else, for that matter. Introductions were often done at regional shows, but this one would be held at Hinsdale (now Burr Ridge). More than 5,500 dealers were invited, and Harvester hired the Kilgore Rangerettes, a group of female dancers famed for precision performances and infamously short skirts, to open the ceremonies and perform dances such as the “power stroke,” during which the dance formation took the shape of a piston with red bandanas flashed to simulate the engine’s firing order. Seventy-seven new tractors were placed under a massive 90x210-foot circus tent. Nearly a dozen such tents covered the grounds, with demonstration plots set up nearby for working tractors and new implements.
On July 14, five days prior to the first dealer’s arrival at Hinsdale, a storm knocked the giant tent down, blanketing the new machines with torn canvas. All but two of the new line required repairs to be presentable.
A massive effort restored the tent and tractors. The gala reportedly was a hit, with the tractors well-received and large orders placed. During the next year, the collapsed tent would be the least of the concerns blanketing the new International Harvester Company line. FC
Read more from Red Tractors 1958-2013 in:
• International 460 Ushers in New Era for International Harvester Company
• The Next Generation of Red Tractors: The 40 and 60 Series
• The International 460 and the Evolution of Red Tractors
• The Farmall M and the Red Tractors of Great Britain
• International Harvester Invests in Germany
• IHC and McCormick Deering: The Red Tractors of France
• Red Tractors Down Under: International Harvester Company of Australia
Reprinted with permission from Red Tractors 1958-2013: The Authoritative Guide to International Harvester and Case-IH Farm Tractors in the Modern Era by Lee Klancher and published by Octane Press, 2013.