A surprising role was played by three American manufacturers producing military tractors in World War I.
Okay, dear readers, how many of you believe that Buick ever made a tractor? How about Studebaker?
Or maybe Willys-Overland?
No? Well, I didn’t either, until I found an original operator’s manual, published in 1918 by Buick Motor Co., Flint, Michigan, for a “Buick Military Tractor, Type A.” I also have a photocopy of the “Overland Military Tractor, Model A,” but sadly, it contains no photos.
And since this year marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I, here’s the story, as far as I’ve been able to reconstruct it after much research and correspondence with Mr. D. Nichols at the Bovington Tank Museum near Dorchester, England.
World War I was a horrible ordeal for armies on both sides. The rapid-fire machine gun, massed artillery fire, barbed wire and mud all conspired to make the old tactics of massed infantry attacks bloody and almost totally ineffective. The opposing armies dug deep and well-fortified trench systems that neither side could penetrate, although the generals never wearied of trying.
The Battle of the Somme in 1916 is a good example of the horrific loss of life involved in “going over the top,” an infantry attack in which massed troops clambered from their trenches, crossed a muddy and shell-hole pocked no man’s land under heavy artillery fire, and attacked opposing enemy trenches that were protected by cruel barbed wire entanglements and that bristled with machine guns laying down a murderous fire. During the 138-day battle (which ended in victory for neither side), more than 300,000 British, French and German soldiers were killed, and twice that many were wounded. And all this on a battlefield that was only about 15 miles long by 6 miles deep.
In a desperate attempt to break the stalemate, the British fielded a few crude tanks in late 1916, and while they were far from decisive (due mostly to unreliable performance and bad tactics), their potential was obvious, even to the most dyed-in-the-wool horse cavalry general.
In late 1917, the French and British, with American help, planned a huge offensive for the spring of 1919, with tanks moving swiftly across the battlefield and into Germany. The problem was moving the supporting infantry and supplying the assault forces. Horse-drawn transport couldn’t keep up, while wheeled vehicles got stuck in the mud.
A British colonel, Henry Newton, with the enthusiastic encouragement of Winston Churchill, designed a light vehicle that was little more than a platform on tracks. Called the Newton tractor, the machine would be powered by an automobile engine and use readily available automotive components. The vehicle was to be capable of crossing rough terrain at 5 mph, carrying a 3-ton load and towing an artillery field piece.
Col. Newton was one of several brothers who ran an engineering firm in Derby, and the original tractors were built there, first with Ford Model T engines and then with Fordson F tractor skid units for power. However, Newton Bros. was busy with other military orders and didn’t have the capacity to make the number of machines needed, which was estimated at 22,000 units.
All manufacturing capacity was in short supply in England, so American auto builders were enlisted. The order was split between Buick (5,000 units), Studebaker (5,000 units), and Willys-Overland (10,000 units). Willys initially offered a per-unit price $100 lower than that of the other manufacturers, but later raised it by the same amount.
The Americans were to provide only skid units, consisting of an engine, clutch, transmission and rear axle, “brought forward as closely as possible to (the) engine,” as well as engine controls and steering gear, a heavy-duty radiator and a 20 (imperial) gallon gas tank mounted above the engine, “similar to the Fordson tractor.”
The skid units were to be shipped to a factory in Manchester, England, where they were to be assembled into completed machines. Each manufacturer in the U.S., however, had been given plans and the necessary parts to construct at least one complete prototype machine in order to ensure that their skid units would fit properly, and it seems that each American manufacturer must have built at least a few complete tracked units, as a few photos were taken.
Willys-Overland proposed to use their Model 85, 4-cylinder, 35 hp engine. Studebaker’s offering was the Series 19 Small Six 50 hp power plant, and Buick used their 40 hp Model E 6-cylinder mill.
The American orders were placed in August 1918, but before production could really get started, the armistice was declared on Nov. 11. The order for the new machines was cancelled in December 1918, with only a few units built.
In fact, it appears that production at Buick and Studebaker never really got off the ground. In a letter dated Jan. 3, 1919, a British official told the War Office that they had 1,112 Willys-Overland units at Manchester, but only 171 from Studebaker, and just 142 from Buick. Later correspondence refers to a total of just 425 power units.
In the end, it seems that only 63 Newton tractors were finally assembled, including 25 with the Willys-Overland engine, 12 with a Buick, and 26 with a Studebaker power plant.
When the 1919 offensive proved unnecessary, the contracts were cancelled after much discussion about future plans for the machines. One proposal was to use the Newton tractors to salvage war material abandoned on the battlefields, but due to post-war budget restraints, the British Army dropped the whole project and the 63 existing Newton tractors were scrapped or sold as surplus, as were the surplus skid units and other parts. Certainly at least a few of these tractors would have been put to use on English farms, although no proof of this exists. There is a 1923 photo showing a Newton tractor with a crane built on the forward platform at work in the yard of a manufacturing plant in England.
So technically, all who thought Buick, Studebaker and Willys never made a tractor are correct, although they did build a few prototypes. It’s unknown what became of the prototypes built by Buick or Willys-Overland (the GM archives never responded to my request for information). It is known that a Studebaker version was on display at the factory in South Bend, Indiana, until around the time of World War II, when it disappeared. Possibly it was melted down and turned into new weapons to fight another world conflict, one that broke out barely 20 years after the “war to end all wars.” FCSam 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 at firstname.lastname@example.org.