As a kid, I was fascinated with fixing and modifying toys. I grew up buying, repairing and selling bicycles, lawn mowers and snowmobiles. Eventually I was consumed by the idea of collecting and restoring trucks, cars and tractors. My love of antique agricultural history fueled a passion for early hand-start steel-wheeled tractors. After enjoying some Minneapolis-Moline farm tractors, I began to explore their historical predecessors, the old gray machines labeled as Twin City tractors.
In my search, I uncovered some really amazing engineering. In 1916, Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co. was building a twin cam, 16-valve, 4-cylinder engine. Several decades ahead of its time, this remarkable power plant was to be fitted into a brilliantly designed unit-frame casting that housed the transmission and final drive in a constant bath of heavy oil.
That idea came at a time when most tractors were built on simple channel frames with exposed pinion and bull gears that suffered from rapid wear. Minneapolis Steel’s Twin City line tractors were truly an engineering marvel: I had found my new passion! After a 2-1/2 year search, I located a rough 1928 Twin City 27-44 Road King. I made a deal to bring it home and start collecting and fabricating needed parts to bring this sleeping giant back to life.
This abandoned old workhorse was used as a road builder in central Minnesota for nearly four decades. In time, I would learn that it was used hard and left for dead. As I took the machine apart, I discovered the need for extensive restoration. I was looking at a lot of worn and broken pieces; others were missing altogether.
If ever there was a low point in our quest to “fix and play,” that was it. Pieces of the 10,000-pound brute were scattered everywhere and the project at hand appeared rather overwhelming. But quitting was not an option.
Have any of you ever wished surviving machinery like this could speak to you? I always imagined a grand tale spun from hard times, operator errors and creative emergency repairs, if we could only know of them.
I found some past repairs to be ingeniously employed and others were embarrassingly crude. Nails and odd pieces of wire were used for cotter keys and non-original fasteners were scattered throughout the entire machine. In an effort to make the finished restoration appear correct and unmolested, I purchased more than 200 pounds of new hardware in a period-correct form (such as square-head bolts and heavy hex nuts).
For the engine, I had the crankshaft ground and all bearings replaced, and had modern aluminum pistons custom-fit and the heads machined to ensure powerful reliability in the belt and the field. Replacement clutch parts were purchased and the assembly was machined and fitted with new springs and frictions.
I had a new, one-piece clutch shaft machined with a bevel pinion gear from a large chunk of round steel stock and hardened it to required specifications. I had several hundred pounds of new castings made. Fabrication, assembly and painting were all done at home in my own shop. I used nearly three gallons of red oxide primer and nearly six gallons of battleship gray. It required thousands of dollars and more than three years to make this heavy-duty antique road builder “the king” once more.
Located in the Twin Cities metro area of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co. was formed at the turn of the last century. Succeeding the former Twin City Iron Works, Minneapolis Steel was operating by 1902.
The company registered its Twin City trademark in 1911. The company’s 35-acre factory possessed its own rail yard and boasted the largest gray iron factory in the upper Midwest. An extensive product line of structural steel, large-scale casting ability and gear-cutting equipment allowed Minneapolis Steel to provide flourmills, road bridges, water towers and structural steel framing for downtown department stores.
This enterprising facility also engineered a series of early steam and internal combustion engines. The engines were so well done that they earned a solid global reputation and were shipped worldwide to meet the demands of an exploding industrial revolution.
By 1909, Minneapolis Steel had developed a large, heavyweight gas tractor labeled as a Twin City. Through contract manufacturing, hundreds of tractors were produced for other firms. During the next few years, several sizes of big Twin City tractors were conceived to meet a variety of demands, including one of the biggest wheel tractors ever made, a 14-ton giant powered by a huge 6-cylinder engine. This massive machine could pull the largest plows made and draw the most extensive hooks of road building equipment to date.
Minneapolis Steel’s reputation was set as a big equipment manufacturer, but a future trend towards smaller tractors had been realized as early as 1915. To remain competitive, a brilliant idea was employed to produce a 5,000-pound machine and a nearly identical one weighing 10,000 pounds. This plan would provide small farms and businesses with a little three-plow tractor. The bigger copy would effectively replace three dated machines from the small end of the aging heavyweight product line with a single, more powerful mid-weight tractor.
Experienced draftsmen simply enlarged the blueprint to save production time and costs, engineering a small tractor and a large tractor of the same design. Savvy engineers coached factory production into delivering a pair of uniquely advanced unit frame castings with gears, shafts and bearings contained within a constant bath of oil. A clever, twin-cam, 16-valve 4-cylinder engine powered both models, one possessing 340 cubic inches and the other, 641 cubic inches.
With so many technologically advanced features in place prior to 1920, these two machines would enjoy a triumphant 12-year production run and become known as the baby twin-cam and the big twin-cam.
The larger machine was popular for heavy belt work in large threshing rings, sawmills and rock crushing. Many of the big twin-cams were fitted with massive, one-piece 28-inch-wide wheels to enhance their ample pulling power. Named Road Kings, these muscular machines were dispatched worldwide to pull road-building scrapers and graders.
Minneapolis Steel prospered for nearly 30 years before the changing times would demand more. Other reputable firms sold plows, threshing machines, rakes, discs and cultivators for their tractors. In an effort to remain competitive, a merger was in order.
In the spring of 1929, three companies joined forces. The nearby Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co. produced top-of-the-line threshing machines. Moline Plow Co., Moline, Illinois, built a renowned line of implements. With Minneapolis Steel, the three firms combined to provide a full-line supplier under the new name of Minneapolis-Moline Power Implement Co.
Minneapolis-Moline’s Twin City tractors were sold well into the 1930s, when MM began to equip them with rubber tires, and add more gears and styled tin work. Eventually re-engineered, Twin City tractors would emerge in a bright yellow color and Minneapolis-Moline would endure into the 1970s with many more brilliant designs of their own. FC
Plowing with the big twin-cam is a nostalgic treat for those interested in agricultural history. At the time of their manufacture, these machines were advertised to reliably pull six 16-bottom plows. Like some of the other reputable companies of the era, Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co. placed conservative ratings on their tractors. Weighing nearly 5 tons and possessing reserve power, these stout workhorses drew large plow sets through the heaviest soil with ease.
With three plowmen managing a six-bottom gang plow, the light-colored hay ground was furrowed to contrasting black in a demonstration at the Albert City (Iowa) Threshermen and Collectors show grounds. The 1928 Twin City 27-44 Road King has also powered a large sawmill and posted a steady 58 hp on a belt-driven dynamometer. It is a crowd pleaser and has been a very rewarding piece of history to own and operate. – Tony Thompson
Tony Thompson is a Twin City historian. Visit his website (which includes Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co. history and a comprehensive listing of Twin City tractor models from 1909 through 1938) at Twin City Tractors.