It doesn’t happen often anymore. The men who actually used to put their hands on these machines and work the implements into the soil have mostly gone on to their final reward. Twenty-five years ago, though, says Danny Buckert of Hamilton, Ill., it happened all the time. People would approach his father and him at antique farm equipment shows and launch into their childhood memories of the Moline Universal. Leaning against his own Universal – picked up at the Mount Pleasant Old Threshers’ Reunion in 1968 – Danny would soak it up.
‘Usually, these guys would just remember how far ahead of its time this tractor was,’ Danny recalls.
And it was. The Moline Universal featured numerous advanced technologies on its final model and was so versatile many people today consider it the first practical row crop tractor, born a decade ahead of both the Farmall and the Fordson. The best-selling tractor of its time, it also spawned numerous imitations and was the patriarch of the long line of farm equipment that would be called Minneapolis-Moline.
The Universal was born of two ideas. First, it was obvious that farmers were ready for a lightweight, nimble row crop machine. Many had tried – or at least heard of – the large, unwieldy tractors on the market at the time. Few tractors seemed truly up to the tasks of daily farm work.
Second, many early-1900s farmers refused to retire their horses to the pasture. The reasons for this were many – a reluctance to change, a love of handling horses, but one of the biggest was the loss of control farmers felt when trying to operate the new-fangled equipment. They had to choose between looking forward to where the tractor was going or looking back to see how the implements were working.
The owners of the Universal Tractor Manufacturing Co. of Columbus, Ohio, solved both problems in 1914 when they released their Universal Motor Cultivator. Selling for a cheap $385 and featuring a two-cylinder, 10 hp engine, the machine soothed the discomfort felt by many farmers. It was lightweight, far more maneuverable than earlier tractors, and farmers could sit right above the actual ploughshares – on the plow itself – and operate the implement with levers at hand. In fact, with the engine and drive wheels placed far in front of the operator, the steering column, throttle and brake controls look like nothing so much as taut reins.
The Universal Co. didn’t build the machine for long, though. The Moline Plow Co. had been experimenting since 1913 with the design of a self-propelled, motorized plow. In cahoots with International Harvester, Moline Plow built five sample models, all of which proved less than successful. Casting about for other ideas, the company focused its attention on the Universal Tractor Manufacturing Co., buying the company for $150,000 in November 1915.
Moline had already been building the plows that went with the Universal Motor Cultivator, so the match seemed made in heaven.
Until July 1916, when Moline’s own factory opened in Moline, Ill., Moline Universal tractors continued to be built in the Columbus factory.
The tractor still featured the two-cylinder opposed engine – produced by the Reliable Engine Co. of Portsmouth, Ohio – through several minor design changes (according to Minneapolis-Moline Farm Tractors, by Chester Peterson Jr. and Rod Beemer, a 1918 instruction book lists two-cylinder models B and C). The changes involved the drive wheels in front of the tractor, which grew in size and weight, and the addition of a left wheel that could be raised, allowing the tractor to ride level when the right wheel rolled through a furrow.
Fans of the Minneapolis-Moline line of equipment would recognize the Universal’s featured color scheme. The engine and chassis were red and the wheels were yellow – the same colors that would be linked with the Minneapolis-Moline line as long as it existed.
Robert Williams, a history professor at Amarillo College in Amarillo, Texas, and the author of Fordson, Farmall and Poppin’ Johnny, says there were many things to like about the original Moline Universals, even though they weren’t a great leap in technological evolution.
‘Initially,’ he says, ‘the early models were fairly primitive, but it was obviously a lot more maneuverable, more controllable than a lot of the tractors that followed it.’
One of the selling points of the tractor was that, with a few adjustments, team plows could be fit to it, but, says Williams, ‘I doubt that was as popular as Moline wanted you to think.’
Because Moline was known for its plows, the company could offer that implement at a reasonable price in conjunction with the purchase of a tractor. Moline also offered a power lift option with its factory plow.
Safety also may have played a part in selling the Universal. ‘Because the drive wheels were placed well forward, the Moline Universals probably rolled over a lot less often. It was probably a lot safer than a lot of other tractors,’ Williams says.
Still, the Moline Universals showed another operating ‘quirk.’ Danny Buckert remembers the stories of many old-timers who operated Moline Universals, and they claimed when the tractor was put in reverse gear, it could buck like a rodeo bull as a consequence of its heavy front end and light rear end, especially when carrying only the weight of a sulky plow. Danny says he’s experienced the bucking: ‘You don’t want to load that thing (on a trailer) backward.’
The testers at the Nebraska Tractor Test also discovered the Universal’s capacity for ‘jumping.’ A note on their test results (test number 33 of the Universal Model D) reads: ‘When the tractor was being backed out of the building and the carrying truck (sulky) wheels struck the door sill, the rear end of the tractor reared, throwing the driver off. Two clamp bolts in the rear carrying truck were broken and had to be replaced.’
Current test engineer Brent Sampson says the story in the test lab is that the driver wasn’t just thrown off but ‘hit the ceiling and had to be hospitalized.’
Another problem with the early Universals was tipping. The engine was offset to the left, which caused the tractor to tip when turned to the right. Danny says Moline fixed that problem in the cheapest, easiest way, but it worked. They put concrete in the right wheel to hold it down.
Despite its drawbacks, the Universal was very popular in its time, really taking off in 1917 with the release of the Model D.
Making good on the promise of the earlier models, the Model D proved itself technologically 20 years ahead of its competitors. It featured an electric starter, electric governor and even electric lights.
The company also improved the engine, putting in a four-cylinder, which provided 9 drawbar and 18 belt horsepower and had a top governed speed of 1,800 rpm. The Peterson-Beemer book reports that the Universal may have been the first farm tractor with a variable speed governor.
The company also released an entire line of new implements to go with the tractor. Included were grain binders, rakes, mowers, disc harrows and manure spreaders, and with these advancements as selling points, the company was producing 20,000 tractors a year by 1918.
Nevertheless, clouds appeared on the horizon for the Moline Universal. If it’s true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the designers of the Moline Universal must be some of the most flattered men in the history of agricultural engineering. Many blatant copies of the Universal were produced. Among the most prominent were these: The Hoke Tractor Co. of South Bend, Ind., made a very similar, if short-lived, model. The Indiana Silo & Tractor Co. of Anderson, Ind., made another. The popular collectors’ tractor, the ‘Planet, Jr.,’ made by S.L. Allen & Co. of Philadelphia, also seems to have been inspired by the Universal.
Even John Deere engineer Walter Silver attempted motor cultivators with a Universal-style chassis in the years just before 1920, but probably the most successful imitation of the Universal would have to be the low-priced, well-made Allis-Chalmers 6-12.
Imitation alone couldn’t kill the Universal, though. There were some things that the imitators just couldn’t get right. For example, the belt pulley on the Universal could be found in the far front of the tractor. Engineers had added a 90-degree drive, which allowed users to back the tractor to tighten the belt. The Allis 6-12, on the other hand, was a nightmare in this regard; its pulley was located in the middle of the tractor.
Danny owns a 1919 Allis 6-12 and a 1919 Indiana 5-10, and he says that he’s tried to hook up the belt on the Allis. Once. ‘And only once.’
Probably more detrimental to the Moline Universal than imitation was the assembly line. According to historian Williams, Moline had devised a mass production system of sorts. ‘The tractors were built in one place, with men bringing parts in wheelbarrows as they were needed. It was far more efficient than making them in onesies and twosies, but it wasn’t nearly as efficient as an assembly line.’
But, he said, the advent and use of the assembly line by Henry Ford in producing the Fordson probably rang the death knell for the Universal.
‘The (Fordson) tractor wasn’t better than the Universal. It wasn’t anywhere near as advanced,’ William says. ‘But Ford made it cheaper and put tractors in the price range of more farmers. It wasn’t until he came out with the Ferguson plow system that the Fordson finally matched the versatility of the Universal, though.’
And, finally, not even the management of luminaries such as automobile magnate John N. Willys, who bought a controlling amount of stock in 1918, could save the Universal from the final blows inflicted by the war and the agricultural depression.
Nearing bankruptcy, the company quit producing tractors and most implements in 1923, limping along until 1929 when it merged with the Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co.
Williams says that when the Universal went, it took the idea of an ‘all-purpose tractor’ with it -for a while, at least. It wasn’t until the Farmall Regular came on the scene about 1924 that people decided that an ‘all-purpose’ tractor might work.
‘Even then,’ Williams says, ‘in some ways, the Universal might have been a better tractor than the Farmall Regular.’
Danny Buckert has a different opinion, though: ‘I guess it would have been better than following horses, but it’s not much of a tractor.’