Universal Appeal of the Universal Tractor

The Universal Tractor's simple design couldn't survive the march of progress

| October 1998

  • From a1919 advertisement for the Moline Universal Tractor
    From a 1919 advertisement for the Moline Universal Tractor

  • From a1919 advertisement for the Moline Universal Tractor

Between 1910 and 1920, the number of tractor manufacturers in the U.S. ballooned from 10 to 190, with almost as many different ideas of how a tractor should be built as there were tractor builders. One configuration, the "Universal," was tried by several companies, with varying degrees of success.  

The first all-purpose, or "universal" tractor, seems to have been invented and patented in 1912 by John I. Hoke of Washington, Ind. Hoke's design had the engine and transmission mounted over and between the two 60-inch-diameter drive wheels. A steering wheel and other controls extended to the rear, where the driver sat, either on the seat of an attached, horse-drawn implement, or on a one- or two-wheeled sulky. Steering was accomplished by a pinion on the end of the steering shaft that engaged a curved rack on the rear of the engine unit. This setup resulted in the tractor being articulated, or hinged, between the power unit and the drawn implement, allowing short turns.

The Hoke Tractor Co. was established at South Bend, Ind., to build the Hoke Light Farm Tractor, but didn't last long, going out of business before 1920. However, other manufacturers tried the "Universal" tractor design. One of the more successful was the Moline Universal.

In 1914, the Universal Tractor Mfg. Co. was organized in Columbus, Ohio, to build the Universal Motor Cultivator, which was advertised for $385 with a one-row cultivator. Powered by a two-cylinder, horizontally-opposed Reliable engine that boasted such advanced features as a Dixie high-tension ignition and force-feed lubrication, the machine was said to be "Faster than Horses, and Can Work Constantly." The "Light, Simple, Powerful Tractor" could be put to "A Hundred Uses," among which, besides cultivating all manner of crops, were pulling mowers, rakes, harrows, and planters of all kinds. With a front-mounted belt pulley, it could operate a "pump, wood saw, feed grinder, corn sheller, washing machine, chum, electric light plant, or any other light appliances of the modern farm." Sounds as though Universal was trying to enlist the farmer's wife in its sales effort.

By 1913, the Moline Plow Co. was looking to get into the motor plow business, and tested a design that had been built for them by IHC. This machine proved unsatisfactory, so in November of 1915, Moline Plow Co. bought the rights to Universal Tractor Company's motor cultivator for $150,000.

Moline soon started making the two-cylinder engine itself, along with special implements for use with the tractor, such as a two-row cultivator, two-bottom plow, disc/harrows, grain drills, a corn planter and a 10-foot grain binder.


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