Universal Appeal of the Universal Tractor

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From a 1919 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.

The Universal was redesigned for 1918 with a four-cylinder engine, while standard equipment included an electric governor, starter and lights, all firsts in the tractor industry. The 3 1/2″x5″ engine developed 27.45 belt and 17.4 drawbar horsepower at Nebraska. The machine cost $1,325 in 1920, and weighed 3,380 pounds, including the concrete ballast inside the drive wheels. This ballast was added at the factory in order to lower the tractor’s center of gravity, since the machine was notorious for upsets. Another drawback was the difficulty in backing up: the hinge point between tractor and implement tended to buckle upward when the heavy front started pushing a lighter implement to the rear.

The universal design never became really popular, with most models out of production by the mid-’20s. The idea probably made a lot of sense at the time, since it put the pulling power up front, where the horse farmer was used to having it. Then, too, most any horse-drawn implement could be easily adapted to the tractor by shortening the tongue and drilling a couple of holes. The driver rode on the implement seat, where he could reach all the adjusting levers and controls, assuring good work without buying expensive new tractor implements.

The Moline Plow Company fell on hard times in the post-war depression of the early ’20s, and stopped building tractors and many of its other machines in 1923. After several years of struggle, a merger was worked out with Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Company of Minneapolis, and the Minneapolis Threshing Machine Company of Hopkins, Minn. This merger, in March 1929, resulted in the Minneapolis-Moline Power Implement Company. Minneapolis-Moline went on to become one of the major farm equipment companies in the country, producing a full line of machinery, until being bought by the White Motor Company in 1963.

A lot of the Moline Universal tractors have been preserved and restored, and are seen at shows, although most of them are the later, four-cylinder versions. The early, two-cylinder machines are pretty rare. FC

Ever since his days as a boy on a farm in western Pennsylvania, Sam Moore has been interested in tractors, trucks and machinery. Now a resident of Salem, Ohio, he collects antique tractors, implements and related items.

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