Names like John Deere and International Harvester still call forth mental pictures of brightly colored farm equipment to this day, but the surprising history of this tractor industry can be best told through the antique tractors that were created during the late-19th and early 20thth centuries. Although tractors have been continuously produced since their creation in the late-19th century, those released during the early production years speak to a time of great innovation and competition between a handful of well-known manufacturers - some of which are still in business today.
Early Development of Antique Tractors
The earliest examples of tractor-like farm equipment come in the form of steam-powered engines, which could complete individual tasks such as separating grain, but they weren't self-propelled and had to be navigated throughout the fields using draft animals. However, Charles Hart and Charles Parr launched the first self-propelled traction engine in 1903, entirely changing the dynamic of the farming industry at the time. In fact, it was through their invention that the tractor got its name. Yet, people were more interested in lightweight tractors, which Hart and Parr's invention certainly wasn't, and sales from companies like John Deere and International Harvester increased accordingly during the 1920s and '30s. Engine innovations in the mid-century inspired these companies to investigate other means of power than the internal combustion engine, but diesel remained the most lucrative type of tractor engine with diesel tractors still being used today.
Antique Tractor Manufacturers
Most of the early tractor manufacturers come from a similar vein of modern industry, making farming equipment or something similarly mechanical, so their transitions into making tractors was a natural progression. Of course, since tractors have been around for a little over a hundred years, it's nearly impossible to condense the entire catalog of new editions and models, but here are a few of the major developments across the most significant competitors during these early years.
Hart & Parr
Charles Hart and Charles Parr were two college friends and business partners who created the first mass-produced, self-propelled tractor in 1903 named the "Old Number One." This 14,000 pound tractor only had about 30 horsepower, and while it did allow the two men to establish an early tractor business, it wasn't enough to sustain them. So in 1929, Hart & Parr was absorbed by the Oliver Corporation, another longstanding farming equipment and tractor company.
Another early manufacturer of farming tractors was the well-known American company, Ford. Ford isn't known for its tractors today, and that's because they abandoned tractor sales in 1928 despite their revolutionary release of the fast-paced production Fordson tractor. Quickly, Ford faced declining profits and chose to continue investing in its already established automotive line. Thankfully they did so for all of you Ford lovers out there, since it freed them up to be able to focus on creating the cars you know and love.
The Oliver Corporation began as the Oliver Chilled Plow Works in the mid-19th century as a plow-selling venture for James Oliver, who started getting into the tractor business when he merged with Hart-Parr to create the Oliver Farm Equipment Company. Oliver manufactured a variety of farming equipment, including their tractors, but merged in the mid-century with White Motors. This resulted in the last Oliver tractor rolling off the assembly line in 1976.
J.I. Case Company
The J.I. Case Company began as the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co. in the mid-19th century, and the New York native, J.I. Case, eventually switched to manufacturing steam engines. In 1912, he added his first 2-cylinder gasoline tractors to the product line, and he maintained a lucrative source of revenue with this product. However, the company just couldn't compete with the onset of Ford's accessible Fordson machine, and they sold out to Massey-Harris in 1928.
Massey-Ferguson actually began as Massey-Harris, a manufacturing company that didn't begin producing tractors under the food demands of World War I put their market position at risk. Thus, Massey-Harris began making tractors using another company's designs. Unlike many other businesses during the Great Depression, Massey-Harris thrived under Ford's declining sales and its acquisition of the J.I. Case Plow Works company to make it a leading tractor manufacturer. Its first in-house tractor, titled the General Purpose, was released in 1930, and established the company in its own right. They acquired the Ferguson-Brown company in 1936 and changed their name to the Massey-Ferguson Company in 1953.
The Big Three
While there were hundreds of individual antique tractor manufacturers during the industry's early years, there are three that stand out for their competitiveness, ingenuity, and market clout, though their early years are the ones that need to be focused on here. These big three tractor companies are Allis-Chalmers, International Harvester, and John Deere.
Edward Allis launched the Allis-Chalmers company in 1861 as a recession purchase of an established company that made sawmills and flour mills. The company survived the Panic of 1873 and was renamed the Edward P. Allis & Company under his control. By the time of his death in 1889, Allis had grown his company to be the forefront maker of sawmills and flour mills, as well as established it as a steam engine manufacturing giant. Therefore, making tractors using their steam engines was a natural fit for the newly named Allis-Chalmers company. Buying the failing Advance-Rumely Thresher Company in 1931 helped push it into becoming one of the most lucrative tractor manufacturers ever, just behind International Harvester and John Deere. Here are some of the early models of tractors that Allis-Chalmers produced:
- Allis-Chalmers U (1929-1952)
- Allis-Chalmers UC (1930-1941)
- Allis-Chalmers WC (1933-1948)
- Allis-Chalmers WD (1948-1953)
International Harvester began as an amalgamation of five different companies, two of which - McCormick and Deering - were already steady rivals and had been struggling for decades to settle on a merging agreement. The House of JP Morgan stepped in and negotiated the merger in 1902, launching what would become one of the best known tractor companies in history - International Harvester. This manufacturer was well known for its advancements, such as creating the first commercial power take off tractor in 1919 and the first row-crop tractor, the Farmall. This Farmall brand was so successful, that by the 1930s, International Harvester had dominated 44% of the American market. Here are some of the early models of tractors that International Harvester produced:
- IH Type A-D (1908-1914)
- IH Mogul (1911-1919)
- IH Titan (1912-1917)
- IH Farmall (1924-1932)
The creator of perhaps the most famous tractor company to ever exist, John Deere was a successful blacksmith who independently worked in the plow manufacturing business in the mid-19th century. His self-titled company didn't transition into the tractor business until they acquired the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. in 1918. Waterloo had a long history of making tractors, having developed the first gasoline-powered tractor in 1892. It wasn't until 1923 that John Deere released its first self-named tractor, the Model D, and the rest is history. Here are some of the early models of tractors that John Deere produced:
- John Deere (under the Waterloo name) AWD (1918-1919)
- John Deere D (1923-1953)
- John Deere C (1927-1928)
- John Deere A (1934-1952)
Antique Tractors Represent Overlooked History
Whether you're a fifth-generation farmer who's well-acquainted with the inner workings of the tractor or someone who has an interest in antique mechanics and engineering, you can enjoy the uniquely competitive and progressively adaptive historic tractor market and the brightly colored products that it released. Of course the story of the tractor industry doesn't end in at the end of the Great Depression, but the coming war upended the nature of the market itself so entirely that this section of the timeline is particularly special.