Ferruccio Lamborghini didn’t start out as a builder of supercars. His first success came in the form of tractors and agricultural equipment. Here’s a look at the long and illustrious history of automaker-built tractors.
With Spring bustin’ out all over, farmers everywhere will pull their John Deere’s and Internationals from the barn for planting season. We figure it’s time to take a look at the long and illustrious history of automaker-built tractors.
Tractors and cars at the turn of the 20th century couldn’t be further apart in design. Where cars were just coming into their own and the path of electric drive, steam power or internal combustion was still being sorted out, tractors had been steam driven since the late 1800's. More or less steam locomotives on wheels, they were huge, expensive, hot, dangerous machines requiring several men to fuel and operate and they weren’t particularly powerful. When the early automakers began settling on internal combustion engines as the future, they also set their sights on the farm industry. There was a lot of land to be plowed out west and a lot of money to be made on agricultural equipment, gasoline engines developed for cars could be repurposed for heavier duty operation and sold to farmers everywhere, and they were. Here are a few examples of automakers building tractors, and occasionally tractor manufacturers turning out automobiles, sometimes with great success.
One of the earliest gasoline tractor manufacturers was actually Ford, starting production of Model F tractors in 1917 under the Fordson name and adopting the lessons of mass production applied to their automobiles. It was the first lightweight mass produced tractor in the world. The company was merged with Ford Motor Company and grew steadily over time, and in 1939 introduced the 9N which would become the template for pretty much all future tractors. It featured rubber tires, the now ubiquitous Ferguson three-point hitch system, and power take-off, and easy access to all service points. Ford went on to produce such loved models as the 8N and in 1984 acquire Sperry-Holland Tractors, forming Ford New Holland which was eventually sold to Fiat in 1991. In 2000 the Ford name was no longer applied to farm tractors.
In 1917, General Motors acquired the Samson Sieve-Grip Tractor Company of Stockton California and put down plans for a line of cars and trucks to match the planned tractors. The initial offering was to be a proto-van designed as a nine-passenger vehicle with removable seats for cargo hauling, but was never marketed. A series of tractor prototypes were produced including the above, of which two copies were built at the Pontiac Truck plant. The more refined Model M was produced in 1919 but was wildly expensive in comparison to the competition from Ford. An “Iron Horse” model was produced in the same year powered by a Chevrolet Series 490 4-cylinder and controlled by an operator walking behind and steering with reigns, just like a horse, the design allowed farmers to use their existing equipment but was also a failure. In all GM lost $33 million on the endeavor and shut down operations in 1923.
Minneapolis Moline was a well-established tractor producer by the time it decided to dip its toe into the automotive market in 1938. At the model UDLX Comfortractor was intended to combine the attributes of a car and a tractor, which made some economic sense considering it was introduced towards the end of the Great Depression. The UDLX came fully loaded with the world’s first fully enclosed cabin, it had a heater, opening windows, cigarette lighter, and a second seat for passengers. The top speed of 45 MPH meant using it as a car was entirely reasonable. Unfortunately, the high asking price of $2,150 of limited sales and the model only sold 150 units.
Ferruccio Lamborghini did not start out as a builder of supercars. His first success came in the form of tractors and agricultural equipment. Following WWII, Lamborghini began assembling tractors from surplus war equipment. In 1948 he founded Lamborghini Trattori S.p.A. pretty much out of his garage. His first formal model was the Carioca and even though it was certainly not an attractive machine, it did help push Lamborghini to be the largest agricultural company in Italy. It was only after successively disappointing experiences with Enzo Ferrari’s cars that Ferruccio decided he could build a better sports car. It was only when the company saw a series of setbacks in the ‘70s and fell on financial trouble that Trattoria was sold to rival manufacturer SAME though they’re still marketed under the same brand.
Ferdinand Porsche was a man of many interests and talents. Round about the same time he was deep in the development Volkswagen Beetle, he was also working on designs for a people’s tractor. A Volkstraktor if you will. Several prototypes were produced in 1934 fitted with air-cooled diesel engines in one through four-cylinder setups with interchangeable parts. Of course, there was a little thing that happened in Germany at around the same time period which had the effect of shelving the project. Following that bit of nastiness, several companies licensed the engine designs but Mannesmann AG decided to license Porsche’s complete tractors in 1956 and began production. Between 1956 and 1963 when the license agreement ended, over 125,000 Porsche tractors were produced, all a compact, sleek, low orchard-style design which did well across Europes varied terrains.
In In 1922, Congress passed the Capper-Volstead Act which allowed farmers and ranchers the ability to legally work together for mutual benefit, this had the effect of creating the Farm Bureau co-operative, which acted on behalf of farmers to improve and investigate methods of farming. As farming moved into the mechanized era it was decided development of a tractor would be beneficial to the member farmers. By 1935 the Bureau finalized an agreement with the Parrett Tractor Company to produce a product which would suit the needs of their farmers. The first offering was deemed underpowered and a Chrysler engine and transmission was installed. Over the successive generations the effort became branded as CO-OP tractors and regularly contained Chrysler power including a 242 cubic inch straight six.
Fiat is a massive conglomerate with tentacles in all manner of manufacturing. We think of Fiat as the Italian masters holding the reins at Chrysler, but they’re just the car division. Fiat has been in the tractor biz for a long time, operating in the agricultural arena since 1919 and is actually second only in size to the 800lb gorilla that is John Deere. It’s sucked up brands including New Holland (which includes Versatile and Ford Tractors) and Case (which includes Case, International, Farmall and others). If you haven’t heard of Fiat tractors you probably live in the US where no Fiat-branded tractors are sold.
Citroen? Yep, Citroen built a tractor too, only one, and it was very tiny. The Citroen tractor weighed only 1760 lbs and was powered by a 12 HP four cylinder engine very much like the Citroen Model A car engine. It was marketed primarily as an orchard tractor and sold a grand total of about 500 units during its two years of production. The company did dabble in the idea of half-track tractors, but nothing was ever put to market. Just look how cute this one is.
Mitsubishi is another of those massive conglomerates which produces tractors pretty much by default. In operation since 1980, Mitsubishi markets their products along the compact and utility tractor segments and has been sold in the US under the Cub Cadet brand in the past. Most Mitsu tractor products are sold in the Asia-Pacific region where farms tend to be smaller.
International is another case (Hah, Case! Sorry, tractor history humor) of tractor manufacturer dabbling in automobiles. Though IH had been building heavy trucks and ag-centric vehicles since the 20's, its vehicular production is defined by one vehicle, the International Scout. One of the most-loved early SUVs, the Scout was built as a competitor to the Jeeps of the era and did so rather successfully with a simple, rugged, bulletproof design. Exterior Scout styling varied little during the production run between 1961 through 1980 but a variety of body and powertrain options filled many niches in the segment. The Scout production ended when IH was purchased by Case but you can find a huge number of them still crawling trails all across the country.
There is undoubtedly many more ties between the tractor and automobile industry, some lost to time or simply so esoteric as to be ridiculous. We’ve barely scratched the surface with this piece, but the tie between the automobile and the tractor is a fascinating and circuitous trail, feel free to go get lost on it.