1929 Ford Autotrac. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
The farm tractor has contributed immeasurably to agricultural mechanization. It began when Charles Hart and Charles Parr of Charles City, Iowa, made their first production Hart-Parr tractor in 1902.
There were already large, steam powered “road locomotives” in use, but while suitable for threshing grain, and other belt work, they were too large and cumbersome for general farm use. They also required a skilled operator.
The Hart-Parr was a convenient size, and tractors gradually began replacing horses, a trend which accelerated following the introduction of the Fordson tractor in 1917. Henry Ford aimed to do for farming what his ubiquitous Model T car did for road transportation.
While tractors were becoming popular, not all farmers could afford them. For those of more modest means, or with small acreage, there evolved an aftermarket solution in the form of kits that converted automobiles into farm traction machines.
One type was a kit that could be attached to a car, but left the car intact. The Model T Ford was the world’s most popular car during the early part of the century, so it attracted many such kits. It is estimated that between 1908 and 1917 more than 40 U.S. companies offered these Model T add-ons.
These included the Auto Pull Company of Glencoe, Minnesota (“Does the work of 4 or 5 horses at the cost of one”), and the Pullford Company of Quincy, Illinois. Conversion usually involved fitting large, cleated rims over the car’s rear wheels, with some form of reduction gear. An auxiliary cooling fan was often fitted to prevent engine overheating.
Removal of the kit returned the Model T to a road car, and the Auto Pull Company claimed that a T could be converted to a tractor in 10 minutes, and back to a car in five. Pullford said their conversion took 30 minutes.
A more satisfactory and somewhat later solution was a machine called the autotrac. It was a kind of “poor man’s tractor” that was half car and half tractor. It gradually gained in popularity, which accelerated during the Second World War when regular tractors were
The autotrac was built using prefabricated parts, and once a car was converted there was no going back. An autotrac was constructed by removing the passenger cabin, cutting off the back part of the car’s frame ahead of the rear axle, and replacing it with a commercially available kit. These would fit a variety of cars built up to the early 1930s, cars that were still around although their road-going days were usually over.
The main elements of the kit were a frame with drawbar, a pair of large steel-cleated or rubber-clad tractor wheels with large internal ring gears fitted just inside the rims, and an axle and steel pinions that were attached to the car’s axles and engaged the internal gears. The car’s wheelbase was usually shortened for better manoeuvrability and access to implements.
The conversion kits could be installed by a local garage or blacksmith shop, or a skilled farmer with the instructions supplied.
Several companies, including the Sears Roebuck mail order house in Chicago, offered autotrac kits. The Sears kit was designed for Ford Models T and A, and Chevrolets. The Worthington Company of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, sold assembled Ford-based autotracs, also referred to as doodlebugs.
A major manufacturer of autotrac kits was the OTACO company of Orillia, Ontario. The OTACO name was an acronym for the Orillia Tudhope Anderson Company that had been formed in 1902 to market the wagons and farm implements produced by the Tudhope Carriage Company. The Tudhope Motor Car Co. would later manufacture automobiles of both high-wheel and conventional design.
The OTACO autotrac kit was based on a design being built by the Pullford Company of Rockford, Illinois (presumably the aforementioned company, now relocated). When OTACO representatives visited the principals of Pullford to inquire about manufacturing the kits in Canada, they were apparently told that if they bought a kit they could go ahead and begin making them with no royalties. Such generosity would be highly unusual today.
OTACO began manufacturing autotrac kits during the Second World War, and by the time they stopped production in the early 1960s more than 6,000 had been built. They were sold in Canada and the U.S., and served farmers well. Although the OTACO kits were intended to fit all older cars, such as Plymouths, Chevrolets, Whippets and Stars, the most popular base for autotracs was the 1928 – 1931 Model A Ford. Fords were sturdy, simple and plentiful, and parts were readily available, all good reasons for using them.
Autotracs are little remembered now, but they played an important role in agriculture. There are still enthusiasts collecting and restoring them, and keeping alive the memories of those simpler days.