A very successful vehicle and, dare I type it, a sidehill gouger of the farm tractor industry: The Moline Universal Tractor

A Moline Plow Company advertisement showing a Moline Universal Tractor in action. Anon. “Moline Plow Company.” L’Agriculture nouvelle, 10 December 1921, 707.

I offer you an agricultural greeting on this December day, my reading friend. Assuming you are passionate about aviation, yours truly is afraid you will not have much to sink your fangs into. Sorry.

Have you by any chance read the fascinating article which appeared in a November 2021 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee about the Beeman Junior or Model G garden tractor / walking tractor of the American firm Beeman Garden Tractor Company? Ah, that is too bad. You are therefore forcing me to bust your chops with the following few words…

As the 20th century began, in 1901 and not in 1900, given the sensitive nature of their crops, the proprietors of truck farms in the United States primarily used human labour, as well as equine labour, to plant and cultivate said crops. And yes, yours truly readily admits that I had no idea of what a truck farm was / is, in other words a farm dedicated to the production of vegetables which are later sold to the public.

Now I ask you, my reading friend, do you think that American truck farm proprietors would pass up the opportunity to replace their human and equine labour force by machines, reliable ones of course, in order to reduce their production overhead and enlarge their profit margin? Is the pope Polish, err, Argentinian?

Mind you, certain owners of small farms might also have been willing to consider the possibility of replacing ye olde dobbin. End of chop busting.

However, this wish was tinged with a certain concern linked to the loss of control felt by these farmers when they operated a tractor which, unlike the olde dobbin, would not necessarily keep the same path without human intervention. They had to choose between looking forward to make sure the tractor, often too big for their daily needs, was going where they wanted it to go or looking backward to see how the implement towed by said tractor was doing.

It was to meet these types of needs that Universal Tractor Manufacturing Company was established in the United States in 1914. A prototype of the vehicle which could fulfill these needs may, I repeat may, have been made by a well-known American horse-drawn vehicle manufacturer, Ohio Carriage Manufacturing Company.

The very concept of the Universal Motor Cultivator, that is 2 front wheels powered by an engine and 2 smaller rear wheels to support the operator and attach implements to, with an articulation system between these 2 sections, made it a particularly agile vehicle. In fact, it was the first successful articulated tractor on the market. With its engine and drive wheels placed in front of the farmer driving it, the Universal Motor Cultivator’s steering column, throttle and brake controls looked pretty much like the tight reins of a horse-drawn vehicle.

By design, the Universal Motor Cultivator was more suited to row cropping than most tractors of its day. That same front-wheel-drive concept was also familiar to farmers whose work implements were, let us not forget, horse-drawn. Capable of pulling a variety of work implements (harrows, mowers, planters and plows), the Universal Motor Cultivator was also most versatile. This was because a front-mounted belt pulley could power a wood saw, pump, washing machine, corn husker or food grinder, among other things. Best of all, the Universal Motor Cultivator was not particularly expensive.

Impressed by the Universal Motor Cultivator, an American firm acquired Universal Tractor Manufacturing around December 1915. Indeed, the firm in question was then selling plows which could be used with that vehicle.

According to some, Moline Plow Company had been interested in the design of a motorised plow since 1913. In cahoots with a well-known American firm, International Harvester Company, it manufactured a few (5?) prototypes which turned out to be worse than mediocre. In search of other ideas, the management of the firm ended up concluding that it would be wiser to acquire the rights of production of a vehicle which worked than to try to design one while praying to heaven that it would not be a lemon – or lime. Sorry.

Moline Plow was born around 1852, under a very different name. Candee, Swan & Company then manufactured winnowers, hay rakes, etc. Around 1865, it began the production of plows, quickly christened Moline plows, plows almost identical to those of another firm established in the burg where Candee, Swan & Company was located, plows also known under the name of Moline plows. That resemblance should have come as no surprise, as a disgruntled ex-employee of Deere, Tate & Gould Company contributed much to the concept of the Candee, Swan & Company plow.

The 2 firms soon found themselves in court to find out which one could use the name of said burg in their advertisements. Given that this name could not be protected by copyright, Deere, Tate & Gould, which had become Deere & Company around 1868, yes, yes, that Deere & Company, lost its case in 1870, I think. Candee, Swan & Company, on the other hand, changed its name to Moline Plow around 1870.

In the years which followed, Moline Plow continued on its own sweet way, producing a line of horse-drawn plows and other implements (wagons, chariots, etc.) to serve the vast American agricultural market.

The firm also absorbed various small wagon and carriage manufacturing firms. One only needed to think of Adriance, Platt & Company, acquired in 1913 – Adriance’s name being mentioned in the advertisement at the heart of this article in our blog / bulletin / thingee, an advertisement published in several / many issues of L’Agriculture nouvelle, a weekly agricultural supplement illustrated of one of the major Parisian / French dailies of the time, Le Petit Parisien.

Around December 1915, as was said (typed?) above, Moline Plow acquired Universal Tractor Manufacturing, to get hold of both his patents and the Universal Motor Cultivator. Modified somewhat by the staff of Moline Plow, that excellent vehicle became the Moline Universal Tractor, or Moline Universal, produced from the summer of 1916 onward.

A Moline Universal Tractor built around 1918 at the antique gas engine and tractor show held in Dexter, Michigan, June 2010. Ellenm1 via Wikimedia.

A version of the Universal Tractor released in 1918 was the first mass-produced tractor to be equipped with an electric starter and electric headlights, this at a time when electric starters were not present on most automobiles in circulation in North America. Oddly enough, the Universal Tractor did not appear to have an air filter, which significantly reduced the life of its engine.

Moline Plow introduced a full range of new implements to accompany that version dating from 1918, including grain binders, disc harrows, mowers, rakes and manure spreaders.

Allow me to mention before I go any further in this pontification that the Universal Tractor’s engine and frame were painted red, while its wheels were painted yellow.

Moline Plow’s advertising claimed that his Universal Tractor could replace 6 horses. This being said (typed?), purchasing it obviously did not require replacing all of the animal-drawn implements a farmer already owned. These implements included binders, cultivators, harrows, mowers, plows, seeders, etc.

A first somewhat unusual detail if I may. Given that the Universal Tractor’s weight was shifted somewhat to the left side, due to the positioning of its engine, Moline Plow staff poured concrete into the right front wheel to keep the vehicle balanced.

A second somewhat unusual detail if I may. The left front wheel of the Universal Tractor could be raised, allowing the vehicle to run level when the other front wheel was rolling in a furrow. Dare I say (type?) that the Universal Tractor was a sidehill gouger of the farm tractor industry? Sorry.

The sidehill gouger, or Membriinequales declivitous, the binomial / scientific name for that formidable species of North American mountain herbivorous mammal, may, I repeat may, be a distant cousin of the dahu, or Dahutus montanus, of Western Europe. Indeed, for example, individuals of these species can be dextrogyrous or levogyrous, in other words rightlegged and leftlegged.

And if you believe that story, my reading friend, I have a flying example of the Avro CF-105 Arrow for sale for a pittance. It is in a barn in Saskatchewan. Cash only, no cryptocurrency, but back to our story.

It should be noted that, according to some, the Universal Tractor was noted for a certain tendency to tip over. Some said / say that vehicle could / can rear up like a rodeo bull when put into reverse without a towed load, which could / can be dangerous, even fatal, in a barn with a somewhat low ceiling.

This being said (typed?), the Universal Tractor was so popular that the major American firm Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company began production, in 1918, of the Allis-Chalmers Model 6-12 row crop tractor. Deeming that this inexpensive quality vehicle infringed its patents, Moline Plow vehemently protested. Indeed, Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing may, I repeat may, have paid damages to its rival.

Would you believe that over 15 American firms were producing 3- or 4-wheeler vehicles more or less similar to the Universal Tractor in the late 1910s and / or early 1920s? I kid you not. And no, the management of Moline Plow was not amused.

Would you also believe that Moline Plow may, I repeat may, have produced around 20 000 Universal Tractors in 1918?

Before I forget, part 1, the Universal Tractor appeared to be first mentioned in a Canadian daily in January 1918. Said daily was The Calgary Daily Herald of Calgary, Alberta. One could find therein an advertisement from General Supplies Limited of Calgary extolling the merits of Moline Plow’s vehicle. Universal Tractors also participated in at least 2 demonstrations of tractors on Canadian soil in 1918, in Coburg, Ontario, and Brandon, Manitoba.

Before I forget, part 2, the collection of the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, a sister / brother institution of the miraculously good Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, includes a Universal Tractor.

And no, the Universal Tractor was not the only tractor produced by Moline Plow. The latter produced an Orchard Tractor, for orchard owners, and a Road Tractor, for road owners. Sorry. That vehicle was in fact a tractor used for road works. These 2 tractors were seemingly produced (in small numbers?) in the late 1910s and / or early 1920s.

A truck with the same engine as these tractors, the engine of the 1918 version of the Universal Tractor in fact, to simplify production, rolled out of the factory in late 1920. It was seemingly not produced in large numbers.

Anxious to further diversify its activities, Moline Plow entered the automotive sector in 1916 with medium-priced but good quality vehicles produced by its Stephens Motor Works division.

Also anxious to further diversify its activities, the American automobile manufacturer Willys-Overland Company acquired a majority stake in Moline Plow in September 1918. The latter, however, continued to operate without rebranding.

Although Moline Plow was one of the largest (fifth?) manufacturers of agricultural equipment in the world at the outbreak of the First World War, it was far beyond its financial capacity and owed its creditors a great deal of money by the time the 1910s ended.

You see, Moline Plow had shipped thousands and thousands of binders, mowers and reapers to the Russian Empire in 1917. At the risk of oversimplifying things, that empire gave way to the Rossiyskaya Sovetskaya Respublika, then to the Rossiyskaya Sotsialisticheskaya Federativnaya Sovetskaya Respublika, as a result of the October Revolution. And yes, the new government established by brute force by the Rossiyskaya Kommunisticheskaya Partiya (bol’shevikov) refused to pay the imperial government’s bills. Imagine that. I mean, if one cannot trust a Bolshevik, whom can one trust?

And yes, that was a rhetorical question. Sarcasm? Yes, Sheldon.

Would you believe that the version dubbed in French, by French actors from France, of The Big Bang Theory is entitled… The Big Bang Theory? I mean, would La Théorie du Grand Boom not have been a very acceptable title? Yours truly must admit to being a tad annoyed by, dare I say (type?) it, the anglolatry of many French women and men. I mean, how not to hit the roof when you hear a supremely elegant Parisian, female or male, who is barely out of diapers, say with that prodigious accent capable of splitting an oxygen molecule that one of their “bestahs” knows some of the very “chill” and “swag” “pipoles” who have just started a “mastère en management” at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne? Sorry, sorry. Yes, yes, I will chill. Sigh.

Is not the use of the Russian-language names of the various Soviet organisations typed above a tad pedantic, you ask, my reading friend? Yes, it is, and your point is? But back to our story and the troubles of Moline Plow, and… Pedantic, me?! Yes, yes, I will chill.

The introduction in 1917 of a new tractor, the Ford Fordson, produced by Henry Ford and Son Company, a firm created by, you guessed it, Henry Ford himself, a character mentioned in several issues of our blog / newsletter / thingee since August 2018, was also a game-changer.

That vehicle was certainly no better than the Universal Tractor. Nay. Henry Ford and Son also did not produce a single binder, cultivator, harrow, mower, planter, plow or seeder – an omission which reduced the impact of the Fordson in the months following its entry into service. Using an assembly line, however, cut its cost, allowing more farmers to purchase a tractor.

By comparison, Universal Tractors did not move from one workstation to another, thanks to a conveyor system. Each vehicle was built in a certain space at the Moline Plow factory, with workers bringing parts in wheelbarrows as needed.

After the First World War ended, Moline Plow hoped to restore its finances to some extent by selling many tractors, in many places, both inside and outside the United States. The catch was that the early 1920s were not a happy time for American farmers. An unfavourable economic situation caused by the 1919 recession and the 1920-21 depression caused havoc throughout the land. The cutthroat competition which prevailed during the tractor war of 1921-22 only made things worse for manufacturers.

The last Universal Tractor left the factory in 1923. The last Stephens automobile, by then produced by Stephens Motor Car Company, a firm created by Willys-Overland in 1922, did the same around July 1924. That same year, Moline Plow sold its tractor factory to the aforementioned International Harvester.

The craze for vehicles similar to the Universal Tractor ended around that time. The tractor as we know it today, in 2021, indeed won over its rival. The reign of the Universal Tractor and its cousins had lasted barely a decade.

With the end of its production of tractors and automobiles, Moline Plow Company Incorporated, a company name adopted around July 1922, turned to the production of implements. In 1925, it became Moline Implement Company. In 1929, the latter joined forces with Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Company and Minneapolis Threshing Machine Company, a duo of fairly large tractor manufacturers, to found Minneapolis-Moline Power Implement Company, itself a tractor manufacturer.

In 1938, the latter began production of what may very well be the first agricultural tractor with an enclosed cabin, a two-seater cabin where Old MacDonald, the farmer of the famous children’s song, could sit with his spouse, on padded seats. The safety glass windshield of the Minneapolis-Moline Model UDLX Comfortractor, or Model U Deluxe, was equipped with wipers. That vehicle also offered its users an ashtray, heater, cigarette lighter, and radio – items unheard of before seen in a farm tractor. The high cost of the Comfortractor and the recession of 1937-38 meant that it sold poorly, however (125 or so examples between 1938 and 1941).

Minneapolis-Moline Power Implement was taken over by an American truck and bus manufacturer, White Motor Company, around 1963. The Minneapolis-Moline trademark disappeared around 1974.

Yours truly dares to hope that this oh, very brief pontification will have captured your interest for a few minutes. See ya.

Old MacDonald had a farm…

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Rénald Fortier