Ageless Iron: Motor cultivator craze

  • 01

    During the first two decades of the twentieth century, engineers threw their rule books out the window in search of a tractor that would meet the growing need for a lightweight machine that could run down rows. Out of the myriad unusual -- if not downright outlandish -- configurations that emerged from this period, the most predominant design was the motor cultivator.

  • 02

    That concept was first introduced by the Universal Tractor Manufacturing Company in 1914. The motor cultivator design allowed the machine to maneuver down crop rows to tackle growing-season tillage chores. Yet, they were fully versatile tractors capable of pulling primary tillage tools (plows and disks), planting gear, or forage harvest equipment.

  • 03

    Although there were variations on the motor cultivator design theme, the majority of the machines on the market emulated Universal Tractor’s Model 10-12 configuration. That tractor featured two front wheels powered by a two-cylinder engine nestled between those wheels. Trailing behind were two smaller wheels to support the driver and implements.

  • 04

    The Universal tractor also made history, thanks to its unique steering system. The tractor was articulated at its midsection. A pinion gear and gear rack that acted like a pivot point for steering were positioned in that location. This composition established the Universal as the first successful articulated tractor on the market. It was a design that four-wheel-drive vehicle makers would copy decades later.

  • 05

    Moline Plow Company took notice of Universal Tractor and purchased the company in 1915. It then made some major improvements to the tractor before reintroducing it as the Moline Universal Model D in 1917. Those improvements included equipping the tractor with such advances as a high-tension ignition system, super-sensitive electric governor, starter, and headlights that operated off a battery.

  • 06

    Other manufacturers took note of Moline Plow’s success. Universal D knockoffs as well as variations quickly hit the market. In fact, by 1919, at least 18 firms were building a motor cultivator. “The motor cultivator...may overtake and even eclipse the manufacturing production of tractors inside of three years,” Agrimotor Magazine prophesied that same year.

  • 07

    Not to be outdone by upstart Moline Plow, International Harvester took a unique approach to its motor cultivator configuration by driving its vehicle with two rear wheels that pivoted for steering on headlands. The tractor’s engine sat directly over these wheels to “assure ample traction, eliminate the need for a differential, and make it possible for the motor cultivator to turn within its own length,” IHC bragged at the time.

  • 08

    Another variation included more traditional configurations built by Avery, Bailor, Emerson-Brantingham, and J.I. Case. These motor cultivators featured a single front steering wheel positioned just ahead of a midframe-mounted engine. Behind that engine were two rear-drive wheels with implements either mounted to the rear axle or drawn by a rear hitch. Thus, these machines represented some of the first tricycle tractors in agriculture.

  • 09

    For all its advantages, interest in the motor cultivator soon waned, as a new generation of more powerful, lightweight tractors built around the traditional configuration of two drive wheels at the rear and two steering wheels up front hit the market. The rate at which the motor cultivator disappeared from the market was as dazzling as its meteoric emergence. By 1924, just 10 years after its introduction, this vehicle concept had all but disappeared.

  • 10

    For all their oddity, these cultivators were just one group of the "weird" farm machinery of the early 20th century. Tractors saw just as much of a departure from what we consider "normal" today. Here are a few of the machines from the era "when tractors went weird."

Check out these oddities that some thought would become more popular than tractors.

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