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The First Practical Four-Wheel Drive Tractor

The idea of utilizing all four wheels of a tractor to promote traction was not an entirely unknown concept when it popped into John Fitch’s brain as he plowed a field on his Mason County, Michigan, farm in 1910.

Several manufacturers had toyed with the idea prior to this time. A couple of years after Fitch’s brainstorm, Nelson Company introduced its 4-Wheel-Drive that used hardened chains to deliver power to all four wheels.

Fitch’s first tractor, built in 1915, was unique in the use of driveshafts to transfer power to differentials on both front and rear axles. That advance, along with the fact that the firm Fitch founded, the Four-Drive Tractor Company, remained in business until 1930, qualifies it as the first practical four-wheel-drive tractor.

The strongest evidence of the tractor’s popularity is the fact that the firm produced eight different models of the Four-Drive. A further testament is the fact that Four-Drive flourished even after John Fitch’s untimely death in 1916. Investors not only continued to market the tractor after his death, but also expanded its distribution across the U.S. and even overseas. Four-Drives were sold in Canada, Mexico, Africa, South America, and Australia.

field test of endurance

To prove the tractor’s superior traction, the company staged an extraordinary promotional stunt in July 1918. During the National Tractor Demonstration in Wichita, Kansas, a Four-Drive model 20-35 pulled a four-bottom plow nonstop and through a rainstorm for 88 hours, tilling 100 acres. 

That demonstration and extensive advertising caused the model 20-35 to become the mainstay of the Four-Drive line from that moment on until the demise of the company 12 years later. 

This, the most popular Fitch built, utilized a Climax four-cylinder engine that was paired up with a four-speed transmission. All told, the model 20-35 weighed 6,000 pounds and offered an amazing turning radius of 7½ feet.

The original Four-Drive models produced were designated as 15-26 or 16-26. These machines employed a four-cylinder Waukesha engine. With a 72-inch wheelbase and an 8-foot turning radius, these 3,000-pound Goliaths sold for $1,000.

The even larger 20-35 weighed in at 5,100 pounds and fetched a selling price of $2,500. Other Four-Drive models that sold during the firm’s existence included the 12-25, 12-24, 12-20, 15-28, and 15-30.

Further details on the Four-Drive line and its creator can be found at a beautifully illustrated website created by Chris Dixon, the great-great-grandson of John Fitch. Visit the site at facebook.com/Fitch-Four-Drive-Tractor-228452961229/

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