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An Empire rebuilding tractor

I need to put caveat on this week’s story. This tractor (seen below) sold on a Colorado sale yesterday (September 23), so there’s no way to bid on it. I try not to ever do this, but sometimes these things happen.

Furthermore, very few were sold in the United States, and who knows when another one will cross the block? As far as I can tell, 2010 was the last time a complete Empire tractor sold at auction. That said, the Empire 90 is a neat little tractor with an interesting story worth telling. 

Empire tractor

Empire Tractor was incorporated in 1946 by a guy named Frank Cohen in New York. During World War II, he owned several companies in Philadelphia that supplied the Allies in the war efforts. However, once the Germans surrendered, those factories had nothing to do! He developed an idea to put his factories back to work, though, and quite frankly, it was brilliant.

 The plan was to build tractors specifically for export to Europe to help farmers recover from the devastation. There wasn’t much of anything that was super-special about the tractor; honestly, they were just basic two-bottom light-duty farm tractors. The one unique thing about Empire’s design (and Cohen patented this) was the hitch design. It pulled from directly beneath the center of the tractor, which made it nearly impossible to turn over!

Anyway, back to the brilliant plan and all that. Because these tractors were to be exported, Cohen could buy surplus Jeep motors and drivelines from the government for pennies! Empire built the frames, bolted everything into place, and VOILA! . . .they had a tractor to sell to BACK to the government for the Marshall Plan. Empire piled up a ton of these little 40-hp. tractors (6,663 in total) between October 1946 and December 1947!

The Downfall

The government shipped Empires all over the world. For the most part, things went well and the tractors went to work without issue. However, there was a problem with one country.

The Argentinian government declared that Empire tractors were unfit for farming, and refused delivery of the remainder of their order. To make matters worse, Time magazine published a story claiming that the tractors were junk and shouldn’t have been sold in the first place. When it rains, it pours!

A restored Empire tractor
Dave Mowitz

By mid-1948, the bad publicity left Empire Tractor in a real tough spot. They had 1,200 tractors in their inventory, and not a single buyer for any of ’em. Sadly, the company went bankrupt in pretty short order. By 1950, the bank was in the process of liquidating assets. The bank found distributors who sold the remaining 1,294 tractors for about $700 apiece in North America. The tractor that you see here was one of them.

This particular Empire tractor has had three owners. The first owner had some overheating issues with it, so he mounted a bigger radiator from a McCormick-Deering on his Empire.

The second owner was a Wyoming rancher, and owned it for most of its life. He built the three-point and blade setup for cleaning a calving barn. It also raked a little hay, from what I understand. The rubber is good and the little Willys Jeep motor runs like a top!

So that’s the story of how a Time magazine story and a corrupt Argentinian government ruined a tractor company that helped rebuild war-torn Europe. Nobody seems to know how those two pieces of bad publicity came about, but the timing sure seems pretty suspect.  

Hopefully this one ends up in a collector’s hands and gets a full restoration!

If you bought this Emplre, send me an email! I’d love to hear about your plans for it!

Ryan Roossinck

Hi! I’m Ryan, and I love tractors. It doesn’t matter if it’s a showpiece, an oddball, or seen its share of life . . . if it’s unique and it’s listed by one of our auctioneer partners at Tractor Zoom, I’m going to show it off a little bit! I think they’re cool, and I hope you will, too. This is Interesting Iron!

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