Experimental Tractors

Submitted Article
Experimental Tractors
by Danny Bowes (Dsl)

Tractor technology appears to have nearly hit it's pinnacle of development.

If you agreed with the subtitle, you are rather mistaken. Quite, actually. As a matter of fact, some of the technology experimented with over 40 years ago makes today's tractor technology seem absolutely stale by comparison.

Experimentation, from the most complex assembly to the most simple and mundane component, is as an integral a part of any farm tractor's development as the drawing board design itself. The engine, transmission, PTO units, steering, brakes--you name it--of a production farm tractor, all of these went through the trial and experimentation process. Right down to the hidden brackets holding the dash in place. Whether the part was made in-house, or secured from an outside supplier, it went through the trial process anyway, to make sure it was thoroughly compatible with it's companion parts. If a certain part cracked or fatigued due to a resonant frequency harmonious with part of the rotating or reciprocating mass of the drivetrain at a certain speed or RPM, the offending part/parts were tracked down and changed, modified, or even, in an extreme case, eliminated altogether, to correct the problem. Wear was detected, measured, and compensated for by alternate materials or metallurgical treatment processes. Tractors were abused on torturous test tracks to no end to expose hidden problems that would otherwise come back to haunt the manufacturer once the tractor began bouncing along in plowed fields. Severe 'test-to-failure' experiments unveiled problems that, if not otherwise detected, could have escaped the engineering department's attention, and led to expensive recalls, and retrofits. Occasionally, something would still slip through the experimental detection process, and cause major problems, much to the embarrassment and resultant damage to the reputation of the company concerned. This tended to happen more during times of rapid technological advancement, and the push to bring new merchandise to production to keep pace with the competition. Some new engines and powershift transmissions of the late 50's and early 60's fell prey to this reduction in development time. Failures and recalls abounded. One tractor in particular was so bad, that an exchange program was initiated the year following it's release, where the company gave the customer an entirely new tractor to mount the wheels and tires on from the returned one! This tractor was probably pushed by management through the development stage so fast it never was properly tested before it's release to the public. Largely to the company's subsequent regret, embarrassment, and expense. The experimental program of the development stage is there partly to avoid these humiliations. And to bring exciting new technological concepts into the light of day.

The late fifties and early sixties was a time of great excitement and upheaval the world over. The Cold War was at it's anxious peak. North America was in love with the Kennedy's. Rock 'n roll was here to stay. The jet age was upon us, and everything else was trying to keep up. Automobiles sported fins, jet inspired hood ornaments, swept back mirrors, and wrap-around windshields, mimicking the aviation industry. Even missiles were imitated in hood ornaments and steering wheel centers. Yes, we were now not only in a jet age, but a NUCLEAR age. WWII had changed the world forever.

Attempting to keep pace with the rapid change was the agricultural industry. The need for higher quality feed for faster gains and higher milk production was being addressed through biological experimentation and modernized forage harvesting systems. Mechanization was making inroads into feeding systems, also. Farms were becoming fewer and larger. Available farm power was being over-taxed, and the need for more power, speed, and efficiency (remember the jet age?) was distressingly apparent. Well padded from the post war demand for tractors and equipment, the farm equipment industry began to experiment in earnest in the early-to-mid 50's. The far-fetched experimental tractors the engineer's fertile imaginations conceived, and their talented hands assembled, were to change the agscape for all time.

Many, many experimental tractors had been produced up until the time line of this article. Most were prototypes; the forerunner of an actual production unit. Some were tried and discarded as useless, unreliable, impractical, too expensive, or so far advanced that they would not be accepted by the consuming public upon release. That was the fiasco that befell the before its time 1938 Minneapolis Moline Comforttractor project, and no agricultural equipment manufacturer wanted a repeat of that. The remainder of this subject is dedicated to those experimentals that, even built 4 decades ago, still encompassed some such radical technology that it is nearly too much for the public to grasp yet today.

1957 Ford Typhoon

man in labcoat driving typhoon

The impressive Ford Typhoon of 1957 was powered by a free piston turbine engine, and boasted a full range powershift transmission. It also sported headlights faired into the hood, a hood scoop, and power steering. The powershift technology gleaned from this experiment was to manifest itself as the Select-O-Speed 10 speed powershift transmission in the 1959 Ford 601 and 801 tractors, and the hood scoop and Select-O-Speed transmission showed up together in the 1961 Ford 6000 model. The Typhoon may have been named after the sleek and imposing mid engine, fore and aft cockpit mahogany speed boat Edsel Ford built in 1929. Unfortunately I can't produce any more in-depth information at this time about this wild and beastly looking tractor, such as engine manufacturer, HP, RPM, size and weight, etc.., but it is just too extremist to pass over. It does, however, appear to actually be liquid cooled.

odd looking cylindrical turbine engine

The Typhoon's radical free piston turbine engine

1961 International Harvester HT 340

tractor with styling of formula one race car

A dramatic and stylish looking little tractor, the IH HT 340 featured a small turbine engine as its powerplant, coupled to a hydrostatic transmission. Common parts with the International 340 tractor likely gave this unit its denomination, thus: Hydrostatic Turbine 340. The turbine engine was produced by a subsidiary of IH, the Solar Aircraft Company. Weighing a Lilliputian 60 pounds, it produced a Herculean 80 horsepower. Running at a constant RPM of 57000, it required substantial reduction gearing before its coupling to the hydrostatic pump. A marvel of technology, even with the reduction gearing in place, the entire turbine/reduction unit still weighed in at only 90 pounds.

small cylindrical engine

80 horsepower in a 90 pound package!

The tractor's sleek, high visibility body work consisted of molded fiberglass panels. Obviously a lightweight unit, wheel weights are apparent at both ends to better utilize the capability of this little powerhouse. This tractor was displayed for the first time publicly at the 1961 Tractor Day at the University of Nebraska. It is now in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Although nothing tangible came of the turbine technology, which was deemed to lack enough fuel economy for practical application, the hydrostatic transmission technology was to appear in production in 1967 in the IH/Farmall 656 Hydro, and after, in other models of the line. High visibility body work, consisting mainly of a steeply sloped hood, has only in recent years begun to show up in new farm tractors.

1959 Allis Chalmers Fuel Cell Tractor

allis fuel cell tractor with massive square front

Departing from the lightweight 80 horsepower IH HT 340 above, this 20 horsepower tractor weighed 5270 pounds, and certainly required no supplementary weight. Here was power of a completely different type. The AC fuel cell tractor used an AC D-12 tractor chassis loaded with 1008 individual fuel cells, fueled by a mixture of gasses, but predominantly propane, which in turn created a current flow. This was channeled through to an Allis Chalmers 20 hp DC electric motor to propel the tractor. Each fuel cell was about one quarter of an inch thick, 12 inches square, and produced approximately one volt of output. In unison, the 1008 fuel cells made an output of about 15KW.

fuel cell tractor with hood off

Unconventional, to say the least!

Using the controller at the operators left, the four banks of fuel cells could be connected in series or in parallel, thus varying the voltage reaching the DC motor, much like a throttle. Reverse was simply a matter of reversing the polarity of the current through the controller with the crank-like handle. AC was excited by their research, noting that their tractor was twice as efficient as others of the period, the power was derived from no moving parts, it produced no emissions, and ran without a whisper. Futuristic indeed, and the recent resurgence in interest in fuel cell technology, along with environmental concerns, could still make a fuel cell tractor a reality. This tractor is now in the Smithsonian Institute.

1954 Oliver XO-121

oliver xo121 with normal looking oliver styling

On the tamer side of the experimental tractors was the Oliver XO-121. The engineering department at Oliver was concerned about all aspects of tractor efficiency and operation. While not as futuristic as the power sources described earlier, the experiments of 1953-54 at Oliver were of a more immediately practical sort. The engineering department began experimenting with a simple gas engine, but radical for its type, to determine the optimum efficiency available from a conventional gasoline piston engine. Starting with a 4 cylinder Hercules Diesel block, they designed a cylinder head and pistons for it that yielded a 12-to-1 compression ratio. From this compression ratio came the tractor's name: EXperimental Oliver-121. The completed engine had a 199 cubic inch displacement. Using a gasoline fuel specially formulated for it by the Ethyl Corporation, the XO-121 produced dynamic results, surpassing the similar displacement Oliver 70's horsepower by an amazing 92 percent, along with a remarkable 35 percent increase in fuel economy. The XO-121's engine was the subject of a 1954 American Society of Automotive Engineers paper titled, 'Looking Ahead of Tomorrow in Tractor Engine Design'.

xo121 engine out of tractor

The XO-121's fuel efficient power plant

Had Diesel powered tractors not made such advances into the agricultural industry, the lessons learned from the XO-121 research could very well have changed farm power for all time. The lessons werent in vain, however, as the technology was applied to future Oliver gas powered tractors, cumulating in the 1960 Nebraska testing of the high compression Oliver 1800 gas, which set a record of 13.18 horsepower/hours per gallon of gasoline, a record that still stands today. Originally donated to the Iowa State University for display, where it remained many years, the XO-121 was then in turn given to the Living History Farms, also in Iowa, where it was used-the ultimate goal of industrial experimentation: a usable product of new technology. The Oliver XO-121 is now on display in the Floyd County Historical Museum in Charles City, Iowa.

Oliver Tractor of Tomorrow

bubble canopy tractor with single front light like cyclops

This tractor is right out of the Jetsons TV program. A concept tractor, much like the concept cars displayed at automobile shows, this tractor sported such features as a nose mounted spotlight (may have steered with the front wheels); a glass bubble cab that shielded the operator from harmful UV rays; air conditioning, a cigarette lighter, radio, and two way radio; an electrically retractable mounting ladder (again, right out of the Jetsons); an aircraft Straight Line indicator, and an automatic gate opener. Many of these features would still be considered futuristic today.

Outlandish as some of these experimental tractors may seem, the fact that your current tractor may not be turbine or fuel cell powered doesnt mean that some of the research that went along with these units hasnt made its way into it. So much for looking back, now let's look ahead; for the sixty-four thousand dollar question: what does the FUTURE hold in store?

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