Who built the first four-wheel drive tractor is a mystery, but the Fitch Four-Drive may very well be a likely candidate. It all started after John H. Fitch had to rescue one too many passenger cars from Mother Earth's muddy surface near his farm. Fed up with this pattern, he figured there had to be a better solution. That's when he made the decision to create a four-wheel drive machine, in the form of a tractor.
In February 1915, Fitch completed his first tractor and headed out to test its ability on the hills of his Riverton Township, Mich., farm. All the locals came out to watch as he traversed the countryside with ease. The next day he drove his tractor to Ludington, Mich., seven miles away. When he saw what his tractor could do, and the impact it made on the local people, he decided to build them commercially. So he headed back to the shop to build a tractor, as well as a truck model, to debut in Detroit in March of 1915.
The Four-Drive Tractor Co. was incorporated in 1915 at a cost of $50,000, over half of which was paid in capital. In 1916, its capitalization was increased to the tune of $200,000.
Growing in popularity, the Fitch Co. was offered a deal from the town of Big Rapids, Mich.: A new manufacturing facility and power for five years to operate their business, in exchange for the company moving their operation to Big Rapids. Obviously a foolish offer to turn down, Fitch made the necessary arrangements and moved to Big Rapids in 1916, to a 45-by-200-foot building, in addition to a 30-by-40-foot blacksmith shop. When Fitch moved to Big Rapids to oversee his company's operations, he left his family behind to tend to the farm.
In March 1916, Motor Age magazine published a story on the Four-Drive that helped tremendously in putting the company on the map. Fitch moved into their new facility in April and were producing five to six tractors per day. This being during the first World War, iron was scarce, which slowed production of their many orders. During down time, individual parts, as well as completed machines, were meticulously tested to give the customer the best possible product.
The spring of 1917 was to bring the tractors to market by storm. Although off to a slow start, by 1919, Fitch began making a name for itself, selling its entire 1920 line in 1919! However, this was short-lived, as the company began struggling with financial difficulties. This continued through the 1920s, and it's been said the last Four-Drive tractors were produced in 1929 or 1930, shortly after the stock market crash that began the Great Depression.
Basic Construction and Performance
The initial design used the axles from two two-wheel drive tractors, which were turned by a mid-engine setup and were driven by worm gears. These were direct-drive, so no transfer case was used to select between two- or four-wheel drive. All gears and many other moving parts were sealed off from the elements for longevity. Fitch used Waukesha engines, with a 4-1/4-by-5-3/4-inch bore and stroke on the 15-30 model. Power to the differentials was by way of a solid driveshaft, which used no U-joints. A simple 3-link configuration suspended the axles from the frame rails, a setup proven with nine patents. The axle housing pivoted on the center link and the other two located the axle, keeping it from moving back and forth. The company boasted a 20-foot turning radius on its early tractors, and as little as 8 feet on some later models.
Sometime between 1928 and 1930, Fitch began using 4-cylinder Climax engines. A belt pulley governor was installed on these, providing the operator adjustability between 200, 400, 600 or 850 RPM. A differential was introduced to provide true four-wheel drive and ease in steering, since the weight of the front end is supported by exceptionally large ball bearings housed in a 14-inch race! A specially-built 3-speed Cotta transmission was also included, along with Timken worm gears and bearings, and Brown-Lipe-Chapin differentials.
As simple as it was constructed, the Fitch Four-Drive could be made cheaply and efficiently. Fitch performed different obstacles with the tractor to prove its ability, such as scaling a vertical wall with the front end and climbing over large objects like tree stumps and tall curbs. Given its simplicity, this also meant lighter weight than most comparable tractors of the day, so it didn't sink as much in soft terrain. This light weight, coupled with its gear-driven drive train, also equated to more speed and power. In direct-drive, it had a top speed of 8 MPH.
John Fitch died at the age of 69 on Nov. 18, 1916, after complications stemming from a gastrointestinal operation. He is buried at the Lakeview Cemetery in Ludington.
The exact cause of the company's decline is unknown, other than being partially due to a crumbling economy. John Fitch's great, great grandson Chris Dixon says on his website, "All of the key figures have passed away. Hampering any research now is the unavailability of microfilm copies or originals of the Big Rapids newspaper, The Pioneer - both at the local library and The Pioneer's own files - from 1914 to 1928. Also, there are no known copies of the company's own records or files." It's amazing that so much information exists on the company's heritage, yet no concrete evidence can be found to tell us why it ultimately failed.
Special thanks go to Chris Dixon for supplying us with the images herein. To visit his Fitch website, go to: www.fdtcompany.freewebsitehosting.com