Poor American

American-named engines and tractors struggled to succeed

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This full-page ad possibly from Farm Implement News for the American 15-30 must have cost a pretty penny when it was published in 1918. It gives full specifications for the American engine and tractor.

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Pity the poor American gasoline engine. Not the generic variety, as in "the American gasoline engine," nor the 32 varieties of American gasoline engines made by gas engine companies, nor the 23 different engines that powered the tractors with the name American in them. But the American-brand engine manufactured by American Engine & Tractor Co. of Charles City, Iowa. Pity the poor engine because of the heavy weight placed on its shoulders.

First, the American engine had to follow in the footsteps of its big brother, the Armstrong kerosene engine. And it was supposed to do as well or better than this superior engine, mainly, it appears, because it was built in the same plant. An advertorial in Northwestern Tractor & Truck Dealer in May 1918, made the comparison, saying "(Armstrong kerosene engines) have been in use for years in every part of the world under all conceivable farm conditions and hold reputation second to none," and since American Tractor & Engine Co. had taken over "the two large modern buildings at Charles City, which includes six acres of grounds, where the Armstrong kerosene engines are manufactured," that somehow automatically meant the American engine was "bound to duplicate the good record of the Armstrong engine, because it too stands in a class by itself."

Second, it was supposed to be the feature that would make American Tractor & Engine Co. a successful company. Again NT&T Dealer said, "Paraphrasing Emerson's saying, 'If a company builds a better tractor, makes a better engine, or renders better service than its competitor, though its factory be remote, the world will make a beaten path to its door,' American Tractor & Engine Co. believes that in a comparatively short time there will be a hard-beaten path to the door of their factory at Charles City where the American 15-30 tractor is being turned out."

In fact, the company had such belief in the future success of their product that after they manufactured only one engine and tractor in 1918, they told tractor statistician P.S. Rose they would make 300 American tractors in the first half of 1919, and 3,500 the second half. Rose included this information in his List of Manufactured and Estimated 1918.

Third, it's difficult to know if the American engine was ever built as a standalone, as none of the engines survive. However, a 1919 ad says the company was a manufacturer of kerosene engines and farm tractors, as well as founders and machinists.

Short history

Ten Minneapolis men from vastly different backgrounds conceived the idea of the American tractor and engine. They included G.H. Reeves of the Reeves Coal Co., Charles L. Levitt, district agent of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., M.S. Thurber of Northwestern Spring Mfg. Co., as well as an accountant, a railway man, a worker in a traffic and service bureau, workers in an elevator company and a graduate engineer from Armour Institute of Chicago. A more unlikely conglomeration of men can hardly be envisioned. The only one with any real tractor and engine experience was H.P.G. Coates, who had been connected with the Diamond Iron Works of Minneapolis, and was perhaps the brainchild behind the name of the tractor and engine, as Diamond called their machine the America tractor. It was supposed to have been manufactured in 1912, but it appears the company itself was a fake.

When the Charles City American 15-30 tractor came on the market in 1918, Farm Magazine said, "Mr. Wooley, tractor expert for the Hyatt Roller Bearing Co., recently made a very grueling test of the American 15-30 at the plant of American Engine & Tractor Co. at Charles City. The dynamometer test was over a period of 5-1/2 hours, and pulling a roughly constructed drag loaded with 5,000 pounds of pig iron on which sat four men making a dead drag of about 6,300 pounds."

The drag had no runners to facilitate easy movement across the ground, but was made of wood which "plowed well into the ground." This test showed that this "green" tractor just out of the shop and without a workout, all parts including the motor being stiff, accomplished a drawbar pull of 16 HP, or more than its rating. Wooley considered it a very fine test, and admitted that only once in his experience had he made a better one, in which case the tractor had been worked for about two months. Wooley added that if he had two months with the tractor, he would easily develop the drawbar pull to 18 HP.

American engine specifications

The engine itself was a Buda 4-cylinder vertical L-head with a 4-1/2-by-6-inch bore and stroke, which produced, according to company literature, 35 HP at 850-900 RPM "with our own special built-in kerosene generator." Even though it was rated at 15-30 HP. It had two forward speeds, 2.33 MPH (or 2.5 in some references) and 3.33 MPH, with 2 MPH in reverse.

Fuel was kerosene or gasoline, using 1 to 1-1/2 gallons per hour plowing, depending on conditions. The tractor could hold 25 gallons of kerosene, but only three gallons of gasoline. The carburetor was a Holley Bros. "with our own 'Dry-Gas' kerosene generator," as an ad for the company said. The 1919 Tractor Operating Book and Directory added that the engine could use distillate and naphtha as well.

The engine was lubricated by positive force feed through drilled crankshaft, no splash, while the transmission was fully enclosed and running in an oil bath. Ignition was accomplished through a Dixie high-tension ignition, (later a Bosch) and the governor was a throttling-type directly connected to the carburetor and maintaining constant speed. The "air washer" was a Leonard, and cooling was achieved through a Shotwell-Hobart centrifugal pump and a Johnson radiator with fan housing, and an Oakes 22-inch fan.

American 15-30 tractor specifications

The American tractor (also called the American kerosene tractor) was hooded, which was uncommon for a tractor of this era. NT&T Dealer said the tractor was a four-wheeler "with gear shifting like an automobile, forward and reverse speed, compact, close-coupled." The wheel base was 92 inches, length 10 feet 6 inches, it was 6 feet 3 inches wide, and 4 feet 10 inches high. It had a turning radius of 10 feet (inside), was rated for four 14-inch bottoms in stubble and three 14-inch breakers in sod, and could plow 10 to 12 acres in 10 hours. Rear wheels were 52 inches high and 12 inches wide. The tractor weighed 4,500 pounds "distributed for traction and balance." Another reference says about 5,000 pounds. "Price (domestic), $1,595 f.o.b. Charles City, which we firmly believe represents the most honest value in the high grade tractor market today." C.H. Wendel in The Standard Catalog of Farm Tractors 1890-1980, 2nd Edition, says it cost $1,895 at one point, "rather pricey for its day." Fordson tractors, for example, sold for less than a third of that at the time.

The end

Doubtless price was a major factor, but nobody knows what really happened. What is known is that American Engine & Tractor Co., morphed into American Tractor & Foundry Co. in 1919. A 1920 issue of the Patent Office Gazette illustrated the company trademark for another product, the Americo tractor and engine. The company first used this trade name in February 1920, but shortly afterwards, all remnants disappeared. Some say only one engine and tractor were ever built.

This is startling when a person considers the full-page ads and full-page write-ups the company was given in its early days, and the discussion of how the company was doing its work in two large modern buildings on six acres of ground in Charles City. NT&T Dealer said of the company, "The elements of success for the American tractor are many. In fact, the line-up behind this machine is a guaranty of its great future." What was probably closer to the truth was a reflection of Ralph Waldo Emerson's saying, but in reverse: If a company does not build a better tractor, make a better engine, or render better service than its competitor, nobody will beat a path to its door.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at: Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; bvossler@juno.com