A Disguised Gas Tractor

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Robert Hesse made this model gas tractor based on the Townsend Tractor design.

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When gas powered tractors were new to farmers, they were little more than an engine on a frame. They looked nothing like the steam traction engines that farmers were used to seeing. In order to try to market their tractors to skeptical farmers, Townsend Tractor built a gas tractor that resembled a steam engine.

About 35 years ago, my dad, Robert Hesse, built a model tractor based on the Townsend design. The "boiler" is made from a piece of 16-inch natural gas pipe. He used a 6 HP Economy engine, and the clutch and 3-speed gear box from a Ford Falcon car to power the tractor. The water hopper was removed and a plate bolted to the top. The cooling water is routed to a heater core from a large truck that is hidden in the boiler along with a water pump from a washing machine to circulate the water. The steam dome is the water reservoir and extends down into the boiler. The engine exhaust is piped forward and creates air flow up the smokestack, which draws air past the heater core to cool the engine. The smokestack is made from a 6-inch piece of pipe that Dad cut and re-welded to form the taper. All of the electrical wires, spark plug and other items that would reveal it is a gas tractor and not a steam engine have been hidden or disguised to look like something else.

The tanks in front of the wheels on either side that would have been used for water are used for fuel and to hide an air tank. A small air-cooled engine was converted to an air compressor to provide air to blow the whistle, something that every steam engine would've had. The air compressor, clutch and transmission are inside the fire box along with a drive gear from a John Deere tractor coupled to a differential from a Ford Model A car to make up the final drive. Dad was a mechanic for the local Ford dealer for many years, hence a lot of the parts used on his projects were from old Ford cars and trucks.

The water valves above the firebox are actually electrical switches. Dad converted the hit-and-miss engine to a throttle-governed engine using an updraft carburetor. Then, by using a flyball governor, as well as the original governor, he could switch back to hit-and-miss running by closing one switch and opening the other.

On the right, a small tank of kerosene is pressurized and piped to the exhaust so that by opening a valve, the kerosene can be injected into the exhaust and make the tractor smoke like a steam engine. The battery for the ignition system and the electric fuel pump are in one of the wood boxes under the seat, and the wires are hidden inside a water pipe. The other wood box is used as a toolbox. The wheels are from a corn binder and have been reinforced to handle the extra weight.

The levers on the left side control the throttle governor and the spark advance and use part of a flywheel ring gear for the detents. The small lever in the middle is to override the governor to bring the engine to a real slow idle - about 50 to 60 RPM.

The 4-pump auto-oiler is used to lubricate the cylinder, roller drive chain, connecting rod and the valves. The worm gear, used for the chain steering, was part of the blower chute control off an old threshing machine. The flat belt clutch pulley was hand built by him.

He has taken it to many shows and been in a few parades, and I enjoy showing it off today as much as I did when I was a kid.

Contact Kevin Hesse at 6028 E. Joy Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48105 • khesse@comcast.net