Light weight coupled with friction-drive drove Heider Mfg. Co.'s success.

Tractor's friction-drive

Content Tools

Heider ads touted the tractor's friction-drive, but whether it was any better than a traditional transmission is debatable. This 1920 ad's claim for '12 Years Actual Field Work' is a bit of pitchman's hype; although John and Henry Heider started work on a prototype in 1908, they didn't introduce their first tractor until 1910.

When lowans John and Henry Heider launched the Heider Mfg. Co., Carrol, Iowa, in 1910, they aimed their sights on the light end of the growing market for small tractors. Weighing in at a relatively svelte 4,500 pounds, their first product, the Heider Model A, was powered by a Waukesha four-cylinder engine. Built using mostly outsourced components (a practice the company supposedly maintained throughout its history), the Model A saw limited production. It's estimated that fewer than 40 were built, but the Model A introduced elements that would stick with the Heider name for the next 17 years, particularly its friction-drive transmission.


Heider's friction-drive was a uniquely simple device that replaced the traditional transmission. Instead of a transmission coupled to the back of the engine, the Heider had an exposed flywheel with a broad outer surface faced with wood. This was the friction material, which in turn made contact with a cast plate approximately 125 percent larger than the flywheel and set 90 degrees to the flywheel on the same plane. Engine power was transmitted through the friction plate to a simple differential drive, and then out to the rear drivers.

There were two plates, one on either side of the flywheel, and these provided reverse and forward 'gears.' Selection was accomplished by simply drawing a lever that pulled the friction plates to the left or the right. With the left plate engaged the Heider moved forward, and with the right plate engaged it moved backward.

Gayle McDonald's 1918 Heider Model C. Center: Gayle's Heider uses a Waukesha Model M four-cylinder engine. Note the Heider name on the pushrod cover.

Gearing was provided through the positioning of the flywheel on the friction plates. When the Heider's flywheel contacted the outer edges of a plate the drive to the differential was slower, effectively giving low gear. Conversely, when the flywheel contacted the inner areas of the friction plate the drive to the differential was faster, giving a higher gear. The 'gear' lever was equipped with seven detents, but in practice most Heiders were probably operated in about three ranges, high, medium and low. But what really made the arrangement unique was how shifting was accomplished.

The Heider's engine was mounted on four channeled plates, which in turn sat on the tractor's frame. Think of a train on tracks, but instead of wheels it has metal plates to hold it on track. To change gearing, the operator simply pulled on a large lever to the left of the steering wheel. This lever operated on a fulcrum giving the necessary leverage to move the entire engine forward or backward on the frame. The friction plate/differential assembly remained fixed to the chassis, but as the engine moved the flywheel's position relative to the friction plates changed, and bingo, gearing. This also meant the Heider had the same speeds forward or backward.

This layout also gave forward and reverse speeds on the belt. Shifting to the belt pulley disconnected the final drive, but the friction plates could still be employed for forward and reverse and of course gearing could be changed, as well.

It was certainly a unique arrangement, and it served the company well. The Model A gave way in 1911 to the Model B, and in 1914 Heider introduced the Model C 12-20. At this time Heider contracted with Rock Island Plow Co., Rock Island, Ill., to sell all its output. The Heider tractor line flourished, and in fact sold so well Heider couldn't keep up with demand. In 1916 Heider sold out to Rock Island, and from that point on all Heider tractors were built at Rock Island's plant in Illinois. Production of Heider tractors continued until 1929 when Rock Island dropped the Heider line.

1918 Rock Island Heider 12-20

Gayle McDonald, Holton, Kan., owns the Rock Island Heider 12-20 featured here, a tractor he originally bought in the early 1970s. Besides missing some major pieces, it was actually in fairly good shape when Gayle found it. The radiator was missing, the magneto was stuck and 'the cylinders were plum full of clover hulls. I'll bet I worked off and on for a week getting clover hulls out of the engine,' Gayle says. But even with that, once he got the engine torn down he discovered it was in surprisingly good shape. The rings were good, the bearings were perfectly serviceable, and Gayle ended up mostly just freshening things up to get the engine back into form. He honed the cylinders, ground the valves and cleaned everything thoroughly, but that was the extent of the work it needed.

A period ad for the Rockwood Friction Transmission further illustrates the layout of the Heider. It's interesting to speculate if Heider's 'patented' friction-drive wasn't actually sou reed from Rockwood.

Trying to find a radiator was a little harder, but as luck would have it he found another Heider owner with an original, and working from that they built a copy for Qayle's Heider, complete with a new shroud. In fact, that radiator shroud was essentially a gift from the other Heider owner, who built it for Gayle after Gayle provided him with a gas tank to use as a pattern. Heiders used two tanks, one for gas for starting and another for kerosene once the engine warmed up. The gas tank was further sectioned into two tanks, with water in one half of it for running on kerosene.

Gayle used a non-stock magneto when he first got the Heider running, but he eventually overhauled the original Splitdorf Dixie, and that's the unit fitted to the Heider now. Gayle figures his might be the only Heider left running on its original magneto, a fact of which he's justifiably proud.

Close inspection shows the engine in Gayle's Heider is set on plates channeled to the tractor's frame. Moving the engine forward or backward changes the gearing to the friction-drive.

Gayle's Heider isn't perfect, but he never really intended it to be because he likes to run his equipment. It's really more of a sympathetic restoration; cleaned, painted and running, but retaining hints of age and years of sitting. The sheet metal, for instance, is original, but when Gayle refinished it he didn't make any effort to smooth out the pock marks of time. As for its relatively good mechanical condition when found, Gayle has a theory about that: 'You see an old tractor and the gears are worn, everything is worn out, that was probably a good tractor. But the bad ones, they aren't worn out because they wouldn't work enough.' That's an interesting observation, and whether it applies fairly to the Heider is open to debate. Even so, there's no debating that the Heider was a unique offering in the early days of the tractor industry, as Gayle's preserved 12-20 so perfectly illustrates.

Contact engine enthusiast Gayle McDonald at: 15587 222nd Road, Holton, KS 66436.