By Staff
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The Four-Drive factory in Big Rapids, Mich., now used by the Ferris State University
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Scaling a wall with a Four-Drive tractor, a stunt often performed by the company to prove the tractor’s strength and ability.
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John H. Fitch, the man behind the machines
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Another demonstration used by the Fitch Co. was to run over stumps and tall curbs to show how well the suspension articulated, i.e., better traction in rough terrain
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Three men posing for the camera, showing off their Four-Drives
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A view of the inside of the Four-Drive factory
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A Four-Drive pulling a 3-row lister at Dighton, Kan., in 1927.
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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

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.

Gaining Notoriety

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:

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