Poor American

By Staff
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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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The American 15-30 tractor during “a very grueling test” at the American Engine & Tractor Co. plant in Charles City, Iowa. The principals of the company are on hand, standing behind the four unnamed men on the sled. These include (from left) H.P.G. Coates, vice president and general manager; George Strite and Mr. Wooley, tractor expert. On the tractor is C.E. McCray, superintendent of the plant and designer, along with Mr. Scofield, the gas engine expert of the company, driver.
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The logo of the Americo tractor, which was to be made by the second incarnation of American Tractor & Foundry Co., but the result was the same as earlier: No results.
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The American 15-30 has a strong resemblance to the Russell and Appleton tractors of the time. The 4-cylinder machine weighed 4,500 pounds.
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American Gas Engine Co. engines
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American Gas Engine Co. engines
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American Steel & Iron Co. engine
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American Well Works engines
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American Well Works engines
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American Diesel Engine Co. engine
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American Oil Co. engines
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American Oil Co. engines
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American Motor Co. engine.(For more information on these and other American engines, see American Gasoline Engines Since 1872 by C.H. Wendel.
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This 1918 ad proclaimed the Yankee tractor, manufactured by American Tractor Co. of Peoria, Ill., and formerly called the American, was “The tractor anyone can run.”

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

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