Poor American

American-named engines and tractors struggled to succeed

| October 2007


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.

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.