A Short History of the Red-E Tractor

By Staff
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Late '30s oval tanked model 11 Red-E.
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Model 11BR (reverse) light air-cooled Red-E circa 1955.
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Model 15-A Red# 4 wheel tractor as sold by Red E.

120 Ernest Road, Ontonagon, Michigan 49953

The following information on the RED-E tractor has been taken from various owners’ manuals, from experience as a RED-E owner and collector and from conversations with other RED-E owners. This is only a short history and not all information is accurately dated.

The first tractor was made by a man from Salt Lake City, Utah, who was a student of Earl Welbourne. Mr. Welbourne was a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He took an interest in this first tractor, which was built in 1918 and put into production in the early 1920s in Milwaukee.

The RED-E tractor had its own engine, which was designed as a cast engine/transmission unit with a single cylinder air-cooled engine. The cylinder sleeve and head was bolted to this casting. To cool the engine, an air shroud was fitted over the cylinder and the top of the transmission casting. A flywheel at the front of the power unit had fins cast into it which drew air through the shroud cooling the cylinder head. The air shroud had a tool compartment/gas tank mounted in front of the engine behind the flywheel. Power to the two drive-wheels was transmitted from the engine by use of a clutch lever on the handle bar. The magneto was mounted on a plate at the rear of the engine and driven by the crankshaft. A set of caster trailing wheels was mounted behind the engine to which was attached the tool/draw bar and handles to control the tractor. This same basic configuration was used on all cast engine/transmission tractors until they were phased out in the 1950s.

These first tractors which were manufactured in Milwaukee had the usual cast engine/transmission configuration as described. The flywheel had ‘M.B.M. Manufacturing Company, Milw., Wi.’ embossed on it. The flywheel had a pulley attached to it for belt power and was fitted out for crank starting the unit. The drive wheels were multi-spoked cast wheels with diagonal lugs on them. The air shroud on these first models was of cast iron with a tool compartment moulded in. An oval gas tank was attached to the top of the tool compartment. This early RED-E tractor had the clutch lever on the left handle and the throttle on the right. The finned head and cylinder sleeve had smaller fins due to the cast iron air shroud. A Bosch magneto was used. The unit had wooden plow handles for control. All tractors came standard with a cultivator attachment on the tool/draw bar.

These tractors were painted green as RED-E meant ‘ready’ not the color red. The color match was possibly ‘Oliver green’ even though later tractors were painted red. This writer has an oval-tanked model from the mid-1930s, which is still green, and a model from the late 1940s which is red. ‘Farmall Red’ seems to match the red color.

Professor Welbourne produced the RED-E tractor with simplicity and ease of repair in mind. The engine used readily available components. Model-T parts were abundant at this time, so the piston and connecting rods, the intake and exhaust valves, and the Holley carburetor were all Ford Model-T parts. These RED-Es continued to use Ford Model-T parts until they were phased out.

Changes came to the RED-E tractor. Mr. Welbourne moved the clutch to the right handle and the throttle to the left handle. The drive wheels were now five-spoked steel wheels with bolted on lugs. The flywheel was now embossed with the logo ‘Pioneer Manufacturing Company, Milw., Wi., USA.’ The crank-pulley was replaced with a notch in the cooling fin for a rope start. The cooling shroud was now sheet metal instead of cast iron, and the cooling fins on the head and cylinder were larger. The oval gas tank/tool compartment were one unit and attached to the air shroud. All this occurred in the mid-19205. The tractor was now officially known as the Pioneer RED-E Power Cultivator. Pioneer Manufacturing Company built a factory at West Allis, Wisconsin in 1927, and the majority of the RED-E Power Cultivators were produced there.

In an owners’ manual from the mid-1950s, Pioneer Manufacturing Company guaranteed their tractor for one year and the drive unit for three years, from defects in workmanship. In another part of the manual, the tractor was rated at 4 HP (5 HP was talked about in other areas), with a guaranteed one HP at the tool/draw bar.

It has been my experience that wheel size also had something to do with horsepower at the wheel. When I was young, our tractor could out-pull our neighbor’s RED-E tractor. Our tractor had larger diameter wheels than the neighbor’s tractor. (3′ x 32′ vs. 4.’ x 24′). What did we pull? A 1951 Chevrolet lying on its side. Our RED-E always moved it farther.

Sometime in the mid-1930s, minor changes came to the RED-E. The gas tank was now round. Bosch, Fairbanks Morse and Eiseman magnetos were used. The units still had wooden plow handles.

An order blank, effective 1 January, 1938, offered four different models of the cast RED-EModels 11, 11 A, 12 and 20 (the landscape model). All models were the same tractor. The differences were in the carburetor, wheel size, and magnetos. The main visual differences between models 11 and 12 was carburetor placement. The model 11 had the carburetor pointing to the front of the unit, and the model 12 carburetor pointed to the rear. Also offered as an option was 6.00 x 16 rubber tires on modified 5-spoke wheels. Numerous attachments and tools were also offered by mail order. One could plow, seed, cultivate, spray and harvest a garden or orchard by using the RED-E and the attachments offered.

This did not include attachments ‘invented’ by owners of the tractor. My grandfather had a specially-sized cultivator made for use in his strawberry bed and my father had a special set of Model-A brake drums modified so rubber Model-A wheels would fit on his unit. They are still being used today.

During the early 1940s, the rubber tires were not available as an option because of World War II and the drastic rubber shortage.

On an order blank from Pioneer Manufacturing Company, dated 1 January, 1942, seven models of garden tractors were offered five models of the cast RED-Es including an 11R and a 12R (reverse). New additions were the model ZA-5A and the ZA-7A.

Both of these models were completely different from the cast models 11 and 12. The model ZA-5A was a steel-wheeled tractor and the ZA-7A was offered with rubber tires. The engines of these new units were Briggs and Strat-ton air-cooled, and came in 1 and 2 HP sizes. Both models came with standard cultivator attachments. Numerous other attachments and tools were offered by mail order from the factory.

The Page Dairy and Farm Equipment Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had been manufacturing garden tractors since 1928, according to the publication Vintage Garden Tractors. It is not clear how Page Dairy and Farm Equipment was at that time related to Pioneer Manufacturing Company, but models ZA-5A and ZA-7A were Page products. According to Dave Baas, writing in Vintage Garden Tractors, Page Dairy and Farm Equipment Company had been acquired by 1949 by the Pioneer Manufacturing Company. Pioneer may have bought Page Dairy and Farm much sooner than this. Alan King, in Garden Tractors 1920-1956 also shows the Page tractor as a Pioneer product.

Models ZA-5A and ZA-7A were both the same tractor. Each was powered by an independent air-cooled engine directly connected to a transmission/drive unit. Forward motion was obtained through the use of two clutch levers on the handle bars. When pushed forward, the clutches could transmit power to one or both drive wheels.

By 1946, many changes had come to the Pioneer Manufacturing Company and to the RED-E tractor. The cast models 11 and 12 now had pipe handles instead of wooden plow handles. During that year, Pioneer Manufacturing Company moved its factory to Richfield, Wisconsin, and changed its name to RED-E Tractor Company. The company-also started producing an entirely new line of tractor. While cast models 11 and 12 were still being manufactured at Richfield, they were being phased out. This was most likely because Ford Model-T parts were becoming scarce. The new line of tractors were Page-based tractors including a four-wheeled model.

The new Z-model tractors were all based on air-cooled engines. They used Briggs and Stratton, Clinton, and Wisconsin engines. Speed on those tractors was controlled by use of a throttle on the handle bars. The tractors had rubber tires and the two-wheeled models came with the standard cultivator attachment. Compared to the earlier cast tractors with worm-gear drive, the new tractors were much easier to manage.

The older models moved at a considerable pace and at full throttle the operator had to step lively to keep up. At the end of each row, the operator had to quickly haul the handles around to prepare for the next row. (Run fast and aim carefully look out corn!)

The four wheeled tractors offered by Pioneer were rear engine units which were originally a Page product. These were models ZA 10FS and ZA 12FM. Both came with Wisconsin engines and the engine size was the only difference in the models.


Note how the equipment is attached by one pin and drawn from a point just in front of the axle. This feature, along with the extended guide handle, enables the operator to do very close cultivating with a minimum amount of work.

Model ZA-5A Page-based tractor.

Earl Welbourne’s son-in-law, James E. Turner, worked for the Pioneer Manufacturing Company as a designer. In 1940, he left the company to begin work on a four wheeled garden tractor that would use easily obtained automotive parts. This tractor, the Economy, was manufactured by Mr. Turner’s company Engineering Products of Waukesha, Wisconsin. This tractor was also based on simplicity and ease of repair.

The unit had a Wisconsin air-cooled single cylinder engine. It was attached to a modified Crosley bell housing/transmission. The transmission unit was modified by adding pulleys for belt power. This was attached to a modified Ford Model-A rear end, which was geared down at the axles. According to Dave Baas in Vintage Garden Tractors, the Economy tractor was tested at the University of Nebraska in 1952 under test number 483. Sometime in the late 1950s, the product became known as the Economy Power King and a distant relative is still being manufactured today by Power Products.

By the 1950s, the Page based RED-E tractor had been much improved. The early ZA models had now become models 11 and 12. The RED-E Tractor Company offered five models of garden tractors, including the four wheel model 15 A. At this time, model 15 A was actually James Turner’s Economy tractor being sold by the RED-E tractor company.

The mainstay of the company was now the air-cooled models 11 and 12. The early, old faithful, cast tractors were now phased out. In 1958, RED-E Tractor Company scrapped all the components for the early cast tractors.

The new 1950s models were light and easy to control. Also offered were the small and light models 9 and 10, two wheeled tractors. It is unclear whether RED-E manufactured these models at its own factory or if another company produced them and RED-E sold them under their own name. These tractors had small air-cooled engines with a chain drive powering them. Numerous attachments were offered by mail order.

The RED-E Tractor Company was diversified by this time. It offered many types of lawn and garden products including a riding lawn mower. Garden tractors were still the life blood of the company. As always, numerous attachments were offered for all models of the tractors.

At some time in the 1960s, it all came to an end. RED-E Tractor Company closed its doors.

During the many years it built tractors, RED-E Tractor Company and Pioneer Manufacturing Company always strived to make a simple quality product that could easily be repaired or modified to suit its owner’s needs.

The cast tractor had been produced since the early 1920s and the lighter Page-based Z models had been produced and sold since the 1940s.

During the manufacturing of the older cast tractors, the gas tank/tool compartments had the name tag/serial number plate attached to it. This component was then put into stock on a shelf for later use. When needed, these components were not always in sequence. Today it is impossible to accurately date any of the tractors other than by era:

Cast iron air shroud, multi-spoked wheels early 1920s.

Oval tanked/tool compartment late 1920s to late 1930s.

Round tanklate 1930s to mid-19405.

Round tank, pipe handle barslate 1940s to mid-1950s.

(Model 11 had carburetor pointed to front of engine; model 12 had carburetor pointed to rear of engine.)

One of the minor problems with the older tractors was cooling. The flywheel had fins cast into it which drew air through the cooling shroud, past the finned head and cylinder sleeve. After the long run, these became hot and the valves had to be hand-oiled. Also, during spring start-up the valves were not always checked and if they were frozen or sticky, this resulted in bent valves and broken rocker arms. One other minor problem was that during repair, the flywheel could be put on at 180 degrees out of time resulting in hard starts or wrist snapping backfires.

During the summer months, RED-E tractors can be seen at many fairs and engine shows throughout the United States. There is nothing like the sound of that one-cylinder engine rapidly barking under a load or popping back to an idle after a hard run. (Well may be a John Deere.)

I grew up with RED-E tractors. My grandfather bought a cast tractor back in the 1940s and I still have it today. Close neighbors owned both the cast tractors and the air-cooled light versions of the RED-E. I hope this article will be of some assistance to present and future collectors.


Baas, Dave, Vintage Garden Tractors

King, Alan C, Garden Tractors

Pioneer Manufacturing Company, instruction book, 1946

Pioneer Manufacturing Company, order blanks, 1938 and 1942

Pioneer Manufacturing Company, owners manuals, 1938 and 1942

RED-E Tractor Company, advertising, 1955

RED-E Tractor Company, owners manual, 1955

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