By Staff
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Detail shot of flywheel and friction material on Gayle's 1918 Model C.
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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

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

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

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.

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