By Staff
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Chuck Peters' 'steel mule.'
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Low-cost tractor as illustrated in the original ad from Popular Mechanics.
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Chuck Peters' display showing the covers of the original copies of Popular Mechanics and the plans.

In our December 1994 edition (page 10), we reprinted an ad from
an old Popular Mechanics, which advertised a packet of material to
assist those inclined to send for it in building a homemade
tractor. The ad had been sent to us by Jeff Klaverweiden, 98 Elm
Street, Huntington, New York 11743, who was curious about it. A
letter to Popular Mechanics had yielded no information about the
ad, nor the plans advertised. After our reprint, however, we
received a stack of responses to the appearance of this adit turned
out that our subscribers had a lot more information at their
fingertips than the staff at Popular Mechanics. Here is what we

From Chuck Peters of N5564 Hwy 57, Hilbert, WI 54129, we
received this photo of his tractor built from blue prints which
appeared in the 1939 May and June Popular Mechanics. Chuck displays
his restored tractor with copies of the original blue prints at
shows. He writes,

‘I have restored this tractor as close as I can to the
original. This tractor is made of 1931 Model A Ford car
transmission, 1931 Model AA Ford truck radiator, and Model A 4
blade fan, 1928 2 ton Reo speed wagon truck rear end, standard 6
volt starter and generator from a Model A Ford car, #60 roller
bearing chain from transmission to Reo rear end, transmission
output shaft – 16 tooth sprocket to 84 tooth sprocket on Reo speed
wagon rearend, 2 drawbars -1 stationary lower swinging draw bar
higher. Gas tank from a pre-1920 Buick car, muffler is a standard
Model A Ford car. 4 speeds: 3 forward, 1 reverse, 2.25 mph – low
gear 2.61 mph – medium gear 2.83 mph – third gear 8.5 mph. Reo
speed wagon 3 to 1 gear reduction.

‘Front wheels are 24′ by 3′ I.H.C. with by 1 skid
ring, Model T Ford spindles and bearings. Rear wheels are 40′
wagon tires inch thick by 4’ wide. Spokes are x 1 angle iron.
There are 12 spokes per wheel, and 20 lugs x 1 x 1 angle iron, 6
inches long. These lugs are spaced 6 inches apart. Rear wheels were
made according to Popular Mechanics” blueprints. I made
the front and rear wheels on this tractor.

‘Colors are: smoke gray body, black engine and transmission
and radiator, safety red wheels, and safety red champion cast iron
seat. This engine was started on gas 2 quart can on back of muffler
hand pumped into carburetor, then switched to kerosene when engine
was warmed up.

‘This tractor pulled two 14 inch bottom plows in Calumet
County heavy soil in low gear. It was equipped with individual
hydraulic brakes and 2 clutches. One was a foot clutch and the
other a hand clutch working off the foot clutch.

‘Eugene Pilling of Stockbridge, Wisconsin, originally built
this homemade tractor from blueprints purchased from the original
inventor before they were published in the Popular Mechanics in May
and June of 1939.

‘In our Midwestern section of the United States, the words
‘donkey’ and ‘steel mule’ are used to paraphrase
homemade tractors. The word ‘steel mule’ used with
parenthesis is not the same as the trade name Steel Mule. Steel
Mule on the wood sign indicates the explanation of the word.

‘I belong to the Wisconsin Steam Engine Club of Chilton,
Wisconsin. I show the tractor there every year, the second weekend
of August. I have been traveling the state enjoying showing this
rare tractor.’

Another subscriber, Jon Marti of 6262 147 Avenue SE, Lake
Lillian, Minnesota 56253 sent us photocopies of the story in the
May and June 1939 issues of Popular Mechanics, ‘Tractor Built
from Old Car Parts Without Machining.’ The article appeared in
two parts and claimed, ‘Anyone can build the tractor as it
consists of old car and truck parts so ingeniously selected that
the assembling can be done with wrenches, a hack saw and a little
welding, the latter being done for a few dollars by your local
machine shop.’

Another copy of the article was sent by Luc Grenier, 2635 Chemin
Grenier, Stanstead, Quebec, Canada JOB 3E0. He advises us that the
plans appeared not only in the magazine, but also in Popular
Mechanics’ annual Farm Book, but he’s unsure which

‘They also had another plan to make a smaller garden tractor
published in their 1949 Farm Book. The called it Farmette. This one
used a Wisconsin engine, about 8 HP.’

R. C. Major is another Canadian subscriber who responded to the
ad. He lives at 699 Fairmont Road in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada R3R
1B3 and wrote:

‘I am an old geezer who never throws anything away, that is
why I have the original magazine still in excellent condition. My
collection only began a few years ago and consists of an antique
garden tractor, walk behind model, a grain cleaner, a 1928 15 HP
Fairbanks Morse on steel wheels, and 2 Ruston and Hornsby Mark
‘CR’s and 1 Mark ‘CY.’ I recently purchased a 1938
John Deere with a 3 HP Fairbanks Morse engine mounted on it, making
it look like a Rumely. The builder of this replica will be driving
it in any parades that he comes to, and when I am finished playing
with it, it will be donated to the Morden-Winkler Museum here in
Manitoba. Those were the terms agreed to at time of sale.’

Another reader, William Rees of R.R. 1, Box 24, Franklin, IL
62638 spotted the ad and sent us a copy of the booklet, 1939
version, published by PM. And finally, another reader sent us news
of an even earlier version of the same concept, from the same
magazine. Bob Seith of 116 Locust Place, Granville, Ohio 43023 had
this to say:

‘Clearly, building a tractor out of car parts was on the
minds of folks at Popular Mechanics for quite some time. Seeing
your item in the December (1994) issue, making reference to a PM ad
from 1940, triggered something in my mind and made me dive into a
stack of old magazines.

‘These pages are from the Popular Mechanics Shop Notes for
1933. The article professes to tell you how to build a working
tractor, using a Model T engine and two different transmissions. I
don’t know that there’s really enough detail to go on, but
the writer certainly exudes confidence.

‘My father built a tractor from old car parts during the
Depression, but I don’t know what plans (if any) he used. He
used to say it was held together with nuts and bolts, and that
things worked loose pretty regularly. I never saw it; it was junked
when he bought a (very) used Fordson sometime around 1940.

‘Even if you had the parts for this project today, it would
be foolish to use them on a ‘made-at-home’ tractor:
They’d be too valuable as antiques. But it’s fun to dream,

To paraphrase the title of the 1933 article, it would certainly
be difficult to go ‘From Junkpile to Tractor for Fifty
Dollars’ in today’s world! We thank those of you who
responded for clearing up the mystery.

Unfortunately, we don’t have permission to reproduce the
articles or the plans in our magazine, but if your local library
has old issues of Popular Mechanics, you ought to be able to look
up these articles and find out the details!

We are grateful to our astute readers who responded with the
information, and we are pleased that they shared what they knew.
Since we are often asked by subscribers to furnish information from
previous issues, we know the efforts involved in such research!

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