The History of Farmall Tractors: 1930-1935

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Photo by Randy Leffingwell
1936 F-20. Ed Johnston created a nonadjustable wide front end for both F-20 and F-30 models in the spring of 1932. This coincided with the beginning of production for both models.

Discover the complete history of Farmall, from the early days of McCormick and Deering to the latest models, in Farmall (Voyageur Press, 2015) by Randy Leffingwell and Robert N. Pripps. The following excerpt discusses the various changes to Farmall tractors between during the early 1930s, including increased horsepower, redesigned engine components and more.

You can purchase this book from the Capper’s Farmer store: Farmall.

1930-1935: Farmall Becomes a Big Family

Progress,” Johnston told IHC’s EC, “has put our competitors in a position to increase the horsepower for the size of engine and to improve the fuel consumption. We are suffering in the trade.” He urged the EC to adopt a program to produce a more powerful Farmall, and even a smaller one. EC members promptly approved three sizes, counting the current Farmall and the proposed “increased-power Farmall” as one. The second was an intermediate Farmall, using an increased-power engine for the 10-20 tractor. Third was a large Farmall designed to use the increased-horsepower 15-30 tractor engine.

While the power increases came from a new head, intake manifold, and piston design without changing bore or stroke, to Johnston, the term “increased power” meant “improved tractor.” He installed a water pump with a more effective thermostatic control to improve cooling. He strengthened frames because some Industrial Model 20s in Europe had broken. In August, he created a wide tread for the Farmall from 10-20 parts for crops around San Francisco. The GPED’s experimental engineers turned out new engines and strengthened unit-frames on IHC’s wheel tractors. Johnston’s dictum to improve the tractors became the goal throughout GPED.

In New York, while stock market prices still fluctuated wildly, President Herbert Hoover asked Alex Legge to help stabilize farmer market prices. Legge had resigned from IHC’s presidency to head the Federal Farm Board in June 1929. He remained on IHC’s board, however, and occasionally returned to Chicago for meetings that particularly interested him, especially when his efforts in Washington made little progress.

On December 1, 1930, Legge redefined the experimental Farmalls in terms farmers understood. The Increased Power model would handle two plows; the Intermediate, based on the improved 10-20, would run three plows; and the Large 15-30-derived Farmall pulled four. Then he wondered if this incremental power increase was large enough. Baker idly suggested fitting four-speed transmissions into the Large and Intermediate models and simply dropping the two-plow original “regular” model. A newcomer to NWC meetings, John L. “Mac” McCaffrey, IHC’s thirty-eight-year-old assistant manager of domestic sales, disagreed. He reported that his boss, Maurice F. Holahan, manager of domestic sales, “felt we should put out the Increased Power Farmalls only at this time.”

Two weeks later, the Naming Committee gave final designations to the Increased Power models, referring to the two-plow model as the F-20, the Intermediate as the F-30, and the Large Farmall as the F-40. Legge held a special conference on IHC’s tractor development and business in Phoenix, Arizona, March 12–14, 1931. He had left the Federal Farm Board on March 5, frustrated by his inabilities to help farmers and turn around the world economy. He returned as president of IHC and immediately got to work where he knew he made a difference.

“Up to 1914, the tendency of tractor design has been entirely toward larger machines of greater horsepower,” he said. Recognizing this strategy was not economical for the average farmer, IHC frequently “went right about-face to the small tractor and in 1914 we made our first, the one-cylinder 8-16 Mogul. The same economic conditions govern us today, and we must not make our tractors too heavy, too high in cost, and too expensive in operation.”

Benjamin proposed returning to the Two Tractor Plan. He suggested that a 24-horsepower Increased Power Farmall, along with the Intermediate Farmall, would take care of 90 percent of IHC’s current business. The other 10 percent came from California, where IHC’s new crawlers would fill their need. The EC approved large-scale production of the F-30 Intermediate Farmall and the Increased Power F-20. Two matters remained.

Baker reported progress in engineering the high-compression, heavy-fuels projects, particularly with the Hill diesel engine from Michigan. One prototype ran at Phoenix with pump-wear problems that they solved on the spot. Baker mused that “if this Hill diesel engine came through with satisfactory performances, our troubles on the Increased Power 10-20s and 15-30s would be behind us, as those two tractors would [use] the Hill engine.” Legge urged Baker to get to work.

On July 14, board chairman Cyrus McCormick Jr. signed off on improvements to the “Regular” Farmall, including raising output by 3 horsepower, adding a four-speed transmission, and enclosing the steering gear. Two months later, on September 26, 1931, Johnston asked Baker to lay out and design a new one-plow Farmall, an F-10, with their modified unit-frame at the rear for the engine, transmission, and running gear while extension rails, mounted onto the unit-frame, supported the front axle.

In January 1932, the NWC dealt with variations on old themes, modifying the regular narrow Farmall as a new Fairway tractor by replacing the front wheels that often cut into the bunkers with a wide front axle. Johnston created a similar configuration as a wide-tread front axle for the F-30 narrow-tread tractor in late February, as a no-additional-charge option. He used wheels off the 10-20 and the wide-front versions of the Farmall F-30, the W-30 tractor, but the F-30 wheels would not fit an F-20. By April, his engineers devised a wide front axle for the F-20 that also would fit the Regular Farmall.

Baker continued work on the F-10 one-plow tractor. Tractor Works released the first of these smaller semi-unit-frame models as the F-12. Competition nipped at the Farmall’s heels. The Regular’s production totals dipped to 3,080 for 1932, though IHC tractor prospects were bolstered by production of 2,500 F-20s as well as 1,500 F-12s.

THE TREND TOWARD INFLATABLE RUBBER TIRES caught up with IHC. On August 1, 1932, GPED’s Sperry urged the NWC to keep up with competition. “Because of other tractor manufacturers, we [must] offer low pressure tires,” he said. “We can purchase wheels from French & Hecht which are built to fit our tractors and are sold to our dealers. The tires have inner tubes and carry about 12 pounds pressure, not the zero pressure [solid rubber] tires tested in Florida. We will ultimately furnish Goodyear tires when they are ready.” At year-end, as the NWC cleaned up loose ends, they heard from Sperry again.

“The unexpected has become the accepted,” he observed. “It is entirely possible that pneumatic tires may be developed to meet many agricultural operations as they are now meeting industrial tractor needs. Allis-Chalmers are advertising pneumatic tires on farm tractors. There is a possibility that these tires may cut into crawler tractors sales: Caterpillar is experimenting with pneumatic tires on wheel tractors it has purchased.”

The NWC, aware of Caterpillar’s growing role in influencing IHC product development, approved low-pressure pneumatics for the increased-power 10-20s, W-30s, and the Farmall Regular as well as the F-12 tractors. They offered F-12s as orchard, industrial, and fairway versions. Sperry recommended providing a fourth, much higher speed gear, determining that 10 miles per hour now seemed sensible.

In early 1933, the NWC addressed ongoing problems large and small: magnetos and impulse starter couplings for four- and six-cylinder Farmalls; a clutch-release hitch for Farmall tractors that disengaged if the plow hit something; low-pressure pneumatic tires for the F-12; worm-steering gears for the F-20 and F-30; kerosene engines for the F-12; continued pressure on Sperry and GPED for diesel engines; electric starters; relocated air cleaners; new engine crankcases to provide better lubrication to the bottom end and tops of the F-20 engines; corresponding widening of the tractor frame with hood and fuel tank to match; elimination of engine side doors to clean up appearances of the same tractors; and prototype clutches for the F-12 produced in-house to replace outsourced units.

“The committee,” Kimbark read in a letter from Harold McCormick during a June 20 NWC meeting, “are impressed with the advantages of the construction used in the F-12 Farmall, compared to the Regular, the F-20 and F-30. Designing this form of chassis, having high wheels and one-chamber gear case should be combined with designing modern, higher-speed, four-cylinder engines for tractors of the two-plow and three-plow sizes.”

Sperry went pale. Was this an order to redo the entire line? His portion of GPED was overextended as it was. Johnston scrambled. His resources also were stretched thin. The F-12 meant a lot to him. It was IHC’s first mass-production application of the unitized tub he had created with a large prototype Mogul 20-40 back in 1914. He had furthered the benchmark that Benjamin had established with his Farmall.

But he had no money, no personnel, and no time to develop new tractors, even ones based on his own idea. The high-wheel design presented obstacles to attaching existing Farmall implements. While IHC had reduced tractor-manufacturing costs by using a unit-frame, the F-12-type case reduced clearance for cultivating and brought wheel rims and their dust closer to the driver. The changes required to existing implements outweighed the advantages. Johnston voted to avoid working his staff to death or turning out another hurried project.

The four-plow tractor idea returned in discussions on September 11, 1933. Based on semi-unitized F-12s with speeds ranging from 2 to 20 miles per hour, the NWC now wanted this with the diesel engine, and it pushed a rapid-development program for Cane Cultivator-and-Plow tractors based on F-30-N narrow-tread models. Sugar cane had come back in Louisiana, and planters needed tractors with high ground clearance.

Sperry agreed the F-30-N Farmall offered the “advantage [of] straddling the bed in cultivating instead of running between the beds as the 10-20 must do,” but the narrow-front axle was cast and couldn’t be arched without redesign and new manufacture. Suddenly, everything Johnston and Sperry supervised felt rushed. They never had enough time or personnel to do the work, although they always got enough money to do the projects thoroughly. Their effort and IHC’s product inventory expanded geometrically. Sugar-cane versions of F-30s rose high off the ground; Orchard, Industrial, and W-series standard-tread variations of the Farmall F-12 were tested and went into production. A dozen times in the last six weeks of 1933, Johnston repeated, “The Gas Power Engineering Department could not do much on it at this time, without an increase in the engineering force, for the reason there are so many developments under way.” It became his litany. The pace of work was nearly unsustainable.

Then, for a few brief days, all work halted. Legge, shrewd champion of tractor development and the man who had led IHC through tractor sales wars against Ford and the relentless onslaught of competitors real and would-be, died of a heart attack in his garden as he pruned his lilacs on Sunday morning, December 3, 1933. After the funeral on Wednesday, December 6, the McCormicks and the board of directors elected McKinstry president. He would serve only until New Year’s Day 1935, before retiring.

During one of McKinstry’s first NWC meetings, on January 15, 1934, the Naming Committee relabeled the improved gas-engined wide-front 22-36 tractor as the WA-40. IHC’s first diesels became the WD-40. McKinstry signed orders to produce 20 of each per day for two years. GPED completed WD-40 detail drawings on March 1, sent them to Manufacturing, and the first development models, 7 WAs and 3 WDs, rolled out of GPED on May 1. These meetings marked the earliest appearances of the newest McCormick, Fowler, to the EC and the NWC. Born in 1898, he was Cyrus Hall McCormick’s grandson. After graduating from Princeton at twenty-three, he drifted through several interests, including psychology (inspired by his mother’s fascination with Dr. Carl Jung), music, and accounting. He ran a small business until 1928, when Legge suggested it was about time he came to “The Company.” Fowler started in the apprentice program. He spent five years learning manufacturing, engineering, and sales. By 1933 he was assistant sales manager, and in 1934, McKinstry named Fowler head of foreign sales.

In late May 1934, IHC found itself needing to repair its reputation as had happened several years earlier with some of its crawlers. Now, a combination of design, manufacturing, and field service problems produced an ill-fitting air filter for the diesel engines and the gas F-12s. Climate-related, it appeared only where drought conditions brought on intense dust. Johnston explained: “The numerous complaints of excessive wear of the F-12 engines are largely due to dirt entering through inefficient air cleaners. The design of the original made it extremely difficult to assemble the cleaning element uniformly into the cleaner. It results in excessive wear of pistons, sleeves, rings, bearings, and crankshafts which in turn results in excessive oil and fuel consumption and loss of power.” (Sperry defined acceptable oil use as one quart per ten-hour field day after three hundred hours of use; these tractors used one gallon a day.)

IHC’s policy was to make it right by replacing faulty air cleaners with new ones, making engines airtight by, if necessary, thoroughly overhauling the engine and replacing worn parts. GPED designed new pistons with four rings instead of three. One source of the dirt was residual sand and metallic chips from Milwaukee and Tractor Works castings. McKinstry ordered them to install a filtering system for the lubricating oil they used to run in engines prior to installation. IHC had these systems in operation at the Fort Wayne gas-engine plant and at Farmall Works.

“I think each individual identified with this undertaking,” McKinstry said, “must be impressed with the amount of money involved.” McKinstry kept records but released no totals for this repair; it would have been premature. He had learned how to manage from Legge, and the new president quickly found his voice, using it effectively to satisfy customers and to ask his managers to work more carefully and more wisely. It worked.

The pressure from Domestic Sales to provide a tractor for every farm and crop strained GPED by mid-1934. Johnston’s durability and stamina earned him promotion to vice president of engineering. Yet even now, as a corporate officer, he couldn’t slow the flood of new work. Two new projects lined up behind each one completed. Engineers returned from one test trip, filed reports, and left for another. The W-40s would start production even as 1934’s Midwest drought slowed demand for all IHC products. Johnston and Sperry hoped for an opportunity to catch up.

When the costs for working at this pace came due, the price was high. At noon on June 27, 1934, McKinstry and Johnston shut down the 12-series tractor production line, halting manufacture completely. It was the only way to get parts changed before 12-series tractors left the plants. Repairs cost much more in the field. This delay permitted outside makers of new air filters and elements to deliver adequate supplies, so Tractor Works could remedy the problem before shipment. Production resumed on July 9.

The entire program, including parts, repairs, overhauls, and F-12 plant shutdown, cost IHC $750,000 (more than $13 million today). In four regions—Central, Southern, Southeast, and East—nineteen branches needed help; the thirty-six others around the country did not. The Service Department trained sales agents and sent them out to make repairs. Manufacturing estimated that perhaps 10,000 diesel, F-12, or crawler tractors needed service, ranging from simply tightening or replacing air filter canisters and elements to full top-to-bottom engine rebuilds, transmission repairs, and, in the case of crawlers, track replacements.

Johnston had harped about keeping dirt out and oil in. IHC’s sales organization, hungry for products and concerned with manufacturing costs, continually postponed his efforts to make tighter machines. Johnston had argued for pressure lubrication; he got that with two of the company’s crawlers. Yet, even as this unprecedented “recall” continued, Sales argued that “the appropriateness of pressure lubrication on farm tractors as compared to splash lubrication had not yet been fully demonstrated.”

In early August, Baker sent a new wide-front four-plow tractor, the CW-40, to Hinsdale. Johnston, intent on avoiding recent problems with tractors released too quickly, asked for another year for testing and development. McKinstry reminded him that this third series W model was the 22-36 replacement. The C-version only incorporated the latest seals and air filter. Test harder, McKinstry said. He refused to delay production.

GPED staged final sign-off tests of the third preproduction W-40 series in early October 1934, in Phoenix, Arizona. Johnston chose the desert to guarantee challenging conditions. The only problems came in the transmission. While it never failed in tests, the heat and dust taxed it. In Johnston’s ideal world, GPED wanted to upgrade the transmission before the tractor grew from the 15-30 to the 22-36. No one envisioned the power of the diesel. Larger gears wouldn’t fit; designing a new case and testing a transmission would add two to three more years. Again, McKinstry refused to delay introduction. Disputes such as these between Sales and Engineering set the stage for a drama that would play out over the next half century.

JOHNSTON’S GPED WAS OVERWORKED; however, Benjamin had not been resting on his accomplishments. In early October 1934, at Hinsdale, he showed NWC and executive officers “a new means of attaching implements to the F-12 tractor,” demonstrating both a No. 90 plow and a middle-buster. Predictably, the Sales staff and McCaffrey, most vocally, wanted all of it immediately, and available universally.

Benjamin and Sperry had resolved to introduce this new hitch for plowing after farmers had completed harvest for 1935. They could deliver F-12s earlier because hitch modifications were small. Implements were the problem; the list to be offered grew like a weed. With tractor production at 2,000 per month and the 1935 fall harvest ten months away, tractors and enough implements had to be in dealers by July. In late November, Sales convinced everyone that tractors without implements were preferable to new implements without a tractor. This strategy gave them time to advertise and farmers time to anticipate.

With McKinstry’s admonition about no delays searing their ears, Johnston and Sperry wrote to McCaffrey. Having watched him for nearly two years by now, they recognized an enthusiast in the supersalesman. They advised him that their large six-cylinder diesel “with recent modifications could be run safely at a speed of 1,500 to 1,600 rpm, and could be depended upon to develop the horsepower required. The Engineering Department could turn over specifications for this engine in two months.”

In McCaffrey, they imagined the preservation of their world, if not a renaissance for engineering. They hoped to build for him high-quality machines, tested thoroughly, and put into production when they were ready. But as McKinstry had learned things from Legge, McCaffrey was learning from McKinstry, and McCaffrey was not the last one who would disappoint the engineers for decades to come.

Learn more about Farmall’s growth and expansion in The History of Farmall Tractors: 1940-1954.

Reprinted with permission from Farmall: The Red Tractor that Revolutionized Farmingby Randy Leffingwell and Robert N. Pripps, published by Voyageur Press, 2015.