I’m sure that it’s a cliche to say that as a writer I try to avoid cliches. While gearshifts often do fall readily to hand, it’s not a good idea to put that in every review. Not long ago another writer (and I wish I could remember who it was to give him credit) was describing a car’s engine that wasn’t exactly the smoothest running machine and he mocked a common automotive cliche with the phrase “insert agricultural implement metaphor here”. When you read “it runs like a tractor”, they aren’t exactly praising an engine’s durability or torque, they’re calling it primitive and uncouth. Since I like to see things first hand, when I saw that there was going to be a tractor show this fall in Ira Twp, Michigan about an hour away, I decided to see, hear and feel for myself just how roughly tractor engines run. I’m glad that I did because what started out as a lark ended up teaching me something about automotive history and also American culture.
Every September, Izzi Farms hosts an antique tractor and equipment show put on by a group that may have the longest name of any special interest club in America, H.P.A.T.E.E.M, the Historic Preservation of Antique Tractors and Equipment of Eastern Michigan. When I got there I saw a variety of vintage Case, John Deere, McCormick/IH and Ford tractors lined up on the grass near an empty farm field.
Most of them, it seems, were from the 1940s and 1950s. Some were as well restored as any car show trailer queen, like a pink 1946 Case being used to raise money for breast cancer research, while others still looked like they still being used, driven over from a nearby farm in between plowing duties.
In addition to the vintage tractors there were also a number of “equipment” collectors showing off their prized possessions, mostly stationary gasoline engines that were used on farms and in factories as gasoline started replacing steam power. Stationary gasoline engines, usually of the “hit and miss” type, were used to power everything from saws to hullers to even washing machines. We enthusiasts like to joke about cars that are appliances or wishing our own cars were “as reliable as a Maytag”, but most of us don’t know that Maytag made their own gasoline engines to power washing machines and other appliances where there was no electrical service.
Stationary engines had an important role in the development of the automobile for a couple of reasons. John D. Rockefeller’s first fortune was made refining petroleum into kerosene used for lighting. When people like Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and Steinmetz made the commercial production and sale of electricity possible, creating a competitor to Rockefeller’s kerosene, Rockefeller started looking at a byproduct of the refining process, a combination of napthas, that he had hitherto been discarding as waste. Some used it as a dry cleaning solvent. It was toxic, nearly explosive and over 170 years after it was first refined, they still haven’t come up with a better fuel for internal combustion engines. We know it, of course, as gasoline. At the time, the stationary engines used on farms and in factories ran on steam. Rockefeller encouraged the adoption of gasoline as a fuel by subsidizing the cost of gasoline powered stationary engines.
He may have subsidized them, but Rockefeller didn’t make engines. That was up to people who built and sold gasoline powered engines for stationary use. Being located in Detroit, in the heart of the Great Lakes, before they started building cars David Buick’s stationary engines and those built by Leland & Falconer and Horace & John Dodge found a ready market in that region’s marine industry.
By the 1890s, inventors had been tinkering with internal combustion engines for more than two decades. In 1870, Siegfried Marcus was the first person recorded to have powered a four wheel vehicle with a gasoline fired internal combustion engine. In the early 1890s, the “hit and miss” gasoline engine was introduced (though many can run on kerosene once started). Their name come from the induction system which is controlled by a reverse governor connected to the engines’ large flywheels, which keep things spinning in between power strokes, which only happen when flywheel speed drops. The intake valve is passive, it is opened by vacuum. The exhaust valve, however, is operated by a linkage, which normally holds the valve open and there is no combustion. When speed drops, the exhaust valve is closed, creating vacuum on the down stroke, opening the intake valve and the fuel air mixture is drawn into the cylinder. The ignition is triggered and the mixture burns, causing the power stroke. There is typically one power stroke about every 10 to twelve revolutions. The engines rev so slowly that you can hear every firing stroke.
Automotive pioneers like Buick quickly realized that passive valves, irregular power strokes and low RPM were not suitable for motor cars, but stationary engines were a necessary step to get to high powered, high revving gasoline motors. They served a purpose and stayed into production into the 1930s, when rural electrification programs made them obsolete.
Besides hosting the old engines and vintage tractors, the organizers also put on an old-fashioned tractor pull. Not with fire-belching 1,200 horsepower behemoths like you’d see in a stadium, but rather the way tractor pulls used to be done, with local farmers competing with the same machines they likely used to plow their fields. Axle weights were loaded on a sledge chained to a stake in the ground. Competitors were timed on how long it took them to pull everything taught. It might not have been 80,000 people screaming in a stadium, but folks had smiles on their faces. While some of the tractors were indeed trailered to the show, not all of the restored farm implements were trailer queens. Owners of many of the beautifully restored machines lined up to take their part in the pull.
The next time someone says that a car engine “runs like a tractor motor”. I can assure you that the roughest running automotive engine made in the last half century runs smoother than any of the tractors at this show.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS