Just as you can’t be a driver without a car, it’s tough to be a farmer if you don’t have a tractor. But tractors can be costly, and that presented a critical problem for a number of farmers during the Depression, who simply couldn’t scrape together the cash for one.
Many farmers had an old jalopy out behind the barn, or could pick one up for a few dollars, and so several companies began producing kits that could turn an old car into a pseudo-tractor substitute. At the height of their popularity, there were around 40 of these manufacturers in the United States.
In Canada, the success story was a company named Otaco, a farm equipment company located in Orillia, Ontario. It was an acronym for the Orillia Tudhope Anderson Company, initially formed to market the wagons and implements made by the Tudhope Carriage Company, which itself in turn became a short-lived automaker.
Some of the American companies included Smith Form-Tractor, Staude Make-a-Tractor, Fon-du-Lac and Tracford, but the one essential to our story is Pulford. It was a small company run by two brothers in a shop behind their house in Rockford, Illinois. As might be assumed from the name, Pulford’s tractor system was built specifically to fit on Ford vehicles, which were among the most common on the road at the time.
Start of ‘Autotrac’
Otaco sent a representative to talk to Pulford about a licensing agreement, but that was more than the brothers wanted to consider. Instead, they offered a plan that’s pretty much unimaginable today: if Otaco bought one Pulford system, which cost $85, it was welcome to make as many as it wanted for sale north of the border.
Otaco called its system Autotrac, and unlike the Pulford, could be adapted to any make of car. It was advertised for such brands as Ford, Star, Durant, Chevrolet, Plymouth, Dodge, Buick, Studebaker, Whippet and Overland, and there is a record of at least one luxury Packard being converted into one.
The kit, which weighed 765 pounds (347 kg), included two 20-spoke wheels, 32 inches in diameter, with lugs (the Autotrac pictured, on a 1929 Ford Model A, has had its wheels converted from lugs to rubber for driving on asphalt), along with two internal gears with pinions, a steel axle, a sub-frame, and a draw bar.
The kits ranged from $141 to $300, which was a considerable savings from the average $600 cost of a new tractor, even if the farmer had to pay $20 or so to buy an old car. The conversion was considered do-it-yourself and many farmers did the work themselves. Local garages or blacksmiths were also called into service to install the kits.
None of the conversions were true tractors, of course, and they did have some drawbacks. The car’s front axle remained in place and it wasn’t as strong as a tractor’s, and it was common to have to add a heavy-duty radiator to deal with chronic overheating. But they helped many a farmer get his daily chores finished much faster than he could with a horse, and at a fraction of the price of a real tractor.
The Autotrac kits were made right up until the 1960s. Otaco moved into several other ventures as well. It made undercarriages and wheels for the Mosquito bomber during the Second World War, and produced a wide range of products following the war’s end, including water well pumps, boat trailers, and in the 1950s, sleighs and ice runway maintenance equipment for Arctic expeditions.
It also made thousands of metal toy trucks under the Minnitoy brand in the 1940s. The company’s Orillia plant ended its days making bus seats and closed in 2007, finishing up a fascinating chapter of Canada’s manufacturing history.