The Allis-Chalmers Model “B” was introduced at the end of the 1930s and caused a revolution in tractor design. It was the first small, light and inexpensive tractor that still had enough power to accomplish plowing, cultivating and harvesting tasks. It was designed to take advantage of what Allis saw as an underserved market in American agriculture.
- By 1940, most farmers with over 100 acres had purchased tractors.
- But out of the 6.8 million total farms in America, 4 million were smaller than 100 acres.
- Most of those farmers did not own a tractor.
- U.S. farmers grew 149 million acres of row crops (like corn or soybeans) that needed to be cultivated, as opposed to 119 million acres of uncultivated small grains (like wheat or oats). Row crops grow higher and need to be cultivated.
- What these farmers needed was the small, light, high clearance and cheap tractor – like the Allis-Chalmers Model “B.”
The tractor sold like hot cakes, in large part because it was the first model that sold for less than $500. Within months, there was a “$500 class” of tractors within the industry. Allis-Chalmers went from claiming only four percent of the market in 1929 to be the third largest tractor manufacturer in 1939. They accomplished this feat because they were willing to accept a small rate of return on their investment in order to gain larger volume and greater market share. In the 1940s, Allis received a 4.0 percent profit, while IH made 6.7 percent, and John Deere insisted on an 18.1 percent return.
Yet the machines wouldn’t have sold if they didn’t perform and offer the latest technology. In University of Nebraska tractor tests, the Allis “B” produced over 13 horsepower on the drawbar. That was less than the 20 to 30 hp that two and three bottom plow models produced, but enough to get serious work done. The Model “B” had a four-cylinder vertical piston engine. The tractor weighed 2,085 pounds.
In addition, Allis-Chalmers had been the first to introduce rubber tires on their tractors, and they adopted a version of the Ferguson three-point hitch as Ford made that technology popular.
But the Model “B” had something else – sex appeal, according to its designer. The company insisted that the tractor had to be aesthetically pleasing. In an era when most tractors were painted dull grey, the “B” was bright orange. Farmers liked the distinctive color.
The “B” also patented their new “torque tube.” This long, narrow tube contained the drive shaft connecting the engine to the wheels and a narrow torque shaft connected to the power take off. The small size of the torque tube meant that the operator could see around it to the cultivator hoes in between the rows of crops. That was a definite advantage that other companies, like IH, tried to copy. Several companies ended up paying royalties to Allis-Chalmers for their torque tube design.
As good as Allis-Chalmers models were, Kelly Holthus remembers an earlier model Allis his dad had – not the Model B – still had a hand brake. “You’d have to lean clear over and pull on that hand brake while you were making the turn,” he says. “And being small, that really was tough.” He liked his neighbor’s Farmall better because it had “split brakes” where one pedal would lock the right drive wheel and the other would lock the left. That made turning much easier and tighter.