The Behlen Manufacturing Company: (Part II)
The Hi-Speed Gear Box
Brian Wayne Wells
As published in the November/December 2002 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine
As noted previously in Part I of this series of articles, the Behlen Manufacturing Company was the brainchild of Walter Behlen. (“The Behlen Manufacturing Company, Part I” in the September/October 2002 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.) Along with his brothers Gilbert and Herbert (called Mike) and their father Fred, Walter had built a small company (which began in his own garage) into a nationwide supplier of grain storage and drying systems. Emerging from the Second World War, the company was manufacturing many products besides its mainline product of grain systems. One of its lesser-known products was the Hi-Speed Gear Box meant for installation on older, pre-war, steel-wheeled tractors.
Following the war, farmers across North America began to demand devices which would upgrade their old, pre-war farm tractors. One way farmers upgraded their old tractors was by cutting off the steel bands on the rear wheels and welding on a rim for mounting of rubber tires on the rear. Once the rubber tires were mounted in the rear, farmers began to notice how really slow these old, pre-war tractors were. Thus, a market was established for some sort of supplemental transmission to provide a faster road gear for these tractors. The Behlen Hi-Speed Gear Box was just such a supplemental transmission. Behlen made its Hi-Speed Gear Box in three different styles: one for installation on the John Deere Model A and/or Model B tractor; another for installation on McCormick-Deering’s Farmall F-30 tractor; and, the most popular of all, the Hi-Speed Gear Box made for installation on the Farmall “Regular” and/or the Farmall F-20. The Farmall Regular and its successor, the F-20, had been pioneers in the tricycle style design of tractors. The Hi-Speed Gear Box was intended to give these old pioneering tractors, a new lease on life in the post-World War II era.
Development of the “Farmall” had actually begun in the midst of an earlier war. By 1915, the war in Europe was settling down to the stalemate in the trenches, with no end in sight and the Wilson administration seeking to keep the United States out of the war. Meanwhile, on the average family farm in North America, the horse was already being displaced by the tractor. Most of the heavier tasks on the farm, such as plowing and seedbed preparation, were already the domain of tractors, with “standard tread” model tractors of all companies taking over many of the heavier jobs. Belt power, provided by these standard tread tractors was also being used to run grain threshers, silo fillers, corn huskers and feed grinders. However, one task remained that was definitely for the horse – the cultivation of row crops. Standard, or “four-wheeled,” tractors were simply not designed or suited for that task.
In 1915, it became the goal of the International Harvester Company to design a machine specifically for use in cultivation of row crops on the farm. Research and experimentation was intensive, and by 1919, two engineers at IHC – Edward Johnston and C.W. Mott – had obtained a patent on a specialized machine know as the “motor cultivator.” (Barbara Marsh, A Corporate Tragedy: The Agony of International Harvester, [Doubleday and Co.: Garden City, N.Y. 1985], p. 53.) (Photographs of the development of the various prototypes of the “motor cultivator” can be seen in International Harvester Farm Equipment, by Ralph Baumheckel and Kent Borghoff [American Society of Engineers Pub.: St. Joseph, Mich. 1997], pp. 125-126). However, the trouble with the motor cultivator was that it was another expensive piece of self-propelled machinery designed to perform only one task and would have to be stored by the farmer for a whole year until it could be used again.
Finally, in 1921, IHC determined that a new type of tractor design was needed – a design which would allow the tractor to cultivate corn as well as perform all the rest of the chores around the farm. Consequently, the “tricycle” design of farm tractor was conceived and the “Farmall System” of farming was born. In 1924, the Farmall Regular was introduced. The goal of the Farmall System was aimed at total mechanization of all farm tasks and the elimination of all horses from the farm. The tricycle design would prove successful from the very start. Eventually, all tractor manufacturers copied the tricycle design for their row-crop tractors – leading International Harvester to counter with the advertising campaign slogan, “If it isn’t a McCormick-Deering, it isn’t a Farmall.” (Ibid. p. 144)
In 1932, the Farmall (now called the “Regular”) was replaced by a new and improved version called the Farmall F-20. The F-20 had 10% more horsepower than the Regular (23.11 hp as opposed to 20.05 hp) and had a new 4-speed transmission (2-1/4 mph, 2-3/4 mph, 3-1/4 mph and 3-3/4 mph) as opposed to the 3-speed transmission (2 mph, 3 mph and 4 mph) of the Regular. (C.H. Wendel, Nebraska Tractor Tests, [Crestline Pub.: Osceola, Wisc. 1993], pp. 51 and 85.) Additionally, the two-plow F-20 was joined in the Farmall line by the three-plow F-30, introduced in 1931, and the single-plow F-12, introduced in 1932.
Because of the sudden popularity of the Farmall Regular, its production was moved, in 1927, out of the Tractor Works at 2600 West 31st Boulevard in Chicago and into the Company’s new factory, The Farmall Works, located at 4201 Fifth Avenue in Rock Island, Illinois. Production of all F-20s and F-30s was carried on at the Farmall Works. Only production of the F-12 remained at the Tractor Works in Chicago. By the time No. 127613 rolled off the assembly line in the morning of May 13, 1938, the Farmall Works was only eleven years old.
The price of a new F-20 with rubber tires front and rear in 1939 was $1,190.00. (Ralph Baumhecckel and Kent Borghoff, International Harvester Farm Equipment, p. 146.) This was a great deal of money for a farmer emerging from the experience of the Great Depression. Still, as they learned that rubber tires would grip the ground just as well as steel wheels, farmers dreamed of having rubber tires on the front and rear of their tractors for the smoother ride the rubber tires could provide. One particular farmer who dreamed of having and then purchased an F-20 with rubber tires front and rear is portrayed in the 1938 International Harvester promotional movie called Writing Your Own Ticket. This movie advertises the new Income Purchase Plan which was being introduced by the International Harvester Company (IHC) as a way to help potential farm customers individualize an installment plan for loan repayment. This plan would allow them to pay installments as their income came to the farm, rather than on a rigid monthly installment plan. In this way, farmers could “write their own ticket.” (“Writing Your Own Ticket” is available on VHS video Tape #3 from International Promotional Movies)
While rubber tires on the rear were nice, they would add nearly $150.00 to the price of a tractor. (Donald R. Darst, F-30 Farmall Restoration Guide and Story: From Field to Hot Rod to Show , p. 3B.) Thus, many farmers dropped this option when purchasing their tractors. Farmers felt they could live with the “bouncy” ride of the tractor, thereby reducing the initial outlay of money they would need for the tractor. A cheaper option was to have rubber tires in the front in order to improve the steering of the tractor. Thus, it was a typical configuration for most tractors of that era to have rubber tires in the front and steel wheels in the rear. No. 127613 was no exception. On the front, No. 127613 had two 6.00 x 16” rubber tires mounted on IHC-made, cast iron, drop-center wheels with 4.50 x 16” rims. These cast iron front wheels had replaced the 4.50 x 16” French and Hecht (F. & H.) round spoke rims. International Harvester had made this switch at the F-20 tractor bearing the serial number 109124, which came off the assembly line in late 1937. (McCormick Deering Model F-20 Farmall Tractor Parts Catalogue, p. 175) (Kurt Aumann, Ed., Antique Tractor Serial Number Index [Belt Pulley Publishing: Nokomis, Ill. 1993], p. 16.) Accordingly, when No 127613 was manufactured a year later, it was fitted with cast iron wheels with rubber tires in front and IHC-made steel wheels on the rear. Continue reading The Behlen Manufacturing Company (Part II)