Written by Larry Gay
At the recent National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, Kentucky, 95 percent of the 2-wheel-drive tractors on display were equipped with a front-wheel assist. This is an indication of today’s popularity of front-wheel assist, but it wasn’t always that way.
In the late 1950s, two companies started building kits to provide mechanically-driven front-wheel assist for 2-wheel-drive tractors. Elenco Products of Aurora, Illinois, built front-wheel assist kits for several models of Ford tractors. Elwood Manufacturing Company of Elwood, Illinois, sold its kits under the EmCo name for selected models of Minneapolis-Moline, International Harvester, Massey-Ferguson, John Deere, and Case tractors.
Minneapolis-Moline was the first company to offer factory installed front-wheel assist, starting with the 1962 model year. When Minneapolis-Moline equipped its tractors with front-wheel assist, the 5-plow M-5 model became the M-504 and the large standard-tread G-VI became the G-704. The basic tractors were revised for the 1963 model year and the front-wheel assist models became the M-604 and G-706. Oliver joined the market by introducing front-wheel assist for its 1800 and 1900 models for the 1963 model year. The other tractor brands added a front-wheel assist for some of their models during the 1960s.
During the 1970s, many of the tractors imported from Europe and Japan were equipped with front-wheel assist, but sales of U.S.-built tractors with front-wheel assist were limited. There was a big debate about whether the advantages of a front-wheel assist justified the added cost. Some people thought dual rear wheels were better for improved traction. Others suggested it was better to buy a tractor with an extra 20 horsepower to compensate for the wheel slip problem. Tractors tested at Nebraska showed no extra drawbar pull for the front-wheel assist. One reason was the concrete test track did not duplicate field conditions. Also the tractors were weighted to provide optimum performance with 2-wheel drive and the weight was not relocated when the front-wheel assist was engaged.
By the 1980s, front-wheel assist had become a popular feature for utility tractors with loaders working in muddy conditions. Although there was still some debate about the advantages of front-wheel assist for field work, the tractor engineers and most farmers agreed front-wheel assist tractors provided more drawbar pull and better fuel efficiency than 2-wheel-drive tractors. Soon most tractors with 200 or more horsepower included front-wheel assist as standard equipment.
Larry Gay is the author of four farm tractor books and the “Machinery Milestones” articles in Heritage Iron magazine. To learn more about this award-winning magazine which focuses on the 1960-1985 era, go to www.heritageiron.com or call 1-866-552-6085.