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Odd ball: 'spud' wheels made Fageol tractors distincitive.

Fageol tractors were anything but ordinary. The best-known model, the Fageol 9-12 (sometimes identified as an 8-12), was down right odd looking because of the shape of its rear wheels, which had teeth or "spuds." Also, the first Fageol tractor really was more of a train than a tractor: it was built for carting passengers around the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition grounds in San Francisco.

The Fageol Motors Co., owned and operated by brothers Frank and William Fageol, opened in 1917 in Oakland, Calif., but Frank and William's first contact with vehicles can be traced to 1899 in Iowa, when at the tender ages of 17 and 19, respectively, they built that state's first automobile. It was a steamdriven, eight-passenger vehicle, and the brothers ferried passengers in it, for a fee, from their hometown of Ankeny, Iowa, to the Iowa State Fair near Des Moines, a distance of about 10 miles.

After moving to California, Frank and William worked on an orchard tractor called the Fageol Walking Tractor without a great deal of success. Then, they got the contract to solve the transportation problems at the Panama Pacific Exposition. As J.H. Fort writes in the book The Fageol Success, "The Fageols proposed to solve the problem by building a small tractor, using the motor of a popular automobile to draw the passenger trailers. The idea amused and appealed to the directors; the Fageols (required to print 'Fadgl' in large letters on the sides of the tractors so people could pronounce their name) received the transportation concession."

They used Ford auto motors for power to pull 20-passenger, open-sided trailers around the 635-acre exposition grounds. The tractor/train looked more like a small car with four small wheels, a barrel-shaped hood and a large, mesh-filled front bumper. The wheels of the trailers were shrouded so passengers wouldn't catch clothing or feet in the spokes as they sat in the small cars with their legs dangling off the edges; if they stretched, they could touch the ground with their feet. A sight-seeing trip cost 10 cents, and the project proved wildly popular. After the exposition, the trains were shipped to Chicago and used there, in Lincoln Park.

Building on that success, the Fageol brothers decided in 1917 to construct their own factory. Two thousand people attended the groundbreaking, where the men announced that their newly minted company, Fageol Motors Co. of Oakland, would build military tractors, cars and trucks.

The end of World War I, a year later, squelched the military tractor plans, but regular tractors were made, and although the Fageols were inventors, their tractors were actually the invention of another man. He was Rush Hamilton of Geyserville, Calif., and he had patented his tractor, and other inventions, in 1915 and formed the Hamilton Tractor Co. His concept was an odd-looking orchard tractor built to tow wagons full of fruit. Instead of flattening ground in front of a plow or harrow or other machinery being pulled, this tractor drew implements along after having loosened the soil by means of its rear wheels, which had long, blade-like teeth.

The Fageols claimed that the blades, or teeth, on the rear wheels of the tractor enabled it to "walk right over" almost any kind of ground. The first Fageol tractor out of the factory cost $1,085, and it was basically a two-wheeled power plant, with a ride-on dead axle at the rear. It was classed as the equivalent to a four-horse team and steered by gearing around a quadrant at the back of its frame, which was pressed steel. The engine had four cylinders, and drive to the wheels was made possible by internal gearing, all of which ran immersed in oil. Despite weighing only 1,730 pounds, the tractor exerted considerable drawbar pull, thanks to the special wheel teeth, which could be covered with bands for road travel.

The orchard tractor was called a "walking tractor," and the spiked driving wheels did work. A company called Butler-Veitch contracted for all of the Fageol orchard tractors, and Fageol became a sales agent for Butler-Veitch in 1918 in Oakland. Although no documentation is available on the nature of the Butler-Veitch business, it may have been another tractor company; in the early days, these businesses often sold each other's products.

That same year, a true four-wheeled Fageol tractor was introduced. It was rated an 8-12 or 9-12 (and later, a 10-15 by a subsequent company), and came with the trademark "spudded" drive wheels and distinctive hood vents. The wheels had metal stakes protruding on either side, which made them look like gigantic cogwheels; author Fort writes, "The Fageol 'walked' on its 'legs' or 'grousers.' It was claimed that because of the wedging action of the ground between two adjacent grousers, the drive wheels would not sink deeply even in loose sand."

In the drum of each driver was an internal expanding clutch, which coupled the solid live axle to the drive wheel; there was no differential on the axle. The tractor had a Lycoming four-cylinder, 3 1/2- by 5-inch bore-and-stroke engine, and only one forward gear. Steering was by tiller, and an enormous, replaceable air filter took care of the California dust. The carburetor was a Tillotson, and the magneto ignition was a Dixie. The whole transmission was generously provided with ball and roller bearings. Total weight was 3,600 pounds - more than double the orchard tractor - and the price was correspondingly high, $1,525 in 1922, which resulted in few sales.

The March 1922 issue of Pacific Service Magazine includes this report on the Fageol company: "Delivery of tractors for farm and vineyard purposes began in 1918. Foreign trade was developed until now the company supplies the Pacific Coast and is sending its tractors to the Pacific Islands, many countries of Europe and the Far East."

There is no known count of how many Fageol tractors were manufactured, but there are reports that about two dozen are known to still exist.

In 1923, though, the manufacture of Fageol tractors ceased. The production halt probably can be attributed to a combination of the following factors: an agricultural recession under way at the time, the relatively high cost of the tractor and the company's need to focus on making trucks under government contract, which offered more security than selling tractors to the public.

After Fageol Motors Co. quit making tractors, a few more Fageol tractors were made in San Jose, Calif., by a former director of the Fageol firm. His name was Horatio W. Smith, and he owned the National Axle Corp., which he renamed the Great Western Motors Co. "It appears," says Bob Johnson, reference librarian of the California Room of the San Jose Public Library, "that H.W. Smith somehow took over the company, renamed it and began manufacturing tractors instead of axles." The company also was listed in the 1925 city directory as "Tractor manufacturers, 13th corner Berryessa Road." Using leftover components from the original Fageol factory, Smith apparently manufactured the tractors in 1924, 1925 and 1927, after which no more were made, thus ending the saga of the odd-looking, spud-driven Fageol tractors -- but not of the company itself.

Fageol Motors Co. continued to make other vehicles. By 1931, the company was operating 13 factory branches along the Pacific Coast and selling trucks and buses into many foreign countries, including Australia, Java, Japan, China, Mexico, Guatemala and Canada.

No Fageol orchard tractors are known to survive, although many people think someday, surely, one will turn up somewhere in California.

RELATED ARTICLE: didn't stop with tractors

The purpose of the Fageol Motors Co. factory, built in 1917, was to build tractors, cars, buses and trucks, and the stories behind the Fageol cars, buses and trucks are as interesting as those of the tractors.

Fageol cars, called the "Fageol Automobile Deluxe," were one of the most expensive cars ever built, with a 1920 price tag of $12,000.

The Fageol brothers, Frank and William, wanted their cars to be the finest and most exclusive passenger cars ever made. The first one was exhibited in January 1917 at the Foreign Car Salon in Chicago, eliciting phenomenal interest and international publicity. Subsequent introductions in New York and San Francisco met with similar success.

In its June 1917 edition, Pacific Service Magazine reported: "The company builds the Fageol Car equipped with the famous Hall-Scott 125-horsepower military hydro-aeroplane engines. This car can be started from dead stop, reach a speed of 25 miles and stopped all within 40 feet. It is elegantly equipped and sells for $12,000. The Chevrolet factory, nearby, sent a floral tribute with the words, 'From the lowest to the highest price car."'

The Fageols used a 1 35- to 145-inch wheelbase, and the engine had six cylinders. Fageol patented a hood design of rear-facing fin louvers positioned atop the hood to help with cooling, although the louvers turned out to be mostly for looks: (Some of the tractors even had "blind" louvers, which didn't help with cooling at all.)

Unfortunately, the United States' entry into World War I stopped the production of Fageol automobiles after only three cars. were built. A car of such luxury would have been a wartime folly, and additionally, the two men most instrumental in the car's design were conscripted by the U.S. government to design military vehicles. They were E.J. Hall, a noted engine designer who had made a car called the Comet 10 years earlier, and Col. J.G. Wallace, formerly Packard's chief mechanical engineer. Together in the service, the two men designed the Liberty airplane engine.

Fageol also built a series of very popular buses that were used worldwide, but the company's true calling was the truck. After World War I, Fageol Motors Co. began building 2-, 3-, 3 1/2- and 5-ton trucks using four-cylinder engines, and over the years, Fageol introduced a host of inventions that improved trucks. These included the compound transmission, the multiple-speed transmission, air cleaners and reservoir oiling system, all of which became standard in the United States.

Fageol's prospective truck customers thought in terms of tonnage -- not pounds -- and the company worked hard to build vehicles that could cope with the rugged Western conditions. These included traveling daily from below sea level to mile-high altitudes under tremendous loads and over very divergent terrain, from desert sands to virgin timber stands.

The company earned a reputation for building rugged, reliable trucks, but despite that, in 1929, it was forced to file for bankruptcy. In 1932, as the Great Depression deepened, Fageol Motors went into receivership; Waukesha Motor Co. and the Central Bank of Oakland assumed control of the operation.

Despite its difficulties, the company introduced new models for the next six years, but in November 1938, Sterling Motors acquired the assets and announced production would cease.

A lumber magnate from Tacoma, Wash., named T.A. Peterman came to the company's rescue. He purchased Fageol in April 1939 to build a chain-driven logging truck. Two units were built and neither worked, but regular trucks continued to be made and to sell well, and soon, they were renamed "Peterbit."

-- Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm toys. Contact him at

Box 372,400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369; e-mail:
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Author:Vossler, Bill
Publication:Farm Collector
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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