he sight of one doodlebug can make Model A fans dyspeptic and if that reaction is understandable, it’s also not always appropriate. “No,” said Ron Oakley, the Binghamton,
New York, owner of a 1928 Ford doodlebug. “No cutting up. That’s one thing a lot of these car clubs think, that we took a Model A. We didn’t. Nobody did that here. That thing was sitting in a gas station for years, it worked. You could duplicate one, and you could probably build one out of parts. But these are originals.”
When he said “Nobody did that here,” he was talking about the Doodlebug Club of Franklin in Franklin, New York. “Doodlebug” might also need an explanation—it’s grown obscure in automotive history since its 1920s-to- 1940s heyday—and a 1938 Sears catalog provided a good account.
“You can build your own farm tractor at low cost,” promised the description of Sears’ Thrifty Farm Tractor Unit. “Now you can transform your old Chevrolet or Ford into a practical tractor—quickly and economically. All you need to build a fine general purpose tractor is an old Model ‘T’ or Model ‘A’ Ford, or a 1926 to 1931 Chevrolet, and a Sears Thrifty Farmer Unit. With the auto body removed, you can quickly convert the old auto into a tractor that has the pulling power of two to four horses. The Thrifty Farmer will do practically every job that many of the regular-type tractors will do. The Thrifty Farmer attachment on the average used Ford or Chevrolet chassis has the speed and power to operate any of your horse- drawn tools. It works in any soil condition to work with horses and often works where horses cannot.”
Boots Oakley drives his Chevy doodlebug in the Community Parade at the Afton, New York, Fair.
The kits cost $93.50 for the Model T, $101.50 for the Model A and $106.50 for the Chevrolet. Affordable, but not cheap, as the figures in today’s dollars are $1565 for the Model A, $1704 for the T and $1788 for the Chevy. For his money, the purchaser received a half-ton package that included steel front wheels, cleated tractor wheels for the rear, a tractor-type seat, a subframe and a drawbar for implements
One who knows Model As— really knows Model As—would identify at least the major components of Ron Oakley’s doodlebug.
Sears was not alone. The 1919 edition of The Model T Ford Car and Ford Farm Tractor described Acason’s chain-driven Aca-tractor kit as well as the Make-A-Tractor conversion, emphasizing that the latter “can be fitted to other passenger cars as well.” A Model T, though, was a wise choice because “the power and reliability of the Ford engine make it possible to use this light chassis for much heavier work than you would imagine it capable of.”
There Was More Than One Approach to a Doodlebug
While less of a consideration in the Model T era than it would become during the Great Depression and World War II, an owner pondering a doodlebug knew that he would no longer have a car, but Knickerbocker Motors had the solution. A 1919 clipping headlined “pleasure car not lost in this tractor” explained that “at a time when the development of the country’s agricultural resources is of greatest import, the announcement of an attachment that will turn any one of the million-odd Fords in the country into an efficient tractor for all kinds of cultivation purposes is particularly significant and of great importance to the farmer. This device, which is called a Forma-Tractor, is simple in construction, but sufficiently rugged to stand the strain of work in the field and has the efficiency of a four-horse team… (It) is so adapted to his Ford that it can be attached and detached within less than 30 minutes and therefore will not deprive him of the use of his car as a pleasure vehicle or for carrying produce to market.”
Besides Knickerbocker, others such as Montgomery Ward and David Bradley also offered kits, but for those who couldn’t afford their cost or really didn’t need kits, plans were available. In the 1930s, Modern Mechanix published plans with the observation that “perhaps in your own backyard you have an old Model T Ford truck or passenger car that wasn’t worth a license tag.” The article described the result as a “Handy Henry,” one of the many nicknames for tractors built from cars or trucks. At the time it was reported that a Handy Henry could be built for as little as $20, a much more reasonable figure for a farmer of that era.