As readers of Antique Power magazine know, one of the most interesting things about antique tractors is the fascinating timeline of tractor technology. A critical part of the tractor, however, seems to get the least mention, and that is the seat. Looking at the big picture of the evolution of tractor seats, from the mid 19th century to today, you might describe it as a journey “from pain to pampering.” If the manliness of our farming forefathers was measured by how much physical discomfort they suffered, they scored high points. Walking behind a plow might have been better than sitting all day on a hard metal seat that transferred every jarring bump and took a serious toll on the body.
At least those old cast iron seats, now the valuable prizes of collectors, were beautiful. As part of their ornate designs, they featured pierced openings that would let air circulate and allow rain to drain through. The farmers who rode on them, however, might have traded that beauty for a softer seat, if given a choice.
In the early days of tractor history, manufacturers gave little thought, if any, to the operator’s comfort and well-being. (I did find one patent from 1892 for a padded seat its inventor said could be applied to horse-drawn vehicles, steam cars, bicycles, etc., but that was a rarity.) Farmers were tough. Some (not all) even thought a fellow who fussed about a sore behind might not be much of a man. They also figured a padded tractor seat left out in the weather would likely just be ruined. At the same time, some farmers were trying to figure out a way to make the ride more tolerable. One way was to stuff a bag full of straw and tie it to the seat, only a slight improvement.
An article titled simply “Tractor Seats,” on page 17 of the March 27, 1919 issue of a periodical called “Motor Age,” promoted common sense and pushed for padded seats, calling a metal seat “a relic of the inquisition.”
The author stated: “Seats fitted to most tractors are the same sheetmetal stamping that for years have been one of the answers to ‘Why do farmer boys leave home?’ The chief virtue of this type of equipment is that it prevents the operator from going to sleep on the job.”
He had recently returned from a huge tractor trade show in Kansas City, Missouri. He reported that only four or five companies even appeared to be moving in the direction of greater comfort and only three actually displayed models with padded seats — the Prairie Dog, the Craig, and the Port Huron.
In January of 1920, the Chicago Sunday Tribune advertised the fifth national Kansas City show as the “Largest Ever” with over 300 manufacturers covering 4 acres. On May 6, 1920, a periodical called “Automotive Industries-the Automobile” gave an account of it. Again, mention was made of the Prairie Dog model from Kansas City Hay Press & Tractor Company, which not only featured a padded upholstered bench type seat with a backrest, but also had a toolbox underneath. The Uncle Sam’s high back seat of pressed steel came with a loose cushion, and the Franklin’s seat, although not padded, was supported by eight coiled springs.
Attitudes were changing, but unpadded metal tractor seats would remain the norm for a quite a while longer. They were supported by different means, but typically mounted on a slightly flexible steel band. David King, owner of the King Agriculture Museum in Centralia, Washington, told me these were called “spring arms.” On antique tractors, this spring arm appears straight or slightly arched or maybe shaped like the letter “C” or “S.”
“They were spring steel and had a memory,” he said. “They would give with the weight of the operator, but when you got off the seat, it would return to its original position.”
New designs emerged as marketplace demand for better seats took hold.
— By 1929, when Rocky Oster’s Caterpillar TEN was built, it had a nice padded seat. (See this tractor in our March/April 2016 issue.) During the restoration, he replaced it with a beautiful replica made by John Hahn of Hahn Upholstery in Craigmont, Idaho.
— For our May/June 2016 issue, I wrote about a 1939 Allis-Chalmers B on steel, belonging to Les Gitts, and featuring a padded seat.
— You can click here to see a 1949 patent application for a tractor seat cushion.
— The rare 1958 John Deere Model 720 diesel (on steel!) belonging to Mike and Bryan Koskela I featured in our Jan./Feb. 2016 issue, has a bright yellow “Float Ride” full-foam cushioned seat. This option lured buyers with its promise of comfort.
As much as I admire those tough old farmers from the 1800s and beyond, I wonder what they would think of today’s tractors, with air-conditioned, enclosed cabs and all kinds of luxury amenities. They might grumble (as they hobbled along with sore hips and a bad back) that modern men are too soft to be real men at all. However, I would bet that once they settled themselves in that bucket seat and turned on some music they would eat their words like they used to eat dust. Thank Goodness, tractor seats have come a LONG way.
Here is a video about how to rebuild a seat hinge for the metal seat on a 1948 Ford 8N: