Jet age tractor

By Russ Olexa

November 2010- When you see a tractor traveling along a road or field, you might hear a gasoline engine or more commonly the clatter of a diesel. But if you see Brian Harris' tractor, you'll hear a unique sound--the high-pitched scream of a jet engine.

Harris, who lives in Sanborn, N.Y., built a one-of-a-kind tractor using a design that the International Harvester Co. originally developed. The company built a gas-turbine-powered, hydrostatically operated tractor in 1961 as a proof-of-concept called the HT 340.

However, after taking the tractor to two shows, disaster struck. While on a return trip from a Lincoln, Neb., show the truck carrying the tractor crashed, and the HT 340 was damaged severely. The company made repairs and displayed the tractor at several other events. After more extensive repairs, it was unveiled again in 1962 as the HT 341. Eventually, it was retired to the Smithsonian Institution in 1967, but it is still displayed around the country at events.

Building a jet-powered tractor
In 1952, Harris started his career as a boilermaker in England. He then worked as a machine repairman for General Motors in Lockport, N.Y.

"In England, they were still using a lot of steam tractors in 1952, and as a boilermaker we were repairing these machines. This got me interested in steam tractors and tractors in general," he says.

Although he has a passion for steam-powered tractors, he always has wanted to use a gas turbine engine for a project. "For years I've been interested in turbine engines," he says. "Even when I was a child, I was fascinated by them. I wanted to put one in something, and tractors seemed to make the most sense, since I enjoy tinkering with them. I also wanted to pick a tractor that meant something. To put it in any old tractor wouldn't really mean anything, but this International Harvester Tractor really doesn't exist as a functioning tractor. The tractor has been on static display so long that it no longer runs. So it seemed sensible to build one that would be functional," he says.

Building the tractor wasn't easy. Because the HT 341 exists, Harris took a look at it at an exhibition in Penfield, Ill. "I measured everything and took about 50 photos. This was all I had to work with to produce my own version, as there's very little information about it from International Harvester."

In 1961 when International Harvester built the first tractor, the company used fiberglass for many of the components, including the hood, because it was a new material, and the tractor was a concept, says Harris. "They wanted to use anything that was modern. I built the hood out of fiberglass and realized that I'm a lot better at working with steel than I am with fiberglass," he says. "Therefore, the rest of the components that were fiberglass on the original tractor I built from sheet steel. I hammered out the steel over an anvil and applied heat to it to make it easier to form. I didn't use any machinery. I formed all of it by hand."

Harris says there were about 37 pieces of sheet steel that he formed to make the tractor's rear fender and gas tank cover alone. The tractor's components were too large to form from one piece of sheet metal, so they had to be broken into smaller ones and welded together. "I made the steel parts from sheet steel that was thick enough (14 gauge) to be welded," he notes.

A powerful turbine engine
Harris' turbine engine is the same type International Harvester used on its HT 340 tractor, only his is more powerful. At that time International Harvester owned the Solar Aircraft Co., which built turbine engines to start an aircraft's main jet engines and as auxiliary power unit generators to operate other airplane systems, such as air-conditioning, while on the ground. International Harvester's turbine put out 85 hp while Harris' has 150 hp at 60,000 rpm.

"As for the hydraulic system, I took a more modern approach than what International did, because you just can't buy the components they used back in the 1960s. Therefore, my hydraulic system is completely different," says Harris.

The tractor's hydraulic systems are a mix of miscellaneous parts that Harris bought off eBay. "I bought whatever suited the application. It was all about buying a motor or pump that had the right amount of oil flow and pressure capabilities," he notes.

On the original HT 340, the turbine is attached to a transmission that reduces the rpm. A hydraulic pump is attached to the transmission that feeds hydraulic fluid through hoses to two hydraulic motors that drive the tractor--one at each wheel. To go faster or slower, the driver controls the oil flow with valves between the pump and motors. On Harris' tractor, a few changes had to be implemented in the drive line, but it's based on the same principle.

After working on the project for three years, Harris finished it in 2010. It was displayed for the first time at the New York Steam Engine Association's 50th Annual Pageant of Steamin Canandaigua, N.Y.

Would the tractor be good for field work? Not really, Harris says. Because it's pulling in a large quantity of air for combustion, it's very susceptible to dirt and dust, and plowing fields produces nothing but dirt and dust.

Harris plans to sell the tractor eventually. "I'm into steam more, and [constructing] this tractor was a challenge for me. I'd like to sell it and put the money into our 15 in. gauge Crown Steam Train. [It was] originally built in 1962; we are fully rebuilding it and plan on having it run around our property." FFJ
















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