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The WDM’s Oldest Gas Tractor
Saunderson Universal Motor Type A


By Collections Curator Ruth Bitner
October 2005

Saunderson Saunderson Universal, Boomtown 1910, Saskatoon
Photo by Mark MacKenzie

What do Pioneer Settlement in Swan Hill, Victoria, Australia and the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada have in common? These museums boast the only two Saunderson Universal Motor Type A tractors known to exist anywhere in the world.

Both tractors were built at Bedford, England by H.P. Saunderson & Co. Ltd at a time when almost all power on the farm was supplied by animals or by steam engines. Even the word tractor was new–a combination of the words traction and motor. The company began operation in the early 1890s, building mowers and other agricultural equipment. By 1905, Saunderson was testing what they called farm motors at local field days. In 1906, Saunderson won gold and silver medals–the gold for the “best and most improved motor van, cart or wagon.” The Implement and Machinery Review of August 2, 1906 declared, “No one can have examined this motor at the Show without being impressed by its compactness and convenience, and by the capital arrangement of the three wheels, all of which are for propelling purposes. “

The Universal Motor Type A had a 4-cylinder engine with 6 inch bore and 6 inch stroke; it had three forward and three reverse gears of 2.5, 3.5 and 7 mph. It also had three drive wheels, two in front and one slightly off-centre at the rear. Exactly when the WDM’s Saunderson was built is not known, but indications are that it was between 1907 and 1909 although one source states that Saunderson did not build three-wheeled tractors after 1906.

Saunderson tractors prompted interest in faraway places. The Implement and Machinery Review of February 1, 1907 stated that France and Argentina, among others, were represented at the field trials. Saunderson himself apparently conducted tests in Portugal, Hungary, and Sweden.

Little is known about Saunderson’s venture into Canada. We know that Saunderson set up an assembly plant in Regina about 1907. According to H.A. Lewis, a former lecturer in the Agricultural Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, transatlantic shipping regulations at the time required all goods to be packed in boxes or crates. Companies like Saunderson then set up subsidiary operations to assemble “knocked down” machinery.

We also know that the Universal was a competitor at the 1908 Winnipeg Motor Trials, organized by the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition. Unfortunately, an untimely breakdown caused its withdrawal from the competition. Perhaps because of its poor showing in Winnipeg, sales lagged and by 1909 the Regina operation closed its doors.

There is a further Saskatchewan twist to this story. According to the August 1911 issue of Gas Power Age, British Canadian Agricultural Tractors, Ltd. showed a tractor at the Regina Exhibition that year. Gas Power Age stated that the company “established works at Saskatoon, where the motors are erected and tested and all spare parts kept in stock.” Little else is known about its operation. Saunderson itself underwent a number of changes and reorganized with new partners to produce updated models. However, the outbreak of the First World War disrupted British tractors imports into Canada. The last entry for British-Canadian Agricultural Tractors, Saskatoon appears in the 1922-23 Hendersons Directory.

The WDM’s Saunderson Universal Motor Type A was acquired by the WDM in 1954. It seems, however, that it saw little field work. Fred Schafer of Olds, Alberta, told the WDM that he bought it second-hand in 1910. The original owner used it to pump water for his cattle. Schafer powered his cream separator with the Saunderson for about 20 years.

This jewel in the WDM tractor collection is on exhibit in Winning the Prairie Gamble: Farm Life in Saskatchewan. Phase One of the Saskatoon WDM’s celebration of Saskatchewan’s centennial opened September 4, exactly 100 years after Inauguration Day in 1905. We invite you to visit the WDM to see and enjoy the new exhibit.

Sources:

Gas Power Age, Winnipeg, Canada, August, 1911, p. 34

Lewis, H.A. in a letter to F. Hal Higgins, October 30, 1958 (WDM file 1973-S-344)

The Implement and Machinery Review, (a British publication) January 2, 1906, p. 1037

ibid, August 2, 1906, p. 463-464

ibid, July 3, 1905, p. 320

ibid, February 1, 1907, p. 1191-1192

ibid, August 1, 1907, p. 481-482

Schafer, Fred; Artifact Questionnaire c. 1954; (WDM file 73-S-344)

Watson, John A.; Pioneer Settlement, Swan Hill, Victoria, Australia; personal correspondence with the author, November 9, 2000

Williams, Gregory; Australia; personal correspondence with the author, Feb. 28, 2003


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