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INTERESTING IRON

Wagner TR-9: The real O.G. of 4WDs.

Author

Ryan Roossinck

May 23, 2024

Wagner TR-9 nose

So the other day, I posted a photo of this Wagner TR-9 on our social media and I was a little surprised that there wasn’t more interest around it. There were a couple of guys who struck up a conversation, but overall it didn’t get a lot of engagement.

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It wasn’t until I had a phone call with Matt Smith, the auctioneer selling this tractor, that I realized one of the reasons why it hadn’t raised a few more eyebrows. A little more research confirmed my suspicions…I think there are quite a few people who may not actually know what a Wagner is!

Simply put, they are the O.G. in the 4WD farm tractor game. The Wagner TR-9, TR-6, and TR-14 were the first mass-produced 4WD tractors in the world, as far as I know. Furthermore, they’re rare enough that you don’t see them come across the auction block very frequently. I’d be shocked to see more than two or three sell in a calendar year.

This particular tractor is a bit more interesting than your average Wagner TR-9, too. More on that in a minute.

Wagner: The Cliff’s Notes version

The Wagner story is a long one – and one that should be told by someone far more qualified than me. However, I can give you the Cliff’s Notes version…

There were seven brothers in the Wagner family in Portland, OR. They were all fairly smart guys who had a good understanding of machinery and how things worked. They started inventing things in the early 20s, almost all of them geared towards construction and logging.

It wasn’t until after WWII was over that they considered the ag market. Elmer, one of the brothers, had prototyped an articulating 4WD industrial vehicle in 1949 after he’d returned home from the service. As the story goes, he’d seen a similar(ish) vehicle in Europe, and wondered if it could have application in the American ag market.

As it turned out…it did. By 1954, all seven of the Wagner brothers (Elmer, Eddie, Bill, Guy, Walt, Harold, and Irvin) had partnered up with J. Burke Long to form Wagner Tractor Inc. The whole premise of the tractor is that a tractor that hinges in the middle and allows the two halves of the tractor to twist independent of one another won’t break traction. This would make it perfect for farming in the great plains and Pacific NW where the terrain was steep.

Early years…

1959 Wagner TR-9
The Wagner TR-9 was the middle tractor in the company’s lineup. This particular unit goes off to a new owner on Saturday, May 25, 2024!(Photo: Smith Sales Co. Auctioneers)

Wagner went into full-scale production in 1955 with three models, the TR-6, 9, and 14 (rated at 105, 120, and 175 horse respectively). Very early versions of the tractors used Buda or Waukesha engines and Timken axles, which proved to be problematic. After more testing, the company chose Cummins for powerplants, Fuller for transmissions, and Clark for the axles.

For a small company, they did pretty well in the early running. The tractors performed quite well in head to head field demonstrations. In rough, hilly ground, Wagner’s articulated design held traction where crawlers and row crop machines simply couldn’t. As a result, they made good headway in Big Sky country and the small-grain regions of Canada. According to the late Dave Curtis, one of the first dealers in the country, Wagner moved over 350 tractors from 1957-1960. Those are pretty big numbers for a relatively new tractor company – especially one with a spendy pricetag (I believe the TR-6 started at $15,000 in 1960).

By 1960, Wagner was doing pretty well, operating in excess of $3M in annual sales. This made them a pretty attractive target for Wisconsin-based FWD Corporation. They were a 4WD pioneer as well, having released the first successful 4WD automobile in the world.  In 1961, FWD purchased Wagner, and allowed them to operate more or less independently as FWD Wagner. It was a win/win all around, from what I can tell! Over the next few years, FWD Wagner expanded to a half dozen different models ranging from 100-300 horse.

Wagner TR-9 serial plate
Initially, Wagner tractors were painted kind of a deep reddish/orange like you see here. (Photo: Smith Sales Co. Auctioneers)

Origination, not imitation…

One of the first things FWD Corp. did when they bought Wagner was to fire a fairly snarky shot across John Deere’s bow. Deere had released their first 4WD in late 1959, and it looked really similar to Wagner’s models…maybe a little too similar.

Wagner TR-9
After being acquired by FWD Corp., Wagner’s tractor line changed from the TR designation to WA. They also started painting the tractors yellow. (Photo: Smith Sales Co. Auctioneers)

Wagner’s marketing in 1961 often included phrases like “where machines are originated…not imitated.” Clearly, the similarities between the 8010 and Wagner’s comparable models didn’t go un-noticed. Some folks are pretty well convinced that the company filed a lawsuit against Deere for infringement, but as far as I’m aware, nobody’s ever uncovered the documents.

*It should be stated for the record that this could’ve just been Wagner’s marketing department doing what marketing departments do. After all, the only other competitor in the 4WD market in 1959 was John Deere. Steiger, Versatile, and IH were all at least a year or two away from a viable 4WD tractor.

New Year’s Eve 1968

The contract Wagner signed with John Deere in the evening on New Year’s Eve is probably the strangest part of the company’s story.

Wagner had just launched a mid-year refresh of the WA-14 and WA-17 – two of their better sellers. Somehow, though, Deere got their attention and convinced them to build WA-14s and -17s for them. An agreement for up to 100 tractors was drawn up. Wagner would build ’em, Deere would handle the rest – paint, decals, marketing, and sales. Easy peasy, right?

No. Not right. 

There was a very stiff non-compete statement somewhere in the contract that gave Deere the right to terminate the deal at will, no matter how many tractors they’d purchased. Furthermore, if they did, Wagner couldn’t build or sell another articulated 4WD for five years. It was probably the most one-sided contract in history, and if terminated, it would spell almost certain death for Wagner.

And Wagner still signed it…

Shockingly (I say that tongue firmly planted in cheek), 1969’s sales didn’t go well, and John Deere terminated the agreement in 1970. Coincidentally, that was the same year that the 7020 was introduced.

And the rest, as they say, is history. The money from Deere couldn’t keep Wagner afloat long enough to ride out the non-compete, and Wagner essentially shuttered the doors of the ag division.

Why sign it?

I have absolutely no idea, and I’m not here to speculate. Furthermore, anybody who could give us a real answer to that question has long since passed away. There are a few theories, though.

Some speculate that cash flow was an issue – it oftentimes is for small companies building big, spendy machinery. If Wagner really had their backs to the wall, it may have been a deal they had no choice but to take.

Others think that maybe Wagner wanted out of the tractor business. They had plenty of other lines of machinery (mainly in logging and construction) that were making money. If that was the case, then signing the deal with Deere may have provided a way to shut the doors without having to update the original designs.

Deere often gets saddled with the blame for “putting Wagner out of business” and I think that’s a bit of a reach. Furthermore, like I said earlier, anybody who could provide us with a definitive answer has passed away. It’ll have to remain one of those unsolved tractor mysteries for the rest of time.

The Silver Lining (?)

Big Bud 525/50
Had Wagner not gone under, Willie Hensler and Bud Nelson wouldn’t have ever started building Big Buds in Havre, MT! (Photo: Dacotah Diamond Auctions)

From an ag/tractor history perspective, Wagner closing their doors did lead to a couple of very notable things from their dealers.

  1. Willie Hensler, a former Wagner dealer in Havre, MT, would never have started building Big Bud tractors with his service manager, “Big” Bud Nelson!
  2. Dave Curtis, a guy I mentioned earlier, never would’ve started Rite Tractor, the company that would eventually go on to build the Earthquake 750!

Both Big Bud and Rite Tractor kept the lights on in the early years by rebuilding Wagners into “Super Wagners” for farmers who needed more capability than the stock tractors allowed. Eventually, though, they both started building great big tractors of their own in small quantities for many years to come!

What about the Wagner TR-9 selling on the 25th?

Wagner TR-9
For the middle child, the Wagner TR-9 is still a pretty darn imposing tractor when you stand nose to nose with it! (Photo: Smith Sales Co. Auctioneers)

This particular TR-9 is sitting on Matt Smith’s auction yard in Miles City, MT. It’s slated to sell on his Spring Fever auction on May 25, 2024 along with a handful of other cool old articulated 4WDs. I wanted to know a little more about it, so I gave him a call the other day.

He told me that a local family owned it forever, it had been parked for at least a decade, and as a result, the engine was seized. He was a little pressed for time, which was probably my fault as I’d called him when he was trying to get a bite of lunch in between appointments. However, he gave me the number of the owner, a guy named Dustin.

A big step up…

As it turns out, Dustin knew quite a bit about the history of the tractor. He told me, “Ryan, my family has owned that tractor since I was just a kid. I can’t remember exactly when Dad bought it, but I’m fairly sure it was in the very early 80s. Up until then, we’d farmed mainly with D8 CAT crawlers, so this was a big step up for us.”

For years, it was the big tractor on the farm. They didn’t farm a ton of acres with it, but it spent a lot of time on an 8-bottom plow as well as a 24′ land plane that his grandpa built back in the 1950s. “I ran it quite a bit,” he said, “and it was a tough old tractor. It was super-loud, too. You needed earplugs and shooter’s muffs to run it for more than an hour, and even then you’d want some Advil after you shut it down!”

It’s not stock…

Wagner tractor with a 220 Cummins conversion
The engine in this Wagner TR-9 isn’t the one that it rolled off the assembly line with. (Photo: Smith Sales Co. Auctioneers)

When this one was built, it was originally outfitted with a 495 cubic inch naturally aspirated 4-cylinder Cummins diesel rated for about 120 horse at the flywheel. That’s a big four-banger, but 120 horse in a 15,000+ pound 4WD was probably still a little anemic. Sure, it’d get the job done, but it definitely didn’t do it very quickly.

However, at some point in time, somebody needed more power, so they had it repowered with a 220-horse naturally aspirated Cummins six cylinder. They did a nice job, too. Dustin told me that the hood had to be lengthened to fit the big mill under hood, and it looks awfully clean. This wasn’t quite as simple as hammering out a piece of sheet metal; there’s a lot of plate steel in this machine!

Interesting side note…Later on that day, I got to talking about this tractor with a buddy of mine who’s got a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of vintage 4WDs. He thinks there’s a half-decent chance that this Wagner TR-9 may have been repowered by Dave Curtis, the same guy who founded Rite Tractor! 

Known issues

Dustin told me it had been a pretty solid tractor for his family. However, not long after he’d replaced the clutch and the front ring gear assembly, it lifted a head gasket. He’d been thinking about replacing it anyway, so when a Steiger Bearcat III ST-220 turned up, he jumped on the deal and he’s been using it ever since.

He told me that it’s been parked for at least a decade – maybe more. The engine is seized, so it’ll need a bit of work to get it loose as well as a new head gasket. In a perfect world, that’s all it’ll need and it’ll fire right up. However, we don’t live in a perfect world. This is definitely going to be a bit of a project to get it running again. Hopefully not a major one, but it won’t be as simple as a fresh battery and fluids and away you go.

It’s the nature of the beast with these old tractors. Still, being that they’re entirely mechanical, they are restorable.

Wrapping it all up…

tractor cab and hood
The short windshield on this tractor would make me feel like I was driving a tank! (Photo: Smith Sales Co. Auctioneers)

One other interesting conversation I had was with James Riser, a Wagner historian from Wisconsin. He’s been researching Wagner Tractor Inc. for the better part of twenty years now. Over time, he’s been able to piece together a fair amount of the history of the company, including some sales records. So, when I gave him the tractor’s serial number, he did a little bit of digging for me. As it turns out, this tractor was sold to a big grain farmer in March of 1959 at a dealership in Blackie, Alberta!

So, that tractor made quite a long journey to get to the Muggli family – close to 600 miles! I’m not sure if it passed through another farmer’s hands before Dustin’s dad bought it, and that’s probably something we’ll never be able to trace. Mr. Muggli passed away back in 2013, and Dustin hasn’t ever found a paper trail.

That happens. It’s happened with some of my family’s tractors too.

At any rate, although it could be a project, for the right buyer I think there’d be a great deal of satisfaction in putting it back into working order and knowing a little bit of the history of the tractor, y’know? My guess is that this machine will probably go for a fairly low price – Matt Smith and I both agreed that rarity doesn’t necessarily always equate to high dollars.

Still, it’s a neat piece of history with a history of its own, too. Hopefully it ends up going to the right buyer – someone who’ll appreciate what it is, and who has the talents and resources to get it running again!

Here’s the link to the TZ listing.

1959 Wagner TR-9

 

 

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