What’s a DoodleBug? (Hint: It’s a Homemade Tractor)

·5 min read
Photo credit: AMMO NYC
Photo credit: AMMO NYC

What’s a DoodleBug? It’s a poor man’s improvisational tractor, usually made from an old Ford. A really old Ford, like 1932 or older. During the Great Depression, when no one had any money, one of the hardest-hit groups was farmers. Improvisation became the answer when money couldn’t buy the things they needed. Farmers needed tractors as a more productive means of getting things done than just a horse. But tractors cost money and farmers didn’t have any, at least they didn’t during the Great Depression.

What they did have was a lot of old Fords.

I came across this video on DoodleBugs from Ammo NYC, a YouTube channel hosted by Larry Kosilla. Ammo makes car care products as well as videos showing its team using the products to save the paint of everything from barn finds and rusted old classics to modern supercars. The episode I happened to come across is on the DoodleBug.

This particular DoodleBug was on a farm in New Milford, Connecticut, that belonged to a guy named Ted.

Ted is, “an awesome dude that can literally fix just about anything,” says Kosilla.

The Bug had been on Ted’s farm for several years. At one point he speculates that it might be 90 years old. It had been sitting so long that it was overgrown with bushes and trees. But a set of loppers and a chainsaw soon free it enough that Ted and Kosilla could get to it and asses its state of decay.

“That’s the back half,” says Ted when they first see the rig. “It has a wheelbarrow rigged into a little dumpette, a tractor seat, Plymouth steering wheel, and I’m just glad we don’t see any bees.”

After doing some logging and yard work to get at the DoodleBug, the pair find that the transmission is frozen, it is missing a battery, and the gas tank and radiator are empty.

Photo credit: Popular Mechanics
Photo credit: Popular Mechanics

“DoodleBug is a slang name for a homemade tractor during WWII when tractors were in short supply,” Kosilla says. “The DoodleBugs of the 1940s were typically made from Model As or Model Ts. Conversion kits were $300 back then so the farmers just did it themselves. The process was coined the ‘Handy Henry’ in magazines such as Popular Mechanics that provided instructions on how to convert your old truck into a useful tractor with basic tools every farmer had.”

A little more research: “Although it was quite evident that more work could be accomplished with a tractor, the small farmer couldn’t always come up with enough resources to buy one,” wrote Clell G. Ballard in Farm Collector magazine. “That problem was addressed in a couple of ways. Some companies provided a cheaper alternative by selling kits used to convert cars and trucks into tractors. The most common conversion involved Model T Fords since they were almost ubiquitous nationwide. In a typical conversion, the vehicle’s wheelbase was shortened, a heavy-duty rear axle was substituted and large, cleated rear wheels were installed. Some method of providing lower gearing was incorporated so the marginally powered engines could actually accomplish farm fieldwork.”

Ballard said that often heavy-duty rear axles with lower gear ratios were salvaged from trucks.

“In those days, trucks had axle ratios like 8-10:1 (car ratios were more commonly 4-5:1),” Ballard said. “Those lower gears were supplemented by using two transmissions. The first transmission could be put in first gear, which meant that first gear in the second transmission was multiplied three or four times. That provided enough power to pull agricultural implements.”

Photo credit: Library of Congress
Photo credit: Library of Congress

Cleated steel wheels like paddle tires found on sand buggies helped get traction, but the new drivetrains often burned-out clutches, disintegrated transmissions, and broke axles.

Back at Ted’s, we see the pair remove the transmission cover to show the gears rusted together. A few whacks with a hammer freed them up. He sandpapers the points, adds fresh gas, and close the points to see if the truck could make a spark. It does.

“We have spark,” he says with evident joy.

Next, he installs a borrowed alternator, fills the radiator with water, and pulls the spark plugs out and puts a little oil in each of the cylinders, “…just to give ‘em a little bit of lubrication.” Then he slowly cranks the engine by hand to lubricate the cylinders. Coated with new oil internally, the engine turns easily. Then he reinstalls the plugs, hooks up the distributor, and, after bypassing the stuck starter button, hot-wires the starter, and… whawhoomp, it fires!

“Unbelievable,” says Kosilla.

Ted manually places the transmission in first gear, cuts down one more tree, and Kosilla drives it out.

The whole process takes maybe an hour, but the experience of Ted, whose last name we never get, took a lifetime to earn. Maybe you have that same lifetime’s worth of experience. Whether you do or not, watching the whole process of rejuvenating the rusty old tractor is remarkably satisfying.

Kosilla spends the second half of the show with the tractor in his shop preserving the craft’s patina, which is maybe just as satisfying to see for a new generation of chemists and mobile auto detailers. But for anyone who ever had to sandpaper points or hot-wire a starter, the first half will be infinitely more enjoyable.

Subscribe to Kosilla’s channel here. You can read Ballard’s article on DooodleBugs on FarmCollector.com. In the meantime, go check your property to see what’s parked out there in the weeds. Could make for a fun afternoon.

Have experience turning an old car into a tool, for the farm or otherwise? Let us know in the comments below.