Gordon Garden Tractors
Gordon Power System, Prototype Machine:
The Gordon Power System Story:
I used to live in Cambridge, Ontario, and have begun to put together a history of a little known tractor, the Gordon Power System, designed and built in Cambridge (called Preston at the time, before the town’s amalgamation) in the early 1960s. In order to write this history, I have interviewed a friend of mine, Ross, who worked at Frink and was involved in the design of and production of the prototype tractor. He has been my main source of information. His memory is excellent and his knowledge of the project is extensive. I have also e-mailed Bill Vance, a journalist who wrote an article on the Gordon (more on that later), and I also contacted Don Gordon, the fellow who designed the Gordon. Between these three sources I think I have enough information now to start writing a short little history on the Gordon tractor, and the prototype machine that Ross has.
Ross worked at Frink of Canada from 1948 to 1990 (I think that Frink of Canada may have changed names at some point while he worked there – but that’s another story). He worked on a number of different machines making a number of different products for the company, and one of these products was the Gordon tractor. My information comes mostly from him, but also Don Gordon as well. The reason that I’m Ross for more of the information rather than Don is that Ross, who still owns the prototype machine, knows not only the design features well because he helped design and build the machine, but he also is incredibly talented mechanically and was able to offer a great deal of insight into the “nuts and bolts” of the machine. The information provided by Ross and Don always coincided well and never contradicted, so while I still need to do some more digging, I'm guessing what I have so far is pretty accurate. Bill Vance’s online article was excellent, but he received all of his information from Don, an excellent source.
Don Gordon began designing the Gordon in the late 1950s. In 1961, Don teamed up with Frink of Canada to begin working on the prototype, with the intention of making a production machine. When Don first conceived of this machine, he wanted to use Char-Lynn hydraulic motors to make the tractor a hydraulic drive. However, Char-Lynn motors were expensive and they didn't quite have the specific torque that he needed (or something like that – I wasn't quite clear on this part), so instead of using a hydraulic drive system from the very beginning, they decided to make their prototype machines using a mechanical drive and transmission, both built in-house at Frink.
In the beginning, there were two prototype machines made, both using the mechanical drive and transmission mentioned earlier (these two items would be replaced with hydraulic drive for the production machine - more on that later). The two prototype machines were basically the exact same machine, except that they had very minor cosmetic differences on the sheet metal of the power unit part of the machine (see the pictures to get a better sense of the parts of the machine). The machine pictured in the brochure is the first prototype machine, and it should also be noted that this means that the picture in the brochure is not a picture of the production machine. You can see the differences between the two if you compare the pictures of the machine in the brochure to the picture of the production machine in the online article (link to follow at the end of the post). Ross is one of the ones who worked on the machine, although he only worked on it a little bit because he was involved in other projects at the time as well. When they were working on the machines, they had floated around the idea of charging $900 retail for the tractors, a lot of money in the early 60s. However, Ross and the others involved agreed that they may not make any money at a $900 price point. The machines were very costly to produce because they were very complex, and much of the machine had to be hand-fitted.
When the prototypes were completed, it was Ross’ job to drive the machine around all day for two or three days to test it out. For the testing, they used the first prototype, the one pictured in the brochure. To Ross’ knowledge, the second one, the one that he has, was not used for testing. Anyway, they took a metal weight and chained it to the back of the tractor to drag around the yard to help put the machine under load in order to help test it. They had to also test the machine in all of the different configurations for the tractor. As the brochure shows, there are six different ways that it could be configured. After the days of running it, they took the tractor back into the shop to dismantle the transmission and gear drive system. After having dismantled it, they noticed that the drive system was noticeably worn after only a couple of days use. It was clear that that drive system would not be practical for the production models due to the signs of premature wear on the drive system. It was then that they decided to go back to a hydraulic drive system for the production models, using a Webster motor instead of a Char-Lynn motor.
In 1963, Frink put together parts for 18 production machines for an initial pilot run, using the new hydraulic drive. They also made a few other, more minor changes from the prototype (mostly cosmetic refinements, as you can see in the pictures). The machine was available with either a single or a twin cylinder engine. They put one of the production machines on a trailer to take to shows, as well as to show various people, but it was not well received. Most likely this was because of the $1424 price tag of the tractor, plus $250-$400 per attachment. It was a steep price, but that was because the production costs were so high. It was a very unique and costly machine to produce. A secondary cause of its failure may have been because its use of a hydraulic drive was quite ahead of its time. There were very few major garden tractor producers using a hydro drive in the early 60s. That may have also scared people off. In the end, the production costs were too high and therefore the cost to the consumer too high, so the project was pulled. Of the 18 production tractors built, only two or three of them were built by Frink at Frink, while the rest of them were built by Don. After building the two or three at Frink, the plug was pulled and Don took the remainder of the parts to build the tractors himself. I guess that means that he built and sold the rest of them. So, as many as 18 or so tractors were built (although the actual number may be less than that), but who knows how many survive today.
Now back to the prototypes and their fates. So, when the plug was pulled, the first prototype machine was destroyed by Frink. They had begun to dismantle and destroy the second when Ross bought the second prototype machine for $1. He took it home immediately, but the sulky had already gone to the scrap heap. He went to the scrap yard and was able to get the sulky before it was scrapped. Ross was also able to get the mower deck for his machine, as well as the snow blade. The mower deck is specific to the gear drive system. While Ross was able to procure some of the missing pieces, he was not able to get his hands on all of them. He had to fabricate a fuel tank for the machine because it was missing already when he got it. He also ended up modifying the steering a little bit, although you can't see his modifications because they are inside the machine. The steering, he said, was really sloppy, so he improved it. He also improved all of the linkages inside the tractor for all of the controls, making them work better and simultaneously making it easier to change from one tractor configuration to another (see pictures). The linkages alone on the tractor are quite a feat of engineering, actually. Because of the six different ways you can configure the tractor, you have to design a system that will allow all of the controls (steering, throttle, transmission, PTO, etc.) to work in a bunch of different placements. So, whether you have the power unit in the front or the back, and the steering wheel facing forward or backward, you still have to be able to use the same controls to run the tractor no matter how you have it set up. Also, whether the power unit is facing forward or backward, you still have to have four forward speeds and a reverse. The idea was to make it work no matter how you configured the tractor, but it also had to be simple enough that you could switch to any different configuration in only 10 minutes using basic tools. To me, that's a lot of engineering. Going to the hydro drive would have alleviated some of the complications, but still, it's amazing to me, and that's just the linkages and the transmission, let alone the rest of the machine. Ross also said that they tried to make brakes for the machine, but he took them off because they worked very poorly - too much of a difficulty trying to engineer the linkages to that as well, making them impractical. In all, Ross only worked on bits and pieces of the tractor, but still, he knows a whole lot about the tractor because if he wasn't working on it himself, he was still watching it being made because he was interested in the project. Also, while he has made some small mechanical changes to the tractor, I dare say that there is no one in the world more qualified than him to make those changes as that is what he was doing with it in the 1960s.
As for my next steps, Ross and I talk quite a bit, so we'll be talking and visiting much more as time goes on. There is still much for me to learn. I’m also hoping to talk more to Don as well. Also, I'm planning on trying to track down as many of the machines as possible to try to put together an inventory of where they all are. I figure that at most there were only 18 of them, so there will not be that many left to track down. I know I'll never find all of them, but I do have some leads on where some of them are, may be, or were once upon a time. It will take time and some leg work. I’m also working toward purchasing the prototype machine as soon as Ross is ready to sell it.
Here's a link to the online article on the Gordon:
Gordon Power System, Production Tractor: