A Brief History of Sears Handiman Garden Tractors

This is a brief history of the "prewar" Handiman garden tractor. I am writing this in hopes of stimulating a dialogue among collectors and restorers. It is hoped that individuals who read this and have knowledge about the tractor will be willing to share it with others through this forum. I would like to thank Gary Treible, Jim Cunzenheim, Mark Bookout and Doug Tallman for their additions to this work.

Writing this history has raised many questions for which I have yet to find answers. Unfortunately, in many instances the individuals who could provide us with the answers have passed on. Therefore, it is important that we contact as many of the people who worked producing these tractors as we can while they are still with us.

The two-wheeled garden tractor had been around for over a decade before Sears offered one for sale in their catalog. Interestingly, it wasn't a Sears designed tractor that they offered. Sears entered the market by striking a deal with Walsh Tractor Company. The Walsh Tractor Company (WTC) was not yet officially a part of the Standard Engine Company (SEC) in 1931. The earliest advertising for the Walsh is from about 1928. The company was owned and run by a Mr. Perry Walsh. Walsh purchased many components for his tractor from the American Farm Machinery Company (AFM), which was the parent company of Standard Engine. There appears to be some suggestion that the WTC was often in debt and that AFM was their principal creditor. The inevitable absorption of WTC into SEC occurred in 1934. From that time the tractor was known as "The Standard Walsh".

In 1931 Sears offered the Walsh/Handiman to the public. It appears to have been very similar to the Walsh except for the Handiman logo on the gas tank, steel handles instead of wood and flat wheel spokes. According to Mark Bookout, Sears would pass the order they received on to Walsh (American Farm Machinery ) They would then manufacture the tractor and give it a serial number. The numbers for the Sears tractors would not be sequential. The numbering would go something like: D7205, SR7206, D7207, D7208, D7209, SR7210. SR being the Sears designation. Apparently there were relatively few Walsh/Handimans made. The implements available were virtually the same as those offered with the Walsh tractors.

The '32 tractor was also a Walsh/Handiman and was very similar to the '31 with changes in the gas tank location and the number of spokes in the steel wheels. Implements that were offered appear to have remained unchanged.

For reasons unknown to the author, Sears decided to not sell the Walsh/Handiman in 1933 but introduced a tractor of their own design. I think it is safe to assume they had been designing this tractor for some time.

As for the relationship to Sears, there is an unconfirmed story that Walsh management tried to put the screws to Sears. As the story goes, the contract Walsh had with Sears prohibited Walsh from discounting the tractors they sold to the general public. However they could discount (20%) tractors to dealers. An (apparently) small print clause allowed Walsh to give the discount directly to the customer only if there were no dealers in his area. But guess what, Walsh had NO dealers, allowing them to sell below Sears to anyone they wanted to. As you can imagine, Sears was much displeased. My personal opinion is that Walsh's financial condition made the company an unreliable source of supply. It is well known that stability of supply was always right up there with quality (ahead some might say) in Sears assessment of suppliers.

I have been unable to find any advertising for the Handiman in any of the S/S '33 or F/W '33-'34 catalogs. This appears to be the only model year, from '31 through '42, that is missing from the "big" catalogs. The twelve page tractor catalog printed in January of '33 is well laid out and does not appear to have been rushed into print. The '33 Handiman broke away from the Walsh design. The '33 used a Briggs & Stratton engine and transmission. Briggs and Stratton would continue to supply engines and transmissions for the remainder of the production years. Handiman had a worm drive transmission and came in two models, the " model A" and the " heavyduty". The larger tractor used a model K B&S engine and the smaller a model M. Several implements were available including a fairly elaborate 4-row seeder. However, the number of implements was somewhat limited when compared to those available for the Walsh tractors. Noticeably absent are a reel and sickle mower. The tool carrier was very similar to the ones on the Walsh models with nonadjustable gauge wheels. I have no data on how many units Sears sold. However, it is interesting to note that this tractor makes a second appearance in the 1935 catalog as the " New Handiman Jr". Did they have a large number of these left over or did they just decide to offer more sizes of tractors to expand their market? Obviously, the '33 would have been a tested design and they would not have had to do a lot of retooling. One thing to notice about the Handiman tractors is that they continued to get larger and more sophisticated with each passing year, especially in the last years of production. Also, Sears seemed to be designing these tractors with the large truck farms of the mid-west in mind. Of coarse in 1935 the Handiman Jr. was made available for the smaller gardener. Eventually this tractor evolved into the post war "bullet nose" tractors that are usually what comes to mind when you think about Sears garden tractors.

There is some confusion about the tractor offered to the public in 1934. Although I can find no definitive reference to this tractor in Briggs and Stratton literature the part numbers used in the transmission appear to be Briggs numbers. I base this on the fact that they have the same number of digits and generally begin with the same digit as say the 1933 Handiman which is known to have been made by B&S.. Also, there is a letter from Briggs & Stratton sent to their dealers listing the transmissions they provided for the Sears tractors. The � is on this list. The '34 tractor was the only year to use the name Bradley .The 1934 manual uses the name 'Bradley' when referring to the tractor. Apparently there was some confusion as to the application of trademarks tothis product. Pre-war Sears gardening equipment used the 'Handiman' TM, while Farm Implements used 'David Bradley'. While I cannot confirm this, I take the name 'Bradley' to indicate that the tractor was final assembled and shipped from Bradley, Il. The � used a worm gear transmission and a B&S engine similar in design to the '33 tractor but there the similarity ended. One confusing thing is that the steel wheels bear the name "peru" on them. This is almost certainly the "Peru Plow and Wheel Company". Another difference in the � and all other models is the unusual steering clutches that are found on this tractor. Also the universal connector between the engines driveshaft and the transmission was unique to the '34 tractor. The '34 came in two models, an X and a B. The X was the heavy duty version with a model K B&S and the C tractor came with a model A B&S engine (3 � bore X 3 � stroke). It had a chain drive to the wheels. Implements available for '34 were similar to those for '33 but the tool carriage was redesigned and was more adaptable but still lacked adjustable gauge wheels. As was mentioned earlier, probably the most unique feature of this tractor was the steering clutches which were operated with a single lever. As an owner of one of these machines, I can attest to the fact that operating this tractor was and is a tricky process at best.

For 1935 Sears introduced a completely new Handiman. The same basic tractor, with modifications, would also be used in '36 and '37. It was offered in two models, B and C. The C tractor, at least initially, came with a model K Briggs & Stratton engine (2 � bore X 3 � stroke) and the B tractor came with a model B Briggs & Stratton engine. These tractors were available with 32 and 28 inch steel wheels, respectively. This tractor had independent brakes that could also be used to help steer the machine. A two inch flat belt was used to drive the transmission and a 揵elt tensioner� for a clutch. The tractor had a removable dust guard over the pulley mechanism. When the guard was removed the flat pulley could also be used to drive other farm implements such as feed grinders and pump jacks. This was the first year that rubber tires were offered as an option. They measured 30 X 7.50. This was a heavy tractor tipping the scales at approximately 635 pounds without any implements. The tool carriage was the same as the '34 model but had adjustable gauge wheels and was equipped with the "pin-break" tool shanks which Sears offered for the W/T through the '41 model year. The '35 was offered with a variety of implements but the focus was on plowing and cultivating.

For the 1936 "Golden Jubilee" Sears offered the same basic tractor as in '35 but added a reverse mechanism. There were three models available, Z, C and B. The Z used a B&S model Z engine (3.0 bore X 3 � stroke) producing about 4 hp. The model C and model B tractors used the model B and A B&S engines Producing 3 hp and 2 hp respectively. Several new implements were offered for the '36 tractor. This was the first year for the rather sophisticated floating cultivator that would be offered for the remaining production years. Other new implements were a sickle mower, riding cart, hauling cart and an orchard sprayer. The mower was actually a modified one-horse mower. The Handiman Jr. appears to be the same basic design as offered in '35. However, it did get a new tool carriage with adjustable gauge wheels. The '37 model was very similar to the '36 and offered the same basic engines and transmission combinations. 1937 saw the introduction of a disc harrow and an 8 ft. hay rake. These too were modified horse drawn implements. Additionally, a new "universal hitch" was also made available. Apparently, this new style hitch made the turning radius much smaller for implements such as the sickle mower. As far as the author knows no original universal hitch is know to have survived. The Handiman Jr. remained virtually unchanged.

In 1938 Sears introduced the most sophisticated Handiman yet. The transmission was redesigned and had two speeds forward and an internal reverse. For the first time, the chain drives were enclosed. The handle bars were rectangular tubes instead of the usual " I beams" and gone were the wooden handles. This tractor could be ordered with 22 inch pneumatic tires on cast center hubs. The engines available were the same as in '37 with three models offered, Z,C and B. It does not appear that any new implements were offered in '38. The Handiman Jr. does appear to have been redesigned and used a spur and helical gear setup with a � hp B&S engine. Probably a model I. The Jr. was also available with 3.75 X 18 pneumatic tires.

The 1939 tractor appears to be unchanged from the '38 model offering the same engine/transmission options. A new "columbia" seeder was available. The Spring/Summer catalog also offers "the Old Standby", which appears to be identical to the '37 tractor. I have what I think is one of these tractors and the only modification I can find is a brace from the top of the transmission to the handlebars similar to what is found on the '38. This remedied a weakness in the handlebars found on the '35 through '37 tractors. A major change in the Sears lineup was the addition of a riding tractor for '39, the Handiman R/T. However, it used the same transmission and engine as he W/T. The R/T used 22 inch rear wheels but they appear to be mounted on a different cast hub than was used on the W/T. Implements for the first year were limited and included a plow and cultivators. Two sets of cultivators were available. One set was similar to those available for the W/T and mounted in the middle of the tractor. The other set was a spring tooth type and was rear mounted.

The 1940 W/T remained unchanged and strangely the R/T is not shown at all in the '40 S/S catalog but was available to customers. The Handiman Jr. got a facelift as it now came with a hood. This was, as we see now, a foretaste of things to come. The post war bullet nosed tractors, introduced around 1946, evolved from the Handiman Jr. and not its' larger relative. It is interesting to speculate as to why Sears did not continue production of the Handiman W/T after the war. We know that early on the Bradley factory was put into service producing ,among other things, munitions. Maybe those at Sears making decisions involving the Handiman could sense changes in the demographics of the country. Maybe the successful "victory garden" concept of World War II stimulated them to concentrate on a smaller tractor. A tractor that was more suited to the backyard type of garden as opposed to the large truck farms. This would have especially been true with so veterans coming back and many of them moving to the suburbs. In actuality, the Handiman R/T was available for quite some time after the war and was eventually replaced, in concept, with the Tri-Trac.

For 1941 The W/T remained unchanged but the Handiman Jr. now had an even more rounded aerodynamic hood and a model U B&S engine. A new sickle-bar mower was offered for the Jr. and it was now available with 6 X 16 automotive type rims that would allow the purchaser to use used automobile tires. The R/T was back in the catalog and looks unchanged. New implements for the R/T included a 5 ft. disc harrow and a 7 � ft. gang mower . I had originally thought that the final year of production for the Handiman W/T and the Handiman Jr was 1941. However, I have found that the 1942 S/S catalog contains a half page add for a Handiman tractor. The most obvious thing about this tractor is that it is the Handiman Jr. and not the W/T from '41! It appears that that was the last catalog to contain advertising for the tractors. There is no advertising in the '33 catalogs. So we can say the Handiman walking tractor was available from Sears from 1931-1942.

In summary, over a period of roughly ten years the Handiman tractor W/T evolved from a small garden tractor into a large and powerful machine designed for use in the truck gardens of the midwest. During this time Sears also had the foresight to offer a smaller tractor for the home gardener, the Handiman Jr and toward the end developed a riding tractor based on the engine/transmission first used in the '38 W/T. With the onset of World War II the course of development was essentially stopped and the big Handiman was gone forever. In 1956 Sears introduced another tractor bearing the Handiman logo. It used a 3hp B&S engine and had two speeds forward and reverse. It came with lock out hubs and 3X12 tires and a multitude of implements. Finally, the Sears Handiman tractor was an important part of the evolution of the garden tractors in the United States and deserves to be collected and restored whenever possible I am sure there are factual errors in this history and the author welcomes all corrections and additions.


Dell Sasser

dellsasser@handimantractor.com

Text in italics is by Gary Treible.