In the mid-1980s, with the sale of Versatile to Ford, the backlot of Versatile was cleaned out. Two prototype tractors were donated to the Manitoba Agricultural Museum at that time, one famous as being a contender for the title of the world’s largest tractor, the four-axle, 500-horsepower Model 1080 tractor, and a tractor that was one of the prototypes for what became Versatile’s Model 150 bi-directional tractor.
Daniel Pakosh, brother to one of the founders of Versatile, came up with a simple idea in the late 1960s. Why not design a loader to fit the rear of a tractor and design the operator’s station so it would swivel to the rear when the operator wanted to use the loader? This idea appeared to offer some advantages, shorter and stronger loader arms, better visibility and better balance on the wheels. With some more thought on the idea, it was realized that the design could also be modified to offer push – pull operation as desired. This arrangement meant a bi-directional tractor could serve as the tractor unit for a self propelled swather. After the swathing duties were over, the header designed for the bi-directional could be removed and the tractor could then be used to pull a harrow bar, perform loader duties or whatever the farmer needed.
As Versatile in the 1970s offered a wide range of four wheel drive tractors all over 100 horsepower, a tractor under 100 horsepower was thought desirable to fill the product line in. As well it was thought a smaller tractor was more suitable for loader duties, swathing and other duties that a bi-directional tractor was most suited to. Versatile was also a believer in the application of hydrostatic transmissions to farm machinery and it was a natural that a Versatile wanted a hydrostatic transmission in the bi-directional tractor design, particularly for loader operation. As Versatile was a pioneer in articulated, four wheel drive tractors, again it was a natural the design would feature four wheel drive and articulated steering.
By 1977, Versatile had finalized a design, the Model 150, and put it into production. The 150 enjoyed good sales success and not only with farmers but with municipalities who appreciated the versatility of a bi-directional combined with Versatile’s rugged, simple design philosophy. However Versatile did not stand on its laurels and improved the concept. The 150 was replaced in 1984 with a new design which offered PTOs, three point linkages and hydraulic outlets on either end, the Model 256.
The Versatile Bi-Directional in the Manitoba Agricultural Museum’s collection appears to be a prototype as it has a number of features that do not appear on the production Model 150. Most noticeably the hydraulic pump is mounted near the articulating hinge and hangs out on the side of the tractor. Obviously in this position the pump would be prone to damage. It may have been there was a previous prototype bi-directional as this particular tractor does not show much evidence of cutting and re-welding of the frame to accommodate design changes. The Model 1080 better known as Big Roy, also a prototype, shows significant cutting and re-welding of the frame to accommodate changes and new components. After the design department was done with the machine rather than being scrapped, the Bi-Directional was used to plow snow at the Versatile plant and for other light duties. When the Versatile Company was sold to Ford, the tractor became surplus and was donated to the Museum.
Versatile traces its roots back to Peter Pakosh and his brother in law who began designing and building grain augers in Toronto in 1945. The company expanded its product line to sprayers and harrow bars. In 1954, the decision was made to transfer the company to Winnipeg as this location was closer to its major customers, the Prairie grain farmer.
After the move, the Model 103 Versatile swather was added to the product line. While swathers had been around for a while by 1954, the 103 with its steering wheel was an innovation that other manufacturers soon followed. Before the 103, self propelled swathers used lever activated clutch drive systems to the left and right drive wheels to steer the machine, much like a bulldozer was steered. While this worked, steering was somewhat clumsy. The steering wheel was much easier to understand and gave finer control.
The 103 used a mechanical drive system and a Wisconsin air cooled engine. While economical, the Wisconsin needed careful handling. One was advised to idle a Wisconsin engine for a few minutes before shutting off. If shut off hot, Wisconsin engines seemed to have the fault of exhaust valves seizing up. Idling the engine cooled the valves to the point where the exhaust valves would not seize in their guides due to the lubricating oil evaporating off.
The 103 stayed in production until 1965 when it was replaced with the Versatile 400 self propelled swather.
The Versatile Model 1080 was designed and built in 1977. There is some suggestion that the design was aimed at the Australian market as Australia possesses many large farms with all acreage in one block. A very large tractor in Australia would pose fewer problems than it would in North America where large farms have their land base in a number of scattered blocks. This means farm machinery must move on roads. Large tractors and their associated machinery pose significant problems in road transport.
There is also suggestion that tractor manufacturers were engaged in a battle for bragging rights for the largest and most powerful tractor. In 1977, Steiger Tractor was experimenting with their Panther Twin ST650 of 650 horsepower and Big Bud was bringing out the Big Bud 747 tractor with 760 horsepower. Versatile’s Model 1080 was their entry in this competition.
But whatever the reason behind the Model 1080, the President and General Manager of Versatile, Roy Robinson, decided Versatile needed a high horsepower tractor and issued orders that the Model 1080 was to be designed and built. What emerged from the designers drafting table was a four axle horsepower tractor powered by a Cummins KTA-1150 diesel engine that generated 600 horsepower. The four axles mounted a total of eight 30.5 X 32 tires. The 1080 design reversed conventional four wheel drive tractor design as the engine is located at the rear of the tractor. A modern, spacious cab is located ahead of the engine compartment with a 550 gallon fuel tank located ahead of the cab. The cab is accessed from either side through sliding doors and ladders that slide into the body of the tractor when not in use. Vision to the rear of the tractor from the cab is very limited as the engine compartment was quite tall. To allow vision to the rear, a closed circuit TV system was installed with a dustproof 120 degree camera pointing down at the drawbar and a 9-inch TV monitor installed in the dash where the operator could easily view the TV. In 1977 this was definitely cutting edge technology!
The tractor possesses a six-speed manual transmission which provides speeds between 3.7 mph to 13.2 mph. Twelve 60-watt lights provide illumination for night field operations. Engine cooling is provided by two radiators of 85 quart capacity with two mechanically driven fans of 28″ diameters drawing air through the radiators. The tractor is over 30 feet long, 11 feet high and weighs over 30 tonnes when ballasted for field operations.
The tractor articulates between the second and third axle. The articulation joint, as well as allowing movement from side to side which was necessary for steering, also allows for vertical movement of 10 degree plus or minus. This movement is necessary to allow the tires to remain in contact with the ground as the tractor moved over uneven ground. The tractor will steer 40 degrees to one side or the other.
The four-axle design, however innovative, was the tractor’s downfall. While the four-axle design allows enough rubber on the ground to use the engine horsepower while allowing the tractor to remain fairly narrow, the result was all four tires on either side run in the same track and cause severe soil compaction problems within this track. Versatile’s Model 1150 which appeared after the Model 1080 and featured 475 horsepower, reverted to the standard four-wheel drive tractor design. The 1150 either uses very wide tires installed as duals on all axles, or mounts triple tires on all axles. Todays four-wheel drive tractors are approaching 600 horsepower and either use triple tires “all the way around’ or use the newly emerged rubber track design.
A closer inspection of the tractor shows that it was still very much a work in progress. Accessing the underside of the tractor reveals that many design alterations were made during the tractor’s life, as the frame work bears many weld marks where pieces were cut out and later welded back in. While the camera allows for some vision to the rear, this vision is still limited. As well, vision to the front is not great as the design of the cab floor, the hood and fenders result in the operator not being able to see the ground within 20 feet of the tractor’s front end.
The Model 1080 never entered production, and the tractor at the Museum remains the single example produced. The tractor was donated to the Museum in the 1980s along with other pieces from Versatile.
Where did the nickname “Big Roy” come from? Roy Robinson the President and General Manager of Versatile instructed the engineers to design and build the Model 1080. Mr. Robertson stood 6 foot, 4 inches and was a larger than life character with a standard attire of cowboy boots and Stetson hat. It was a natural therefore, to name the Model 1080 “Big Roy”.
A promotional photo of Big Roy taken after the Versatile Company returned the tractor to its “as built” condition during the winter of 2015 / 2016. The Versatile Company approached the Manitoba Agricultural Museum with an offer to restore the tractor and the Museum agreed. In the fall of 2015, Versatile transported the tractor to its Winnipeg plant where the tractor was originally built. Over the winter of 2015 / 2016 the tractor was disassembled, various components repaired, reassembled and the tractor repainted to the factory paint scheme that it originally possessed. The Manitoba Agricultural Museum deeply appreciates the effort, work and dedication Versatile and its employees displayed in returning Big Roy to pristine condition. Big Roy – a true Manitoba treasure!