There was a time when, instead of a hand crank or even an electric starter, an explosive charge — think 12-gauge shotgun shell — was used to start the engines of some vehicles. One such vehicle will be offered up for sale April 5-7 at Davenport, Iowa, where Mecum Auctions’ Gone Farmin’ division stages its 2018 Spring Classic.
The vehicle is a 1949 Field Marshall Series 2 tractor.
Writing in the latest edition of the Mecum Monthly magazine, Kellen Olshefski explains that to start the tractor, “Simply turn the flywheel by hand to get that piston set at top dead center, load a 12-gauge shotgun shell into the breech on the left-hand side of the tractor, give the firing pin a good whack with a hammer, wrench, stone or whatever you have hand, and voila, you’re chugging along merrily…”
Almost immediately, Olshefski notes that this isn’t the 12-gauge shell you’d use for hunting, but one built specifically for the needs of the “Coffman starter” used by the tractor and a variety of other vehicles, including aircraft and military tanks.
In 1935, years after the hand crank was replaced by “Boss” Kettering’s electric starter, Roscoe A. Coffman applied for a U.S. Patent for his combustion starter that used an explosive shell to start an engine. The patent was granted in May, 1942, just as the U.S. entered World War II.
As Olshefski writes, “Whereas electric starters required a heavy battery or access to electricity, the Coffman starter did not. For aircraft, this proved to be a major tally in the pro column… With its ease of use and reliability, most American aircraft and tanks are said to have used the Coffman starter during World War II, a serious plus on the frontlines in the South Pacific and Europe, as electricity and batteries weren’t always a readily available option in remote and war-torn regions.”
An article in Hemmings noted that the original Flight of the Phoenix, the 1956 movie starring Jimmy Stewart, shows the aircraft being started by just such a system.
Marshall, Sons & Co. started producing agricultural equipment in England in 1848. A century later, its product line included the Field Marshall tractor series, each powered by a single-cylinder diesel engine. Olshefski explains that when the company wanted to replace the hand-crank starters, it realized there wasn’t room within the tractor’s design for batteries and starter motors, so it borrowed the Coffman system, albeit with some modification, for its Series 2 tractors introduced after WW2.
Olshefski notes that the Series 2 incorporated “a slew of improvements” including more muscle (now 40 horsepower), improved brakes, larger clutch, even a more comfortable seat, as well as the new starting technique. The tractors were so popular that Marshall built around 7,000 of them during a 27-month production run, perhaps three times as many as was typical for the company.
The Field Marshall Series 2 being offered at Mecum’s auction is No. 10390.
Series 2 tractors were sold originally only in the UK, Canada and Australia, Mecum notes, adding that the one being offered at the Gone Farmin’ sale has been fully restored and its single-cylinder, two-cycle diesel engine was rebuilt in 2007. The tractor has three forward speeds plus reverse.
Not only does the tractor come with an owner’s manual and a book on the history of Marshall tractors, but with several loaded shells and a reloading press and scale, blank shells, extra powder and primer so the buyer can make additional shells.
“(A) Marshall diesel tractor can claim to be the only tractor which has only 66 working and wearing parts,” Mecum notes. “This simplicity of design and absence of unnecessarily delicate parts make the Marshall tractor strong and long lasting, even under the most arduous conditions.”
And it all starts with a bang. And a bid.