Europeans have been making fast tractors for years. Now U.S. makers are entering the race. Together they will redefine how Americans think about tractors.

Five years ago, a small, relatively unknown company from the U.K. crossed the Atlantic and set out to put the North American tractor industry on its rim. The company, JCB, introduced a tractor called Fastrac that could travel up to 40 mph on the highway.

Such speeds are commonplace in Europe, where farmers use tractors in place of pickups for transportation and hauling over the road and are required to keep up with traffic. However, to U.S. farmers such a speed was virtually unheard of.

What compelled JCB to make such a radical move? "It goes back to pretty much the same reason we started building the tractor in Europe," says Ray Bingley, Fastrac product manager. "The face of ag is changing."

With farms getting bigger and more scattered, farmers and their tractors are spending more time on the road, according to Bingley. The Fastrac is designed to cut that time so that farmers can spend more time in the field.

As proof of their success, sales of Fastrac tractors in this country have increased steadily every year despite a slumping farm economy. And U.S. tractor makers are now in a race of playing catch-up by designing their own versions of a faster tractor. In the process, they will redefine the way American farmers think about tractors.

Race against time. Attempts to break tractor speed limits are not new, according to Jay Agness, chairman of the ag tractors committee of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers (ASAE) and a John Deere engineer. "Back in the 1910s and up to 1930, steel wheels limited transport speeds," Agness says. "Then we got rubber tires. But the rubber tires we had at the time weren't that great, and they limited transport speeds. Now we have radials."

Up until the last five years, tractor speeds in the U.S. had reached a plateau of 20 mph. Then AGCO, Case IH, John Deere and New Holland all inched them up to 25 mph and now are attempting to raise them again to match the speed of Fastrac.

Currently, the tractor closest to matching it is AGCO's Fendt tractor, a European import introduced to the U.S. market just this year. The 700 and 900 series tractors can reach speeds as high as 31 mph.

Tying for third are John Deere's 6000 and 7000 TEN Series and Case IH's MX Series Magnum and MX Series Maxxum tractors. Both companies' tractors can get up to 28 mph. Fourth in the race is New Holland's TM tractors, introduced last fall, which can go up to 25 mph.

Increasing speeds another 10 to 15 mph could be done today from a transmission standpoint, the manufacturers claim, simply by changing the gear ratios or increasing maximum engine speed. The barriers they face have more to do with how to maintain control of the vehicle, along with the implements it is pulling, as it approaches highway speeds. Specifically, the challenges include:

Suspension: When tractors reach a speed of around 25 mph, they have a tendency to bounce from the vibration of the road. The risk is that the driver can lose control of the vehicle. To counter that effect, AGCO, Case IH, John Deere and New Holland in the past two years have all suspended the front axle of their fastest models - which allows the front wheels to move independently of the chassis - and have added springs and dampeners similar to those used in automobiles (see chart). In the past, when tractors were designed to operate at speeds under 25 mph, tires provided about all the dampening that was needed.

Fendt and New Holland also offer cab suspension on their fastest models to reduce bounce in the field. However, JCB is the only company in the U.S. that offers full suspension - that is, front-axle, cab and rear-axle suspension - which Bingley says is necessary at speeds higher than 30 mph to keep the driver completely safe and in control of the vehicle.

Braking: Getting the tractor to stop at 40 mph will be another challenge. "The energy in a vehicle moving down the highway is proportional to the square of velocity," Agness explains. "So if you double the speed, you have four times the energy in motion and it will take four times the braking energy to stop the vehicle."

As a result, the industry may need to move toward braking standards similar to those that apply to today's trucks, according to Scott Dunbar, a John Deere engineer and chairperson of the ASAE Ag Braking Committee. Such standards may require, for instance, braking on all four wheels as opposed to only the two rear wheels, manual (in addition to hydraulic) braking on both tractors and implements that would stop the vehicles in the event of engine failure, and an automatic disconnect feature that would automatically apply brakes to the implement if it were to come loose from the tractor.

William Schubert, chief engineer at Case IH and member of ASAE's braking standards committee, envisions a systems solution in which the tractor and implement would be sold together as a unit to ensure adequate braking, and older implements would not be allowed to be towed at those higher speeds. "We will have to find a way to make sure that if you are using a high-speed tractor, you are pulling high-speed equipment, similar to the 3-pt. hitch standards set by ASAE in which the 3-pt. hitch can only be used to hook 3-pt. equipment," Schubert says.

Steering: Steering systems also will need to be ramped up. Currently, most tractors built for the U.S. offer fully hydrostatic steering, where steering is done hydraulically. However, as we get to higher speeds, tractor makers may need to add a mechanical connection between the steering wheel and wheels so that if the vehicle were to lose hydraulic oil or burst a hydraulic hose, it would still be possible to steer it.

Lighting: At higher speeds, tractors and implements will need to be more visible. JCB's Fastrac, for example, has a full set of road-going lights, including indicator lights, bright lights and reverse lights on all four corners of the vehicle. "So if you were to see one coming down the road at night, you'd think it was a truck coming toward you," Bingley says.

Tires: Tire performance will need to be improved to ensure stability at higher speeds, according to Ed Hines, senior product engineer for New Holland. For example, manufacturers will need to reduce lug vibrations and run out on rim assemblies and ensure trueness of the radial circumference.

Hitches: Hines says tighter hitch linkages will be needed to reduce the amount of freeplay between the tractor and implement during towing.

Close to finish? Overcoming these barriers could take as few as two years or as many as 10, U.S. makers estimate. And ASAE is simultaneously working on developing standards for the companies to follow that would set minimum requirements in each of these areas.

"The worst that can happen is for someone to jump in and do something with half knowledge and make a mistake," Agness says. "And if a bad accident happens, it could bring a brash of laws and litigation that will set the whole thing back 10 years if we do it wrong. If we do it right, with full knowledge of what we are doing, we can keep moving forward. And that is our hope."

Once manufacturers mechanically figure out how to reach those speeds, there will be other implications for buyers. "It will redefine how off-road traffic is viewed on the road," says Dr. Mark Hanna, extension ag engineer at Iowa Sate University.

For example, currently tractors and wagons are classified as slow moving vehicles (SMVs). But as tractors begin to rival the speeds of trucks, the current law may need to be revised to either change the definition of an SMV or make exempt tractors that can operate at 40 mph.

Iowa lawmakers have already begun to wrestle with these issues, Hanna says. And just last year, the state changed the speed classification for SMVs from 25 to 35 mph to keep faster tractors covered under law.

Another implication is licensing, according to New Holland's Hines. "As you make this tractor perform more like a truck, what expectations, both in terms of state and federal highway regulations, will you encounter?" he asks. For example, he says lawmakers will need to determine whether drivers of tractors should be licensed and held to the same type of highway penalties and insurance requirements as drivers of trucks.

What's more, the price tag on faster tractors will be higher than that for conventional tractors because of the added performance features. Just how much higher is unknown. But if AGCO's new Fendt tractor is any indication, buyers can expect to pay 15 to 20% more than what they are paying now for a conventional tractor.

Weighing the premium. Buyers will need to determine whether such a markup is justified. And for many farmers, it may not be.

However, Dexter Schaible, vice president of engineering and product development worldwide at AGCO, says that for farmers who do a lot of road travel, even a 50-kph transmission (31 mph) could come in handy. "Basically by going from 40 to 50 kph, you will get there 20% faster," Schaible says. "So the demand is going to come."

Reece Miller, senior marketing representative for Deere's 6000 and 7000 TEN series tractors, estimates that 20% of the market will go to a higher-speed transmission once it becomes available. "And it will continue to get larger because time is something everybody values," Miller says.

JCB's Bingley believes almost all Midwest corn and soybean farmers would be potential customers for a fast tractor because of the increased gains in productivity. However, he says the number who would be good candidates for a Fastrac is somewhat lower, more like 40%. The reason is that the Fastrac has an 80-in. wheel spacing rather than a 60-in. required for crops grown in 30-in. rows.

"A tractor on 60-in. tire centers is very narrow," he says. "And that very narrow tractor doing high speeds is not the ideal combination. If you listen to Pontiac, wider is better."

However, Bingley believes that as the market develops, the company will design a Fastrac tractor with a 60-in. wheelbase.

Fast tractors being designed by U.S. companies also will likely come with a 60-in. wheelbase. And surprisingly, Bingley welcomes the day they arrive because he says it will give way to a much larger market.

"The sooner the better," he says. "Because when one of the big four starts producing a true high-speed tractor and not a hybrid, then that does us a whole lot of good. No longer are we a relatively small company trying to persuade a very large group of farmers that this is the right way to go."

As tractors get into higher operating speeds, their use may shift from being simply a powered drawbar into a specialty-use vehicle. "We are ripe for a whole lot of things," says Jay Agness, chairman of the ag tractors committee of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers and a John Deere engineer.

For example, as tractors are made into higher-speed units, Agness believes their ability to carry things will become very important. Because a tractor is heavier than a pickup truck, it would be able to haul a larger payload with the right modifications. "Our difficulty now is that if you put the load on a front-end loader, it impairs visibility," he says. Instead, Agness envisions a fifth wheel or trailer being added to the tractor to carry objects and implements that are too large to transport on their own.

AGCO recently unveiled a tractor at the Agritechnica show in Europe that it plans on taking to higher speeds. The concept machine, called Variotrac, features a slightly forward-mounted cab and a platform in the back on which a spray tank or other attachment could be mounted.

"You could use the tractor for spray applications as well as for a farm tractor," says Dexter Schaible, vice president of engineering and product development worldwide at AGCO. "I think that is one of the areas we might see the tractorchange as the speeds go faster." It will be at least three to five years before AGCO will introduce something like it in the U.S.

Schaible and other company representatives doubt that the overall look of the tractor will change dramatically as we get to those higher speeds. "It will still be a basic farm tractor as know it today - big wheels in the back and smaller wheels in front," Schaible says.

Most experts also doubt speeds will go much beyond 40 mph. Agness, however, disagrees. "I don't see any limit," he says. "Once you conquer 40 mph, there will be someone who wants to go 45 and then 50 and then 70."