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Solar Express | Spring 2011 Out Here Magazine

Douglas Drewes' solar-powered tractor offers a quiet ride without the sound of a combustion engine.

Inventive restorer creates a tractor that runs on the sun


By Noble Sprayberry
Photography by Christopher Weddle


The sign read "solar-powered tractor," and the reactions were as expected.


"People would first look at it and say, 'That's just not right,'" Douglas Drewes says. "They didn't think it would work."


Then, he would steer the Solar Express, absent the sound of a combustion engine, quietly through the rows at tractor shows. "I would tell people to get on and let's go for a ride, and they'd come back smiling and saying their friends wouldn't believe it."


Seventy years after the 1937 Farmall F12 rolled off the assembly line with the promise it could do the work of two horses, Drewes gave the tractor a modern, solar-powered update that matched or outpaced the original's performance.


For Drewes, who manages his family's 33 acres of pasture outside Mifflintown, Pa., and who runs a flooring business, the effort was one of many rebuilds designed to catch attention at tractor shows.


The Solar Express, which features the decal of a rushing steam train, succeeded as an attention-grabber. "The reason I did it was that we'd just hit $4 gas," he says. "When I started, I didn't know what I was doing but I knew people I could ask."


The result depended on eight batteries, four solar panels, and one electric motor all wrapped into an eye-catching package. The Farmall, when new, touted a 12-horsepower, four-cylinder engine outshone today by some riding lawnmowers. Drewes replaced the cast iron engine with a $1,200 custom-made 12-horsepower electric motor.


"That electric motor was heavy enough that I had to carry it in two hands, but the old cast iron motor was so heavy we had to use a lift to get it out," Drewes says. Connecting the drive train required bolting a coupler to the drive shaft. A custom rebuild of the frame concealed six of the eight six-volt batteries. And, the electric motor eliminated the need for a clutch. The new motor pumped out a maximum of 6,000 rpm compared to the original engine's 17 rpm.

The solar panels, each 14 inches long and 5 inches wide, mounted on the side of the tractor provide a way to recharge the batteries powering the nearly silent motor.

"We wanted to haul it to tractor shows and to ride it in parades, so I needed to think about how fast and how far I needed it to go," he says. "The first time I drove it, I went until it died, which was 17 miles at full tilt." While the original Farmall could not manage 5 mph, the Solar Express topped out at 17 mph.

A solar-powered tractor would work best on a farmstead, Drewes says. "It would be great for someone doing something like raising strawberries where you're hauling a wagon back and forth," he says, "and it would have time to recharge."

It won't be working on Drewes' farm, however. He sold the Solar Express to a collector who got one of the most unique tractors around.

Noble Sprayberry is a Georgia-based writer.