I've compiled a real brief history of the G.E. Elec-Trak Garden Tractor here from the bits and pieces I've learned over the years.
I am currently collaborating with Mr. Bruce Laumeister, the General Manager of the G.E. Elec-Trak program during the 1970's to write the complete,
comprehensive story of these unique machines. To that end we are contacting as many of the almost 300 employees who worked for G.E. on
the project as well as former dealers and original owners to include their stories and memories in the book. The target date for
publishing is in the spring of 2012.
We would really welcome any additions anyone can make to the story, especially those who were there and helped design, manufacture and sell these tractors. Please me if you have information, documents and pictures to add to this history. Your memories are more important than you think!
Chapter One: 1968-69 Product Design & the Business Plan...
The beginning of the Elec-Trak Garden Tractor really started in 1968 when General Electric demonstrated an experimental electric car the "Delta". The Delta had a top speed of 55 miles an hour with a range of 40 miles. It was approximately ten feet long and was designed to carry two adults and two children. The project was headed up by G.E.'s Bruce R. Laumeister. Although the Delta was ultimately determined to be impractical Laumeister realized the very things that made the electric car impractical were benefits to an electric tractor. The weight of the batteries was an enemy of the automobile but was an advantage to a tractor. Limited range was not a problem as garden tractors were rarely used for long periods of time and less batteries meant fewer recharging times.
After a few months of research and development, the birth of the Elec-Trak came virtually overnight. After approval to test the market for electric garden tractors in December of 1968, prototypes of the G.E. Elec-Trak were shown to dealers and customers in 1969 to test the market. The photo below was actually taken in 1969 at a show in Indiana. General Electric engineers began pulling together the business plan during late summer of 1969. By September 1969 the project took on the new name of the "Outdoor Power Equipment Operation" (O.P.E.O.) and was transferred from New Business Development group in the G.E. Research & Development Center to be a stand-alone operating unit of the Transportation Systems Business Division (TSBD) headquartered in Erie, PA. In September 1969 the new operating unit already had 40 employees. With Laumeister in charge, by early 1970 they had built the entire plant and had models going down the assembly line even though the original appropriation request called for a start up by late 1971! The long term business plan actually forecasted additional income from an electric sport vehicle as well.
The production facility in September 1969 was an empty high bay in a large industrial park approximately 200' by 200' in Building 702 in Scotia, N.Y. which still stands today. The only equipment was in a small tool room that had been set up with a couple of Bridgeports and an engine lathe along with related grinders, drill presses and other tool room tools. There were two toolmakers and an apprentice toolmaker about to graduate. Besides standing up the plant the prototypes still had to be debugged and there were still design issues that had to be closed. Joe Caruso was the Manager of Shop Operations who put in solid operating systems. The material handling system was similar to today's "Kanban" system. After the initial start-up plant improvements were made almost every month. By 1972 they had a state-of-the-art robotic paint line and a sophisticated assembly line that used the tractor shipping crate as the assembly fixture.
Chapter Two: 1970-1972 Production...
At the end of 1973 the Elec-trak operation had almost 300 employees. The plant had grown from 40,000 square feet to close to 200,000 square feet of production office and warehouse in three different buildings in the Scotia industrial park. With few exceptions such as the mower deck, and the tractor deck, all fabrication work was done in house. Those exceptions were due to the fact they did not have large enough presses to make those items. The drive motors were made by the G.E. plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Even the circuit boards and wiring harnesses were built in-house.
Building the first E15 (Original photo)
Building the first E15 (Original photo)
Start-up team that designed and built the Elec-Traks in early 1970 (Original photo)
OPEO Manufacturing Manager Pat Palmisano (Original photo)
Setting up the Elec-Trak plant (Original photo)
Elec-Trak Plant Documents:
Elec-Trak Product Patents:
Elec-Trak Garden Tractor News:
This was an internal newsletter produced at the G.E. Elec-Trak plant in Schenectady, N.Y. As you can see, many of the issues of "Elec-Trak Garden Tractor News" are missing from this list. If you have any of the issues missing here please me.
Chapter Three: 1973-1975 Shutting down operations...
The end of the Elec-Trak did not come over night. For the most part the project had made it's goals through 1972 but with the
close of the spring season of 1973 it was apparent that things had changed. There was no year to year growth and other financial
indicators were also showing significant issues. Accounts receivables were double what they projected to be. The original business
plan had a fatal flaw in it. They had never figured in the fact that dealers had tractors on consignment and they had thousands of dollars
of receivables sitting on show room floors all over the country. The dealer channel numbers were less than half the original
projection. Market share was also off initial projections and G.E. had captured less than half of what they had aggressively projected.
G.E. had managed to capture 4% of the market which in retrospect was not bad for a brand new company with a brand new technology.
1973 had seen the Arab oil embargo arrive which at first you would think would be a plus for an electric tractor but overall it had caused a major recession starting that year and all tractor manufacturers had disappointing sales. Compounding the issues was a G.E. union strike in early 1973 just when the factory needed to mass produce units to fill dealer showrooms for the spring season. This was one of the largest strikes G.E. had ever encountered and factory employees honored the picket line. Salaried staff was required to perform regular duties 4 hours per day and build tractors 6 hours per day. This resulted in unresolved design, manufacturing and quality issues and caused inferior product to be produced by untrained personnel. The result was numerous field service problems that eroded dealer confidence and spread negative advertising to would-be buyers.
In the summer of 1973, G.E. sent in Dr. Vanderslice, a hard-line troubleshooter to review the situation and make recommendations. It is apparent the decision was made to sell off the division as they had already spoken to Simplicity but they were experiencing the same receivables issues as well as a drop in sales. Plans were made to talk to other potential buyers. Additional moves were made to "stop the bleeding". These moves caused the market to predict G.E.'s withdrawal from the market and added more to the problems.
In the spring of 1974 talks began with Wheel Horse and on August 9th, 1974 the deal was done. Wheel Horse ran the operation in Scotia for only a year and then closed the operation. Wheel Horse and the private brand for New Idea eventually ended all production of the Elec-Trak models. Wheel Horse came out with a new model, the A-60 (1975-1977) and two others, the E-81 and the E-141 (1980-1983). Eventually they got out of the parts business and what was left was sold to a dealer, Bill Gunn from Ederton, Wisconsin. Bill later sold his stock to Jim Coate of the Electric Tractor Store.
Chapter Four: The Elec-Trak lives on...
The Elec-Trak Garden Tractor maybe almost as popular today as it was in the early 1970's. Long time users and diehard fans have lots of stories
about their favorite machines. I have provided room for stories from users about their machines here. Contact me if you have a
story you would like to share.