GRIT's Guide to Subcompact Tractors

Subcompact tractors are available in a wide range of capability and price.

| January/February 2011

Considering Horsepower and Axles for Your Subcompact Tractor

Most folks recognize an agricultural-style tractor when they see one, and many can distinguish a modern farm tractor from a modern compact utility tractor, but when you’re in the market for a tiny tractor to park in your garden shed, decision-making lines are easily blurred. Call them subcompact tractors, garden tractors or lawn tractors, today’s diminutive doers are available with a wide range in pricing that relates to an even wider range in capacity and capability. Work a light-duty lawn tractor too hard and you might wind up with a $2,000 boat anchor. Only use your subcompact tractor to keep an acre of lawn trimmed, and you’ve got a $15,000 riding mower in your barn. 

North America’s smallest tractors were born as garden tractors shortly after World War I when folks began trading animal power for petroleum power to keep backyard vegetable gardens or small truck (from the Middle English trukien – to barter) patches producing. These early contraptions were heavy and cumbersome; most were constructed with a single pair of drive wheels. Two-wheeled tractors are still available today, and they’re capable of carrying out substantial work – the operator gets a nice workout at the same time. The first production four-wheeled, garden-sized tractors arrived shortly before the Great Depression, and the genre exploded after World War II.  

Virtually all early garden tractors were built to withstand long days of hard pulling with ground-
engaging implements such as land plows in tow. Those machines had sufficient weight, traction and stout-enough transmissions for extended pulling. Before 1960, most garden tractors got the work done with less than 6 hp at the drawbar. Today, not all tiny tractors are designed with pulling in mind – even those with more than 25 engine hp – but they all have a purpose, and we aim to help you make the right choice. 

Lawn tractor 

At the lighter-duty end of the spectrum are machines that look like miniature tractors, complete with large rear tires and a simple drawbar hitch. Lawn tractors tend to be lighter overall (generally less than 500 pounds ready to work) than the similarly sized garden tractor class, and, in many cases, they are equipped with engines rated with greater than 25 hp.  

Most new lawn tractors are equipped with hydrostatic transaxles encased in lightweight aluminum alloy or pot metal housings. These transaxles are generally connected to the tractor’s engine with a drive belt and are perfect if you use the lawn tractor as intended – for mowing grass and light towing or pushing. They’re easy to break if you try to mount too much weight on the lawn tractor or engage in hard pulling with enhanced traction (bar-lug tires, tire chains, rear wheel weights, etc.). 

mother earth news fair 2018 schedule


Next: September 14-16, 2018
Seven Springs, PA

Sit in on dozens of practical workshops from the leading authorities on modern homesteading, animal husbandry, gardening, real food and more!