George DeVault explains how inexpensive and reliable antique tractors are the best choice when it comes to the rigors of farming your homestead.
Photo of an antique gray Ford tractor.
PHOTO: ANDREW MORLAND REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF PUBLISHER VOYAGUER PRESS
Choose inexpensive and reliable antique tractors, these sturdy old gray tractors get the job done for the homestead.
"What kind of guarantee comes with this?" I asked, suspiciously eyeing the few drops of oil on the pavement under the rear axle of an old gray Ford tractor.
"Well, none, actually," replied the man who had it sitting out by the road with a for sale sign. "What you see is what you get where is, as is."
The tractor in question was a 1946 Ford x 2N. The four-cylinder engine had been overhauled a few years earlier, he said. Then an old Pennsylvania-Dutchman, who probably bought it new when Truman was president, traded it in on a new Kubota.
The old gray tractors-the result of a partnership that later dissolved into the separate Ford and Ferguson lines revolutionized postwar farming. These classics have held up to time, held onto collectors' hearts and held their value ever since.
The roadside seller's price was $1,795. That was about 2 1/2 times what the Ford cost new in 1946. But it was also about the going rate at the time. So even though the tractor was older than me or my wife, Melanie, we bought it on the spot after a test drive.
That was in 1984, when we bought our land. We have used the old Ford almost continuously ever since. We never regretted the purchase. With a minimum of service and repairs-lots of grease, irregular oil changes, some new wiring and radiator hoses the 2N has never failed us. Equipped with a two-bottom plow, 5-foot rotary mower, disk harrow and scraper blade, it has done all we asked of it, everything from plowing snow off of our 600-foot driveway to mowing or titling the better part of our 20 acres, year after year. And all for less than what most suburbanites spend these days on a riding lawn mower.
Even if the price had been higher, we probably would have bought it. I'm a sucker for old gray reliable antique tractors. My late grandfather had an old Ford he used to clip pastures with a clattering sickle bar. My 78-year-old father, Don, still uses an old gray tractor to plow snow and mow at his place in Delaware, Ohio. It's a Ferguson TO-30 made in 1951 — the year I was born. I learned at 10 to drive on that tractor, under Dad's close supervision, of course.
Dad got the tractor in 1956, not long after he bought 15 acres just west of Delaware and put up one of the first pole barns in the area. "I took it on a trade, sight unseen, as credit on a down payment on a piece of real estate," he recalls. "The buyer was $1,100 short. He offered me the tractor with a two-bottom plow, rear manure scoop and a two-row cultivator.
"I needed the tractor. He needed the money and had no more use for the tractor. I sold the plow and cultivator for maybe $250 and traded the back loader in on a rotary mower. The rear scoop never amounted to much. It has been a good tractor. We have been well satisfied with it."
Today his Ferguson is worth $2,500 to $3,000, says Dad. He should know. He sold hundreds of old gray tractors at auction for 48 years before he retired as an auctioneer in 1996. He didn't think twice about spending $600 on engine work after his Ferguson began burning oil.
Dad says he never really thought about buying a new tractor. "Those old Fords and Fergusons and the old Farmall Cubs, I wouldn't say there is any better on the market. It's amazing how well they have held up mechanically. Of course, there is not a whole lot to them."
Therein lies the true beauty and lasting appeal of old tractors. They are incredibly simple, purely functional. They are easy to work on. You can reach just about any part with an ordinary socket wrench or screwdriver. Unlike modern machines, they don't have cupholders, just a small toolbox for quick fixes in the field. There is no onboard computer, no fancy fuel injectors to 6` foul. Nothing is plastic, except for insulation on the wiring. The whole tractor, from its original seat to the grill, is solid steel or thick iron. Like an old stone barn with hand-hewn beams, they were built to last, enduring monuments to craftsmanship and common sense.
That's why these tractors are as versatile as they are plain. They handle a wide range of implements-two-bottom plow, disk, hiller, mower, cultivator, rake, loader, scraper blade, post hole digger, planter, corn picker-without any special adaptors or complex adjustments. They can power an irrigation pump or a buzz saw for bucking firewood.
"The nice part about these old tractors is that you can buy parts for any of them. You can buy manuals. That has helped maintain their value," says Dad. "It's nothing you're going to cash in and retire on, but as long as we can hold a reasonably good economy they're going to keep their value. If the economy gets worse they might even increase in value."
The 2001 Value-Bilt Agricultural and Tractor Parts Catalog has 60 pages of parts for every Ferguson and Ford tractor made, starting with the Fordson, which first rolled off of Ford's assembly line in 1917. You can buy everything from axles to voltage regulators. Shop manuals are available from Intertec Publishing [Overland Park, KS; www.intertecsales.com/intertecbooks/Companies.asp] For other parts suppliers, prices and web pages for both makes of tractors, check out Farmcollector.com or www.ytmag.com.
Which is the better tractor, the Ford or the Ferguson?
"They're both so similar that they're like identical twins," says Dad. That's not surprising, considering they had the same parents: Henry Ford and an inventive Irishman named Harry Ferguson.
Everyone knows Ford for his automobiles. But the man who gave us the assembly line and the Tin Lizzie also had a secret passion: eliminating the drudgery of farm work he endured as a child walking endless miles behind horse-drawn plows. He began tinkering with tractors as early as 1905. Ford went through 62 different designs before he found what he was looking for. In 1917 he introduced the Fordson tractor: "To make farming what it ought to be, the most pleasant and profitable profession in the world," the ads read.
More than 500,000 Fords had been produced by 1925. Then came the Great Depression. Tractor sales plunged. Ford quit making tractors in the United States in 1928.
Ten years later, Ford linked up with Ferguson. With a simple handshake they agreed to add Ferguson's three-point hydraulic lift system to Ford's redesigned tractor. Farmers could raise and lower heavy implements from the tractor seat with the touch of a small lever. "As advanced as jet propulsion," Ferguson ads later described it. Hooking up an implement took only a minute.
The Ford 9N cost $585 new in 1939. It boasted 23 horsepower, three forward speeds and one color-gray. Sales brochures said it was "designed to replace the horse." The tractor was so quiet Ford said it should come with a radio.
Ford and Ferguson kept tinkering. They introduced the improved Ford 2N in 1942. (Wartime models had only steel wheels, a magneto and hand crank, instead of a battery.) By the mid-1940s, tractors outnumbered horses and mules on American farms for the first time.
The famous "handshake agreement" and Ford-Ferguson tractors came to an end with Henry Ford's death in 1947. Nearly 300,000 9Ns and 2Ns were on America's farms by then. Ford's heirs dumped Ferguson. In 1948 they introduced the 8N, the classic four-speed, "red belly" Ford. Ferguson filed a $340 million lawsuit against Ford and began making tractors under his own name.
Ferguson settled his suit against Ford for about $10 million in 1952. By the end of that year, Ford had made more than 500,000 8Ns. Ferguson then merged with Massey-Harris, which produced both M-H and Ferguson tractors until about 1958 when the company became Massey-Ferguson. Ferguson died in 1960.
Collector Jim Storment of Mt. Vernon, Illinois, has one of every model Ferguson made in the United States. (Visit his website at www.mountvernon.net/ tractor.) He recently paid $2,600 for a TO-30 with a front-end loader at auction. Depending on condition, prices can range from less than $1,000 for a handy person's special to $5,000 or more for a fully restored tractor. "If it starts and runs fairly decent, that's a good starting point," Storment says of evaluating old gray tractors.
"If it smokes pretty bad you know you have some engine work to do. Almost all of them have damage down at the bottom of the grill where the hood tips forward. If it had a bumper, the grill didn't get all mashed in. If they're kept inside that makes a big difference in the overall condition. Check for fresh paint. That can hide a multitude of sins."
For more weight and better traction, the rear tires of our 2N are filled with a calcium chloride solution. Tire chains are essential for working in snow and ice, especially on any kind of slope. Dad has front wheel weights on his TO-30. "From the safety angle that's a necessity, in my opinion," he says. "It only takes a matter of seconds for a tractor to flip completely over backwards and kill the driver."
To our 2N we added a weighted gas cap, which helps relieve potentially explosive pressure caused by the fuel tank being located directly above the engine. An overrunning coupler keeps power take off (PTO) implements like our Bush Hog mower from pushing the tractor forward when the clutch is depressed. To keep the radiator from plugging up with seeds and chaff, we wrapped it and the grill with window screen. Thanks to the 2N, our organic vegetable operation has steadily grown over the years. By 1997 the farm had finally reached the point where we needed a newer tractor with better gearing, so we could use a PTO-powered tiller, mulch layer and other, more modern labor-saving implements.
We bought a used John Deere 1050 diesel from Gunther Heussman, a neighboring farmer who also sells used equipment. We thought seriously about trading our 2N.
Heussman even came out and looked it over. He liked what he saw, even though it still drips a bit of oil from the rear axle. He offered us $1,800-$5 more than we had paid for it 13 years earlier.
I was really tempted, but just couldn't bring myself to let go. If Heussman gave us $1,800, I figured he would resell it, probably to a collector, for maybe $2,500. More than the money, though, I was haunted by the vague notion that, some day, another 10-year-old DeVault might learn to drive on an old gray Ford. Blame Henry Ford.
In sales brochures from 60 years ago, Ford vowed that with the Ford-Ferguson tractor, "The slavery wilt be taken out of agriculture. It will become attractive and profitable and put an end to the disastrous drift of youth from the land. It will cut production costs, keep down food prices for consumers, boost the overall economy and lay the foundation for greater National Security."
Makes sense to me. If ever there were a time America needed all that and more, it is now. Old Fords and Fergusons are perfect starter tractors. The right place for them today is not in museums or collectors' climate-controlled barns, but in the fields and the hands of new, young farmers.
MOTHER contributing editor George DeVault farms and writes at his 20-acre organic farm in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. His wife, Mel, reports he is not yet quite as gray as his old Ford.
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