Buying Old Farm Tractors

How to find and evaluate old farm tractors — Farmall, "Johnny Popper," Oil-Pull, Fordson, or Rumely — for less.

| June/July 1994

  • 144 old farm tractors - farmall
    The Farmall "A" from International Harvester was a reliable and affordable workhorse in its day.
    PHOTO: ANDREW MORELAND/MOTORBOOKS INTERNATIONAL
  • 144 old farm tractors - riding, rear view
    The distinctive green of a John Deere tractor.
    ANDREW SACHS/TONY STONE IMAGES
  • 144 old farm tractors - Ford 9n
    Henry Ford introduces his new 9N to the press in June 1939. Initial sale price was an astounding $600 and began a new era in price competition.
    HENRY FORD MUSEUM AND GREENFIELD VILLAGE
  • 144 old farm tractors - rumley steam engine
    Between 1905 and 1916, Rumely topped its steam-engine line with several huge models. Here, an Advance Rumely 25-hp steam-engine tractor was certainly a formidable piece of equipment, but not very practical.
    MOTORBOOKS INTERNATIONAL
  • 144 tractors 4 1952 Ford 8n
    This 1952 Ford 8-N includes a Funk V-8 conversion consisting of various engine and gearbox adapters, as well as two vertical straight pipes for the exhaust. The sound is very impressive.
    ANDREW MORELAND/MOTORBOOKS INTERNATIONAL
  • 144 old farm tractors - farmall instrument panel
    Instrumentation was much improved on the numbered Farmalls that appeared in mid-1954.
    ANDREW MORELAND/MOTORBOOKS INTERNATIONAL
  • 144 tractors 6 farmall oil filter
    Oil filter and magneto for a 1932 Farmall F-20, powered by a four-cylinder, overhead valve engine.
    ANDREW MORELAND/MOTORBOOKS INTERNATIONAL

  • 144 old farm tractors - farmall
  • 144 old farm tractors - riding, rear view
  • 144 old farm tractors - Ford 9n
  • 144 old farm tractors - rumley steam engine
  • 144 tractors 4 1952 Ford 8n
  • 144 old farm tractors - farmall instrument panel
  • 144 tractors 6 farmall oil filter

It's been almost 30 years now since I gave up trying to grow tomatoes on a city-apartment balcony and went looking for a country place. What sold me on my first old farmstead weren't so much the overgrown fields begging to produce again, the sucker-filled but still-bearing fruit trees, or the antique stone house and barn ...but the old farm tractors and implements that went with it (for an added $2,500). The tractor was a gorgeous little Farmall "A," its paint shiny bright red, original decals intact, the huge lugged tires barely worn, and the muffler just rusted enough to look serious. Lined up behind it along the back of the barn were a stake-bed trailer on an old Ford axle, an antique snow plow, a single-bottom land plow, a 3-gang disc harrow, a fertilizing corn drill, and a sickle-bar mower with a wooden crank arm — all of them in perfect condition. And in the toolbox in the footwell of the tractor was the original owner's manual ...dated 1939!

The "A" had a new-looking Exide battery under the seat, plus a generator and starter motor, but I was all eager to try the crank. I checked oil and water, turned the valve under the gas tank on, turned the rotary ignition switch off, advanced the lever-and-quadrant hand throttle to the middle notch, pulled up on the choke nob, put the lovely long shift lever into neutral, and — hands shaking like a kid with a new tricycle — poked the crank into the hole under the grille in front.

My farming Great-Uncle Will had taught me how to crank-start decades earlier by spinning the big flywheel of "Johnny Popper," his Kermit-the-Frog-green John Deere. I grasped the crankhandle palm open so's not to break a thumb or worse if she backfired — something that can happen if you forget to retard spark on an old engine that gets its ignition charge from a manual timing-adjusted magneto. This Farmall had a magneto to provide spark, but since it had no spark-advance/retard lever beside the throttle lever or at the magneto, I assumed it was equipped with a modern self-retarding distributor head. Pulling up hard in the only direction the crank would catch, I pulled the engine through twice, then switched her on and cranked again. The stout little 4-banger popped, but that's all.

Recalling Uncle Will's directions for starting a cold, hand-cranked engine on a hot, humid summer day, I drained the sediment bowl under the fuel tank to get rid of any water in the gas, opened choke and closed throttle, and pulled her around several times to clear the cylinders and plugs. Then, decreasing both choke and throttle from earlier settings, I cranked again. She fired on the second crank, and after blowing a little more gray-blue smoke, began to chug happily. I climbed up into the dished-steel "hot seat" (an old tractor's transmission can heat up and toast your backside while the sun tans your top over a summer-day's work). I closed choke, adjusted speed, threw out the clutch, searched around for first, and eased up on the go-pedal. The little Farmall lurched and barely inched forward, so I threw the clutch again, fished around for second gear, let up easy on the clutch, and rolled out into the sunshine.



Was I on top of the world, or what? No longer an overpaid paper-pusher in an overpriced three-button suit, I was transformed into a plain but honest man of the soil — sturdy and self-reliant — sitting high up, free and in the wind on a real, honest-to-God farm tractor. Every boy-homesteader's dream, right?

But How Does It Work?

Well, yes. But try as I might, I couldn't get it to work right. The tractor had a drawbar at the rear. The plow tongue attached to it with a pintle hook and trailed fine, but there was no way to exert significant down-pressure or keep the toe of the plow down. Even when I hand dug a starting furrow, I never figured out the knack of guiding and keeping it biting from my perch on the seat, having not yet realized that the concrete blocks piled in a corner of the pasture were needed for weight, so it just skipped over the weeds. I had a lot of fun flushing pheasants and chasing cottontails around in the fields, though.






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