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

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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