Choose Reliable Antique Tractors for the Homestead

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PHOTO: ANDREW MORLAND REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF PUBLISHER VOYAGUER PRESS
Photo of an antique gray Ford tractor.

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.