From the Seat of a Tractor
by Jim Averett
I have always liked old things. I like junk yards. I like antique shops, old houses, and old cars. When I look at these things, I think about the people who used them and what their lives were like. I remember them, if I knew them, or remember others who used similar items if I did not. Another old thing I like is a tractor, not a shiny or decorative thing, not a trophy tractor, but a real tool in someone’s hand, used daily with a purpose. Many people restore old cars or refinish furniture, but I have fond memories involving tractors. No, I was not farmer, nor did I plow forty acres to plant tobacco; I simply kept up a garden my parents grew when I was at home. I said then if I ever wanted to plant a garden when I grew up that someone should just shoot me. I don’t feel that strongly anymore.
With each year that goes by, I think of my granddaddy and how he took me with him to work. He worked on tractors; I was only nine or ten at the time, but he took me along anyway. I must have been more in the way than I was a help when other mechanics at the shop would let me change parts, but they let me do it anyway, showing me what to do and letting me learn for myself what not to. I loved going with my granddaddy when he went on farm calls. We would go fix a tractor out in the middle of a field, in the hot sun, but I didn’t mind at all. You see, my granddaddy couldn’t read, so I never had the experience of sitting in his lap while he read me a book. But while he worked on tractors, he told me stories — stories about his childhood, about people who lived around there, about just about everything. Now, when I think about buying an old tractor, all of these memories, all of those stories, come rushing back. My granddaddy has been dead for twenty years, so buying a tractor like the ones he worked on gets more and more important.
One has many things to consider when comparing old tractors. Unlike new ones, all of which have and have had for some time high horsepower, multi-gear transmissions, live lifts, and independent PTOs (power take off), old tractors were all different and changed just about every year up until the 1960s when lifts became independent and PTO became “live” by using a two stage clutch.
I like the Ford 601 Workmaster series from the early 60s because it looks very much like the 8n Ford, the 601’s 25-year-old predecessor, my granddaddy gave my dad when I was young. He was always finding tractors to fix up, so we always had a different tractor around our house. The 8n came when I had not yet driven a tractor, but with a lot of begging, on my eleventh birthday, I got to drive it. There is not enough room in this essay to tell all the stories I have about this tractor, like the time we drove Mom’s 60 Plymouth down into the woods to pull the 8n out of a ditch. Suffice it to say just thinking about that 8n calls up enough memories to bring the past back to life.
One of the tractors I’m considering buying is a 661 Ford, a member of the 601 family. If painted correctly, a 601 series tractor should be all red except for the fenders, wheels and grill, which should be painted Ford gray. The 661 is a better tractor to actually use than an 8n or other 601 family members because it has a live lift, five speeds, a live PTO, and a three point hitch. Any tractor I will consider will have a three point hitch. This system, originally designed by Harry Ferguson, a partner of Henry Ford, uses two lift arms and a center stabilizing link to attach implements. The Ferguson System was used in a “hand shake” agreement on Fords until a falling out between the partners. Even though Ford lost a law suit regarding the system, they paid a large settlement to be able to continue use of three point hitches. Ferguson went on to build his own tractors with these hitches. Today, most tractors come with three point hitches.
Having owned a Zenoah 4×4 diesel tractor, I will look for a 661 with a diesel engine. Before I had the Zenoah, I would only have been interested in a gas engine. Zenoah is a Japanese co-op Kubota tractor built to the co-op’s specifications. I like the diesel engine for how it pulls and how hard it is to stall. The 661 diesel produces 34.24 horsepower at the PTO to drive a power attachment, such as a three point tiller or a brush cutting mower. It can pull just over four thousand pounds in first gear.
Another tractor I will consider is a Massey Ferguson 35 Deluxe Diesel, which started production just a few years after the 661. Massey Ferguson was the brand sold by the tractor shop I would go to as a boy. I can still remember sneaking up front to look at all the new tractors, but even then, my favorite was an old 35 Deluxe. The 35 Deluxe is one of the most popular Masseys, having replaced the FE 35. Looking very much like an 8n Ford, it was the first Massey to be painted in their well-known red and gray, referred to by many as Ferguson gray. The TO 35, TE 35, and FE 35 were all painted solid gray and were stronger versions of the TE 20, an 8n look-alike referred to by Henry Ford as the “Grey Menace.” The Deluxe has about 32 horsepower at the draw bar and 37 at the PTO. The PTO is live and can be controlled by a two stage clutch. Nearly four thousand pounds can be pulled by the draw bar in second gear. The tractor has six forward and two reverse gears via a three speed transmission with high and low range.
I have been a Ford, Lincoln, Mercury technician, so I like the Ford tractors, but memories always come back in Ferguson red and gray, and I admire a man who was honest enough to agree on an handshake but then fight for his rights when crossed and ambitious enough to go on and build a rival company that exists to this day. I grew up with these tractors and learned my mechanical skills on them. When I look at one, I can hear my granddaddy’s voice telling me how to do something or saying, “Let’s take a break and get a Mountain Dew.” I remember the tractor shop, the cattle auction beside it, and the grill we went to in the afternoon.
The more I think about it, even though a Ford is a good tractor, a Massey carries the greater burden of my memories and will be what I look to buy. The day I bring my “new” old tractor home, I will stop to buy a cheeseburger with lettuce, mustard, slaw and chili. I will sit on the trailer with a Mountain Dew, eating the sandwich and remembering the tractor shop and the grill where my granddaddy and I ordered cheeseburgers that way. Then I will unload it and start making memories with my grandson.