Restoring Vintage Tractors from Yesteryear
By MARIBETH URALRITH
In 1880, John Charter invented the first liquid fuel tractor and changed rural farming in America forever.
Although tractors were introduced to the American farmer at the turn of the twentieth century, they never really made a huge impact until the 1930s when farmers began replacing their horses with tractors. In the 1930s tractors in the United States average around 1,000 but by the mid 1970s, the total jumped up to an impressive five million. With so many tractors inundated into our farming culture, the likelihood of a restorer finding the perfect tractor to restore is a dream that can come true.
Today, vintage tractor restoration is an up and coming pastime many southern Ohio farmers and restoration enthusiast alike enjoy as a hobby and pastime. The reasons for taking on such a project vary — sometimes restorers see it as a challenge, some see it has a thrill of the hunt, and some see it as a great way to bring families closer together as a family project. Many restores see it as a way to teach themselves the basics of machines from long ago often realizing they have required skills they never knew they had when they completed their restoration, others may be retired farmers which put aside an old tractor they used years ago and want to restore it back to its formal glory, whatever the reason for dabbling is this hobby, those who have been bitten by the vintage restoration bug find it a passion and satisfying hobby that they have no intention to giving up – one that develops a pride in a project that challenges them to develop their skills and solve problems.
So, why restore an old tractor? Put a lover of anything mechanical in the seat of a machine and magic happens and this holds true for the vintage tractor restoration enthusiast. Antique or vintage tractors are like a time machine opening doors to the past – a door into history of how far the agricultural heritage of this country has come about. Restoration allows the restorer to travel back to a completely different day in farming.
Charlie Ledford, member of the Antique Power Club of Clinton County has a passion for vintage tractor restoration and has since 1967 when he restored his first tractor – a Allis Chalmers and has been doing it ever since. Ledford who lives in Clinton County has restored between 25 and 30 vintage tractors over the years. “It is more of a hobby with me,” comments Ledford. The nicest part to vintage tractor restoration is the satisfaction and connecting to the history of what farming was years ago in the United States — where we came from and how framing help not only with the agricultural heritage of the United States but how farming has help formed the historical identity of the United States and who we are today.”
Many restorers find the history of the tractor fascinating like Charlie Ledford, others like the challenge of the hunt like Marty Quigley also a member of the Antique Power Club of Clinton County. Quigley first started restoring vintage tractors in 1984 and has completed a total of 30 to 35 tractors since then. “I would say what I like best about restoring an old tractor is the finished product. To take something that is old, dirty and nasty and make a total transformation of it is very satisfying. The challenge of completing this type of project along with the hunt of finding a tractor to restore is what I like most.”
Quigley continues to farm but each winter tries to restore a tractor or two and offers advice to the novice restorer. “Like with anything, trial by error is how a person new to tractor restoration learns to become an expert. If you like doing something, you do it over and over again– it is the same with tractor restoration. The advice I would give to someone wanted to start vintage tractor restoration would be start with something small, and half way easy. Talk to people and get advice. I spent a week with a friend in his body shop and I learned so much in that one week. I always take pictures before I take anything apart also so that if I am working on a particular item that may take a few weeks, I can refer back to the photographs and make sure I am putting it back together correctly.
Doug Darkin, another member of the Antique Power Club of Clinton County also restores vintage tractors. As a farmer now, Darkin began his love for tractors and machinery when he worked in a body shop 30 years ago. “Restoring vintage tractors is a passion of mine and a stress reliever. I also have found that restoring vintage tractors is a good family project – with most restorations taking anywhere from 300 to 400 hours of work – restoration of a tractor can bring families closer together while sharing a bit of the family’s past. Many times farmers have granddad’s old tractor sitting in the barn collecting dust – restoring an old family tractor is a great way for families to come together and complete a project. Advice I would give to anyone thinking about starting a project like this is take every precaution for safety especially purchasing a good respirators. When it comes to painting and primers, they are toxic and you don’t what those sprays getting into your lungs.”
For novice restorers who are consideration beginning a project in restoring a vintage tractor, first you must ask yourself a few questions:
• Do I have the mechanical aptitude? – If you aren’t up to par in mechanics, find a friend you can study under for a few weeks of a body shop that will let you practice.
• Is the tractor worthy of restoration? Many restorers like the challenge of really broken down tractors
• Can I dedicate space for the restoration? The size of the tractor being restored will determine the size of the facility.
• Am I willing to invest in the money required? Vintage tractor restoration can become expensive. “Nowadays,” comments Marty Quigley, “vintage tractor restoration has become very expensive, parts are high and so is paint, many times you’re not making very much off of it.”
• Can I invest in the time required? “Working on a restoration can easily take between 300 and 400 hours,” comments Doug Darkin, “ and depends on how nice you want your restoration to look.”
• Do I want to buy reproduction parts of salvage yard parts? Original parts are best because they will fit perfectly
• Can I obtain the correct manuals? Marty Quigley advises to make sure you can get a copy of the tractor’s manual. “A manual will tell you how to put every nut and bolt back into the tractor and are very helpful with the restoration process.”
• Do I have the necessary tools? “Tools for restoration are very expensive,” comments Doug Darkin, “sometimes the tools could cost thousands of dollars, however, many times you can find a body shop who will do the sheet metal prep – to remove the dents and imperfections out of the sheet metal for anywhere around $300 to $400 which may be the best answer if you are lacking the correct tools.”
• What paint should I use? Paint can run from $30 to $40 a gallon from farm supply stores which may lack UV protection and will crack and fade. Some automotive paints can run up to $400 a gallon. Do some research before you decide to tackle a restoration project.
• Can I find a mentor? Joining the Antique Power Club of Clinton County is a place to start or other Antique Restoration clubs will help guide you through your restoration. They can be a resourceful and helpful resource and help you deal with problems you may come across during your restoration.
The allure of this satisfying hobby for some is undeniable but be sure to keep in mind vintage tractor restoration is more than a one weekend commitment. Taking your time will not only produce a higher quality restoration, but also provide you with many hours of satisfaction.
(Maribeth Ulalrith is a contributor to ACRES of Southwest Ohio.)