Buying Your First Tractor

Buying your first tractor should be a very enjoyable experience, but do your homework first.

The month of February brings us Valentine’s Day, and readers of Antique Power magazine will agree that the love-struck experience of buying your first antique tractor remains carved into the memory like a heart on a tree trunk, or in some cases, just a nasty scar. To ensure that a newbie’s initiation into the hobby is more heartwarming than heartbreaking, I asked several knowledgeable collectors to share their tips.

Doug Gantvoort has bought, sold, and restored so many tractors over the years that he’s sure he has been in the position of buyer at least 1,000 times. It was he who restored the 1959 Porsche-Diesel Master featured in the March/April issue of Antique Power with owner Steven Young.

Trust me this guy knows about vintage tractors!

“Experience is about the best teacher you can get,” Gantvoort told me. “It’s kind of hard for a newbie to come in and know everything he needs to know. There are a lot of things to consider.”

One question a newbie has to consider is whether to buy at an auction. Gantvoort thinks it can be a good way for a beginner to go. His reasoning is that if you’re bidding on something, but don’t know anything, and two or three other guys are bidding it higher, those guys might know a lot about the tractor being sold. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be bidding.

“If you overcome those bidders and end up with the item, you’re probably paying exactly what the item’s worth,” Gantvoort said, “because you’ve already recycled it through two or three people who have an idea of what it’s worth. You’re probably safer doing that at an auction than buying from someone one-on-one.”

Les Gitts, whose beautiful 1939 Allis-Chalmers Model B will be featured in Antique Power’s May/June 2015 issue, recommends first examining your intentions—figuring out what you want and why you want it. He likes early tractors for their steel wheels and styling, but your choice might be based on something entirely different, such as nostalgia for a model from your family’s past.

“I think the worst reason to buy would be because you think you’re going to restore it, sell it, and make a lot of money,” Gitts told me. “That probably won’t happen. Chances are, you’ll have more into it than it can possibly be worth.”

He suggests reading reference books about your favorite make before you go shopping. Educate yourself on serial numbers and years. Knowing how a certain tractor should look will alert you to modifications.

“Maybe it’s supposed to have a magneto, and they jerry-rigged some sort of a distributor on it,” Gitts said. “That’s big, because some of these things are difficult to find to make it correct. I’ve been restoring all my life, and nothing’s more discouraging than to be stuck on a part.”

“This is a picture of the exhaust manifold where water has gotten into the passages from number 2 and 3 cylinders,” Fred Moses said. “The water entered through the muffler.”

“This is a picture of the exhaust manifold where water has gotten into the passages from number 2 and 3 cylinders,” Fred Moses said. “The water entered through the muffler.”

Al Downs, who owns the 1945 B.F. Avery seen in the January/February 2014 issue of Antique Power, agrees.

“Research, research, research,” he advised. “Many books have been written about the various makes of antique tractors. There are also a number of books that have value guidelines. And dont forget the Internet.”

Set your priorities. Downs gave an example of an inexperienced buyer looking at a completed tractor built between the late 1930s and early 1940s, one needing only normal maintenance, one the buyer intends to drive and show. In that case, the first factor to consider would be tires, which can cost almost as much as the tractor itself—that is, if you can even find them. Echoing Downs’ advice, Gitts recommends looking at the size, then checking with a company such as M.E. Miller Tire to see if they have it, before you commit to buy the tractor.

“Nothing’s worse than bringing home something and finding out you can’t even get the rubber to replace what’s on there,” Gitts said.

One universal tip is to check the fluids. Obviously, pulling the dipstick and seeing dark oil means it’s past due for a change, but the dipstick can also indicate the presence of water where it doesn’t belong, as Downs explained.

“When you pull the dipstick, look real close for water in the crankcase or transmission or rear end,” he said. “Oil floats on water, which in our case, is at the bottom of the pan or housing. The fluid on the dipstick will show a line between water and oil.”

Downs also suggested getting a small can and a wrench, crawling under the tractor, and slightly cracking a drain plug. If water is present, it will drain out before the oil.

“The gear shift handle was broken off and welded back on without the spring that kept upward pressure on it,” Fred Moses said of his photo, “which caused a misalignment of the shift ball to the shift fork. Also, it allowed rain water to creep around the shift lever and into the transmission.”

“The gear shift handle was broken off and welded back on without the spring that kept upward pressure on it,” Fred Moses said of his photo, “which caused a misalignment of the shift ball to the shift fork. Also, it allowed rain water to creep around the shift lever and into the transmission.”

On this same point, Dave King, whose 1967 Case 830 LP appeared in Antique Power’s November/December 2014 issue, pointed out that milky-looking oil indicates water. If it’s in the transmission, it could be due to condensation from sitting through hot-and-cold temperature cycles, but if it’s in the engine, you might have a bad head gasket or cracked block or head.

King listed many cautions:

  • see if the engine is frozen or turns over
  • look for anything unusual or missing
  • check for welded castings
  • examine oil leaks, lights, sheet metal, gauges, and tires
  • pushing sideways on rear tires can tell you if a bearing is bad or needs adjustment
  • check the brakes, steering, pto, and three-point lift

Observe the smoke coming out of the stack. Intermittent exhaust coming out of the stack, he told me, indicates a burned valve. Listen for a knock deep in the crankcase. Noises, however, can be tricky to diagnose.

“If you hear a rhythmic bang, clunk, metallic sound that keeps pace with the engine rpm, then I would be concerned,” Downs told me. “Look at the oil pressure gauge. Low oil pressure could be from a wornout oil pump, but more often from too much clearance in the bearings.”

Gantvoort added, “If it’s not running, there’s a lot of stuff you just plain can’t see unless you take things apart and look internally.”

That’s what happened to Fred Moses. When he tore into both his John Deere 60 Standard and a Farmall Cub, he discovered many unseen problems, including a horribly corroded carburetor.

Rust seriously damaged this carburetor.  (Photo by Fred Moses)

Rust seriously damaged this carburetor. (Photo by Fred Moses)

“The fuel was left on, and the tank emptied out through the carburetor over a long period of time,” he said. “This turned out to be a $300 fix.”

He also shared photos of what water did to a manifold when it infiltrated the engine through the exhaust.

“The tractor had a flapper installed on the exhaust outlet, to prevent water from entering,” he went on. “But it leaked, due to misalignment. Oftentimes, a good old tin can [to block the exhaust pipe] is the best solution.”

When it comes to the electrical system, does the tractor have a magneto, a distributor, or a magneto with a generator to power work lights and headlights? Back in the early days, wiring wasn’t too durable. Frayed wiring needs to be replaced before it grounds out and damages the generator or regulator.

“With the tractor running, you can usually turn the lights on and disconnect the battery,” Downs said. “The generator should still light the lamps. The good thing is, all the electrical components can either be rebuilt or replaced with aftermarket parts and services.”

Gitts warned that if the wiring has a lot of black electrical tape all over the place, or if all the wires you see are the same color, those are both bad signs. It means someone went in there and replaced wire for some reason, and if they didn’t use the original colors, you won’t know what’s what.

If you can, find out if the tractor was painted with lacquer, enamel, acrylic enamel, or a polyurethane. With cheap paint, even mild cleaners could damage the shiny finish.

King said, “Don’t beat around the bush when going after a tractor you want. Some sellers will take a better offer if it comes along, even after you’ve committed to the purchase.”

He warned that some sellers simply dont have the knowledge to realize what may be wrong with the tractor, so they cant answer certain questions. On the other hand, even the most honest seller can just plain forget to mention a couple of small flaws.

After the search comes the business transaction. Most of the time, things go well, but even Gantvoort, an expert buyer, recalls a bad experience. He only uses the PayPal online payment system for eBay purchases now, but once paid $3,500 in advance for a tractor he saw on the site. Two months later, when he traveled to the seller’s location to bring it home, he was told that someone had already picked it up!

“I sued him, won in court, and am still waiting on my money from him,” he said. “Three years now. That is a lesson learned the hard way.”

Yet he points out that this was a rarity.

“In the tractor world, you’ve probably found the most honest people you’ll ever find. It’s very seldom you run into somebody trying to work you over.”

King ran into a problem when he handed someone the cash, only to have them later dispute the amount. It ended up costing him an extra $100 because he couldn’t prove what he knew he’d given, after counting it privately three times.

“Count the money out loud to the person, or watch him count it,” he recommends. “Don’t just hand him cash and walk away. Most tractor collectors and restorers aren’t the people you have to worry about. It’s the person whose heart is not concerned with history or preserving our heritage.”

In spite of these warnings, all of the men I spoke with believe in the inherent goodness and honesty of almost all tractor collectors, who are known to be kind, gracious, and helpful to newbies.

So, why not celebrate Valentine’s Day by taking a chance on tractor love? Remember—unlike a romance with another human being, if things don’t work out, you can always sell off the parts!

Fred Moses is currently working on this Cub.

Fred Moses is currently working on this Cub.

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