How to Winterize Your Antique Tractor

The slogan for Antique Power magazine is “Keeping History Alive.” Because we love antique tractors, we want to see them last as long as possible. For that reason, this post offers some specific tips on keeping your piece of history alive, by properly preparing it for winter. I asked Washington collector and restorer Matt Montague for some advice.

Here’s what you need to know about putting your tractor to bed for the winter:

Fuel systems

If you don’t plan to use your tractor all winter, Montague recommends completely draining the fuel system (in tractors with gas engines). He turns the fuel off at the sediment bowl or the tank valve and then runs the carburetor out of fuel. Then, after pushing the tractor back into his shop, he places a can under the carburetor so anything left can drain out of the carburetor too.

Photo provided by Candace Brown.

Photo provided by Candace Brown.

“Today’s modern fuels have a tendency to collect moisture,” he said. “They gum up fast. If you take a few minutes and drain the fuel out of the fuel system, it just makes life so much easier when you go to start the tractor again.”

What if you plan to use a gas tractor very occasionally during the winter? An example might be a Christmas parade.

Montague told me, “I believe that if your last show of the year is in August or September, and you’re not going to do anything with it until a week before Christmas, you ought to drain the fuel out and put in fresh fuel.”

Completely draining the fuel system and carburetor of a gas tractor will prevent a lot of problems.

Completely draining the fuel system and carburetor of a gas tractor will prevent a lot of problems.

Diesels are the exception to this advice. Don’t drain the fuel from a diesel tractor or run it until it runs out of fuel. (You can also add a special conditioner so the fuel won’t gel in the cold.) Draining it can create an air lock by letting air into the fuel pump or fuel lines. Condensation is another problem.

“In a diesel system, it’s best to keep the fuel tank topped off so there’s very little or no air space,” Montague said. “Then, you don’t have condensation being created in that air space, due to temperature.”

Cooling systems

“My belief is that if the cooling system can hold coolant, meaning anti-freeze, where it doesn’t leak, that’s the best way to do a long-term protection of the cooling system,” Montague said. “If it leaks, you have to make sure the water is drained regularly so scale and rust don’t build up. It will happen on the cast iron pretty rapidly with unprotected water.”

Montage leaves the plugs out and the radiator cap a little askew to allow some air flow to facilitate thorough draining. He also recommends running water through it from a garden hose, to loosen and remove any rust or dirt. Then, in a radiator that doesn’t leak, you can put the plug back in and fill it up to the operating level. Be sure the type of anti-freeze you use is adequate for your climate.

Engine Oil

Love your antique tractor? Give it an oil change. Instead of an oil filter, many old tractors have only a screen, or nothing at all. An oil change keeps sludge out of the engine and protects in other ways.

“Even if you only have six or eight hours a season on it, the acids from combustion go into the oils,” Montague said. “Those acids attack the soft metals, like on bearings. Changing it before you store it is ideal, because then you wouldn’t have contaminated oil in there all winter. And you can get moisture in your oil, just like you can in your fuel.”

Another of Montague’s tips for newbies: “If you have an oil leak, a leaking gasket, address it before it gets terrible!”

Batteries

Cold weather is terribly hard on a battery, especially if it’s already low on voltage. You can remove it, but finding a good place to store a battery can be a challenge. For safety reasons, you can’t bring it in the house, but an unheated building can be too cold.

“If you keep it someplace where it’s relatively warm and keep a trickle charger on it, the battery is going to last longer and save the collector money in the long run,” Montague said. “And keep the top of the battery clean.”

Tires

Some people put their rubber wheeled tractors up on blocks for the winter. Montague, however, thinks the most important thing is to keep the tires well inflated to prevent checking, cracking, and degradation.

“Tire pressure can vary due to temperature,” he said. “If it’s colder, the pressure will go down, hotter, it will go up. So checking your air pressure is going to help the life of the tire.”

Sheet metal and seats

Montague stores his tractors in a building and covers them with clean bed sheets. The sheets allow air circulation while providing a dust shield. He shared a detailing tip “car guys” use to deter oxidation: Try Pledge® Lemon Clean Furniture Spray polish.

“You can spray it on the paint and wipe it off with a soft towel and it kind of gives it a little wax job,” he said. “Tractors can be a pain in the neck to wax and polish. Some guys spray WD-40 right on the paint. I don’t do that, but a couple of my friends do.”

The rubber waterproofing around the base of this gear shift lever was intended to prevent water from getting into the transmission and gear train, but it is cracked and deteriorating. Some tractors have a factory rubber seal under the shift pattern, which can also fail.

The rubber waterproofing around the base of this gear shift lever was intended to prevent water from getting into the transmission and gear train, but it is cracked and deteriorating. Some tractors have a factory rubber seal under the shift pattern, which can also fail.

The perils of rain, rodents, and tarps

The most basic and obvious way to protect your antique tractor is to store it in a building or at least under cover. If, to you, “under cover” means a big blue tarp, be aware of possible problems. Unless you provide a way to let air circulate, the tarp will sweat. If too loose, it will move when the wind blows, and that abrasion can damage your paint.

Indoors or out — cover the exhaust and air intake!

Putting a soup can or coffee can on the exhaust (whatever fits), will keep the critters out. You need to protect the air intake too. Even if you use an air cleaner, the rubber hose between it and the carburetor might have been removed for some reason and never replaced. Mice can crawl into very small holes and do terrible damage.

“It’s amazing where we’ve found the carcasses,” Montague said. “They can tear through an electrical system. They can tear through a cooling system. They can ruin an engine in no time at all by crawling inside and peeing all over it.”

Tractor restorer Fred Moses, also of Washington state, set up this illustration of how to use a can to keep water and rodents out of your exhaust. This John Deere Model H will be his winter project.

Tractor restorer Fred Moses, also of Washington state, set up this illustration of how to use a can to keep water and rodents out of your exhaust. This John Deere Model H will be his winter project.

Having a bunch of wiggly mice moving around inside a vintage tractor is not what we at Antique Power mean by “keeping history alive.” The best way to witness living history is to keep these wonderful machines running by protecting them. Be wise and winterize!

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Candace Brown

Candace covers the Pacific Northwest and West Coast for Antique Power as well as our sister magazines, Vintage Truck and Vintage Fire Truck & Equipment. She also contributes a monthly blog, The Newbie, to this website.