Antique Power magazine features all makes, models, and sizes of vintage tractors, including garden tractors. Newbies to the hobby of tractor collecting might want to consider these smaller relatives of full-sized farm equipment as fun and practical alternatives. Interest in collecting, restoring, showing, and even pulling vintage lawn and garden tractors continues to grow, yet they are still very affordable.
Phil Scott, newsletter editor and membership director of the Northwest Vintage Iron Club—EDGETA Branch 36, in Washington state, suggested this topic for The Newbie after recognizing how much interest members of his club and others have in these smaller tractors. He even sent me a list of good reasons for owning them.
- They don’t take up much space in a garage, storage shed, or in your backyard or patio. Excellent choice for the suburbanite with limited space and close neighbors.
- Relatively inexpensive to buy. (Note from The Newbie: My own quick check of prices on Ebay showed many available for under $500, some between $500–$1,000, and a few up to $2,000. However, some can go much higher, depending on rarity and condition.)
- Easy to work on and parts are readily available. If you don’t do it yourself, any good lawn and garden shop or small engine shop can do the mechanical work relatively inexpensively. No heavy tools or lifts are required to work on them.
- Anybody can do the cleaning and painting. Customizing, like flames on the hood, is encouraged!
- Kids love garden tractors, because their size is not intimidating.
- Many opportunities to participate in parades and other local festivities.
- Local garden tractor clubs or antique tractor clubs that welcome garden tractors are easy to find.
- Most can be transported in a small utility trailer or in the bed of a small pickup truck.
- They can be used to pull small wagons or people movers for the enjoyment of your own kids or grandkids or at summer festivals.
A new collector might start with a garden tractor before eventually collecting full-sized antique tractors. However, sticking with the small ones may be a perfectly valid collecting choice for life.
“Frankly, if we attracted people who were interested in garden tractors and that remained their hobby, that’s fine,” Scott said. “They can participate in everything our tractor club does, except our 30-mile drive. They can display.”
Owners of garden tractors even participate in tractor pulls. Northwest Vintage Iron Club owns a miniature sled that is virtually identical to conventional size. Plow days provide another opportunity for fun.
“Of the tractor clubs that have plow days, a lot of them welcome garden tractors, because they have little one-bottom plows, and they plow just like a real tractor,” Scott said. “They usually give them their own section of the field. We’re going to put out the word, that when we plow, we’re going to welcome garden tractors, members or not.”
In the decade after World War II, as suburbs developed, so did the market for lawn and garden tractors. People wanted something capable of not only mowing lawns but also cultivating vegetable gardens, hauling small wagons of firewood or yard debris, and doing other chores. By the late 1950s, manufacturers were beginning to offer the first choices in these types of compact and practical machines.
One of the most popular was (and is) the International Harvester Cub Cadet. While the Farmall Cub was a small tractor, it could not compete in price with the even smaller garden tractors appearing at the time. Wanting its share of the market, IH brought out the Cub Cadet in 1961. Its sturdiness, the availability of parts, simple construction, and ease of repair make it a perennially popular choice among collectors. Scott described it as a lawn tractor that was more tractor than lawn mower.
“They were beefier, a little heavier, and had better transmissions, and they had other little implements, like the plow and the rototiller,” he said. “So they would be used like a very small tractor more than just a lawnmower. They were sturdy little tractors. I think that’s what really got this started with serious collectors.”
The Cub Cadet’s competition came from around a dozen other companies. Simplicity Manufacturing Co. in Port Wisconsin, for example, introduced a riding lawnmower in 1959. Allis-Chalmers bought Simplicity in 1965 and owned it until 1983. Now collectors love these vintage Simplicity and Allis-Chalmers models. Among several other successful, now highly collectable, brands were Wheelhorse and Bantam.
“One of the most popular ones is the Craftsman Suburban,” said Scott’s fellow club member Duane Isackson. “People take that tractor and disguise it so it looks like John Deere or something else. There was one elderly couple that had two Suburbans, and the lady pulled until she was about 94 years old. Theirs were made to look exactly like a Minneapolis-Moline.”
Isackson owns full-sized tractors, but enjoys the small models, too, as do his grandsons. He owns, for example, a 1964 Wheel Horse Electro 12. He pointed out that garden tractors can sometimes be found for better than reasonable prices—like for free.
“A lot of people, when the mower part quits working, they almost give them away, but the running part is still in really good shape,” Isackson said. “Someone just gave me one.”
In addition to participation in tractor club activities, such as parades, shows, and pulls, garden tractors can be put to good use around home. When I asked Scott how “lawn tractors” differ from “garden tractors,” he had this to say:
“The basic distinction, without getting too technical, is that the ones that are considered garden tractors tend to be gear driven, and the rear wheels are attached like a car or tractor’s rear wheel, with lug nuts and bolts. It gives them more strength to pull something. The two look absolutely the same. You shift gears in the garden tractors, whereas my riding lawnmower was built to be a lawn mower. It has the drive where you just push the lever forward and backward to go faster or slower, and the wheels are attached by a simple little key thing.”
He said that pulling something heavy with a lawn tractor would cause that wheel pin to shear, but a little garden tractor of the same size could pull a plow. Other differences are weight, sturdiness, horsepower, transmission, and wheel size. In all these areas, garden tractors generally exceed lawn tractors, which are primarily designed for mowing.
“The other kind of neat thing about garden tractors is that most of them have mower decks,” Scott said. “So it’s not only a hobby and something to play with or parade, but put the mower deck on, and you can mow your yard or half acre or whatever. They are a hobby, but also useful.”
Combining work and play can be a good thing. If spending money on a “toy” is an issue in your household, pointing out the practical side certainly can’t hurt!