Barn Finds: The ins and outs of collectible tractors

Three years ago, the Wall Street Journal featured a story about old tractors as good investments. All I could think was: What took ’em so long to figure that out? In the last two decades, a number of antique tractors have joined the $100,000 club at auction

Locomotives without tracks

Initially, big-dollar tractors were hard-core antiques: crude, barely functional motive power. In the words of a friend of mine who owns one, “The guys who came up with them must have REALLY hated horses.” 

Included in this group are steam traction engines, which are as big as locomotives and require an Operating Engineer’s License to drive in several states. Considering that steam tractors operate at pressures in the range of 125-300 PSI, licensing and inspections are necessary. A disastrous explosion a few years ago outside an Ohio threshing show underscores that point.

Part of the expense of steam traction engines is that they are labor-intensive to operate and maintain. A rusty magneto on a gasoline tractor is inconvenient; a sticky pressure-relief valve on a boiler is a disaster waiting to happen. The best parallel in our world of collector cars is buying a race car. The cheapest thing you do is buy it. So the ownership profile of the typical tractor owner has transitioned from the farmer who has Grandpa Emil’s 24 HP Nichols & Sheppard in the shed and stokes it up once a year for the threshing show, to historical agricultural associations and affluent collectors.  

While older distillate fuel (kerosene) internal combustion tractors – such as Rumley Oil Pull, Avery, Waterloo Boy (the precursor to John Deere) and International Harvester Titan – have been moving up the price chain, basic factors have increased the cost of ownership.

How do you move them around?

Most significant is the problem of transportation. Most of these behemoths weigh more than 26,000 pounds, so transporting one requires a heavy-duty truck and trailer, and a driver possessing a Commercial Driver’s License. Even with lighter tractors, you still need a one-ton pickup truck – generally diesel-powered – and a serious trailer. This might be under the 26,000-pound CDL limit, but most states require all trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds (some states as low as 8,000 pounds), or all pickup trucks towing a  trailer to pull into weigh stations and meet DOT safety inspections for equipment, operation and load security. DOT also requires any interstate traveling trucks over 10,000 pounds to comply. All of this costs money. Plus $4-plus per gallon diesel doesn’t help, either. In short, you have to pay to play. You might figure out a way to call it a business or farming expense, but you still have to pay. 

However, the greatest reason for the increased interest in collecting tractors revolves around collectors who want to be “gentrified” farmers. These can be folks who didn’t grow up in a rural environment but yearn for a simpler time and have some small acreage in the X-burbs where they can build a large garage for their toys. Not only is this applicable in the U.S., but also internationally, especially in England, Australia, New Zeeland, Scandinavia and Canada. All of these countries have stronger currencies, so shopping for large toys like this in the U.S. is much more attractive. 

If it fits in your garage, it’s worth more

While all vintage tractors are popular, a general rule among tractors built since 1930 is that if it fits in your garage, it’s worth more than one that doesn’t. For example, a wannabe farmer in suburbia can fit a John Deere model LA into a corner of his garage, unlike a model R – let alone a Case steam traction engine. The more folks who have room for a tractor, the greater the demand. Lawn and garden utility also applies – sort of: “But Honey, I can haul rocks out of the garden with it.” Plus there’s a cute factor: “Sure I’ll let you keep it – it looks cute.”

What’s hot in the collectible tractor market

John Deere: The old saying, “If it’s painted green, it’s worth green,” definitely rings true. Green Machines include almost everything from the two-cylinder era (1923 through 1959), with the first-generation tractors styled by Henry Dreyfus from 1936 leading the pack. It helps that the modern Deere and Company is one of the few U.S. corporations that is acquiring rather than being acquired. It’s deeply ingrained in agriculture and actively supports the hobby. You can still walk into a John Deere dealer and buy an engine gasket set for a 1932 model A. Even the Model D, Lindeman-fabricated crawler conversions, L, LA, 62 (the precursor to the model L & LA’s), H, and M (plus MT & MC variants) will fit in a standard garage, so they are more popular than the larger and more plentiful model A and B. John Deere has a very strong club, though they tend to think Waterloo, Iowa, and Moline, Ill., are the centers of the universe.

International Harvester: Unlike Deere and Company, International Harvester is out of the agriculture business and, as Navistar, it manufactures International trucks and diesel engines. The familiar IH man-on-tractor logo was sold off with the agricultural line to Tenneco in the mid-1980s, and is now part of the CNH equipment conglomerate.  However, in its day – from 1930 to 1980 – IH was the big dog in the industry, with a dealership network that extended far and wide in the U.S. and overseas. Not only could Farmer Jones buy a new Farmall Super H at his local IH dealer, but he could haul it home in the back of a new International truck, along with a new IH refrigerator for the wife. Thanks to this past exposure, IH enjoys current popularity. Hot collectible models are the smaller A, B, C, Cub, and 140; although the larger H and M – the tractors that everyone whose dad/grandpa/uncle farmed once had – are seeing some significant increases in values. In addition, early 1950s demonstrator models – which were painted white – are very desirable. IH also has strong club support; not as intense as the Greenies, but spread nationally and internationally (no pun intended).

Ford Motor Company: If it’s true that the smaller the tractor, the more it’s worth, here are some valuable examples. Ford made compact utility tractors popular with the 9N of 1939. Excellent styling mimicked Ford cars and trucks of the time and helped their popularity. Subsequent revisions of the 9N – the models 8N and 2N – fit the same mold of being powerful for their size and having handy implements, thanks to Henry Ferguson’s design for a multi-point hitch. When the two Henrys became unhitched in their partnership, the Ferguson 30 followed in the same mold – to the point of looking almost identical.

Massey-Harris (eventually teaming up with Henry Ferguson to create Massey-Ferguson) saw the need for a “chore tractor” on farms after World War II. Dad might be out planting with the Massey 44, but Junior needed to pull the hay wagon out to the pasture before milking. So they introduced the Pony in 1947. Lasting for a decade, the Pony is also one of the first tractors that started to tap into a more urban and suburban market – the lawn and garden tractor of the 1960s.

Allis Chalmers: Finally, the one tractor that went to diminutive extremes for a specific task was the 1948-1955 Allis Chalmers model G. Looking like a baby road grader with the engine in the rear, it was designed to be the ultimate tractor for cultivating row crops because the operator had a nearly unobstructed view of the ground. While the increased use of agri-chemicals may have made the G redundant, to this day it has a cult following among nurseries as well as collectors. It also helps that a G is so compact that it fits into a standard 8-ft pickup and also into the back of a Chevy/GMC Suburban.

But I Thought They Only Made Cars: While most folks have heard of Ford (and earlier Fordson) tractors, few realize that Porsche licensed a line of air-cooled diesel tractors of their design from 1956 to 1963 – Junior, Standard, Super and Master – with one through four cylinders, respectively. In the late 1930s, Graham Bros. was on the ropes financially and produced the Graham-Bradley farm tractor in its automobile plant until it finally sold the equipment to Datsun. It even invented and held the trademark for Roto Tiller. And if Enzo Ferrari had customer service skills, fellow Italian Industrialist Ferruccio Lamborghini would be famous only for his tractors and vineyard.  If you have a vintage Ford, Porsche, Graham or Lamborghini, you could own a tractor of the same marque.

Muscle Tractors: During the 1960s, when American muscle cars were in their prime, the farm tractor industry had its own horsepower race. As post-war farms grew larger, the need for higher-horsepower tractors – both perceived and actual – increased. John Deere abandoned the two-cylinder platform in 1960 because it had reached the physical limits of higher horsepower while maintaining a manageable size. The New Generation of Power was born in 1960 and within four years the 4020 was the hot ticket at the local Deere dealer. It’s still in regular use today and has also become collectible. IH, on the other hand, had teething problems with the early 60-Series tractors in the late 1950s, from which it never fully recovered. Other popular high-horsepower tractors include the Allis-Chalmers D21, IH 1206 & 1266 models, Oliver 950 & 1900, plus the Minneapolis-Moline G1000 series.

Freaks of Nature – High-clearance and Orchard models: With thousands of more mundane models, it’s only natural that oddball, low-production variants are collectible. High-crops were set up with taller tires and suspensions for tending to tall crops like sugar cane, while Orchard tractors had full sheet-metal enclosures over the engine and wheels to protect moving components from getting tangled in tree branches or vines. While High-crops fall into the near-unique status (think one-of-one 1970 Plymouth Hemi ’Cudas, pink with a four-speed AND a tissue dispenser), most Orchard tractors also look sleeker, with almost aerodynamic styling. They look good and they are rare – hard to go wrong. And yes, there is an Orchard-model Porsche – one of the most collectible tractors on the planet.

Barely Moving Steel Mountains – 1900-1920s large-acreage distillate-fueled: These violate the rule that smaller tractors are worth more. But they are hardcore antiques with unique, functional styling. There’s also a certain appeal in this WiFi enabled, iPod-equipped world, that a huge chunk of functional cast iron and tin made a century ago can still pull a 10-bottom plow. The scrap drives of World War II were especially hard on these, so “barn finds” are rare. Marques with leading interest today include Rumley Oil Pull, Avery, Twin City, and Altman & Taylor. 

Steam Locomotives Without Tracks: Just like Brass-era steam cars, agricultural steam traction engines dumbfound younger generations who can’t imagine an era before unleaded gasoline. The ultimate in functional antiques, they are also the province of only the most mechanically inclined and financially secure. Most states require a boiler license to operate them − so the quaint hobbyist is pretty much out of the picture. Steam threshing associations make up the majority of the owner-operators. Big boys with big wallets and big toys to move them are also involved, but mostly on the collecting side, as static investments. Ubiquitous Case is perhaps the most famous and prodigious manufacturer, but there was a myriad of smaller companies – such as the aforementioned Nichols & Sheppard – that were in the steam traction business in the early years of the last century.


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