Simple Pleasures: Tractor Collections

Old iron and tractor collections bring happiness and therapeutic benefits to collectors from different walks of life.

Robert Godfrey

Hobbies can be extremely therapeutic. Shown here is accountant Robert Godfrey, competing at a ploughing match on one of his Ferguson tractors. Robert says he loves to be able to do something completely different from his work on weekends.

Photo by Josephine Roberts

Content Tools

I’ve written articles about other people’s tractor collections for some 15 years now, and it’s fair to say that I’ve met all sorts of characters during that time. Some people have been extremely laid back, whilst others are fiercely competitive. Some are fastidiously tidy and conscientious, whilst some people I’ve met have been the messiest souls imaginable, with chaotic sheds piled high with trash and treasures, and tools all over the floor.

I’ve met extremely wealthy collectors who house their tractors and artifacts in outbuildings far grander than the house I live in. At the other end of the scale are the people without two pennies to rub together, people who have scrimped and saved to buy themselves an old wreck of a tractor and who have restored it gradually, by themselves, recycling materials and making do and mending to keep costs down.

One thing I’ve noticed it is that the person who owns a £300 (about $450) Ferguson tractor usually seems to have just as much fun with it as the person who owns a real rarity that cost five figures. My young nephew, Gareth, bought an old Ferguson tractor with a mixture of savings and birthday and Christmas money, and he has since had many happy hours tinkering with the tractor and learning about how the machine is put together. Being able to use his own tractor to help his family out on the land has been a huge source of pride too.

I really love the fact that there is room for people of all ages and income levels in this hobby of ours, and all are equally important. To me, the person who is willing to restore a £30 ($45) seed drill made by a long-forgotten company is just as crucial to the preservation of our heritage as the person willing to shell out £35,000 ($53,000) at auction for a rare vintage tractor.

Hobbies and happiness

Last week I spoke to Paul Jones, who was featured in the September 2014 issue of Farm Collector, along with his collection of vintage farm implements. Paul has a passion for farm implements, in particular horse-drawn seed drills. Recently he bought a few more artifacts to add to his collection, including a seed drill built by the Welsh firm John Williams & Son of Rhuddlan. There are many long-since defunct but still very well-known British firms who produced horse-drawn implements and barn machines, but Paul is most interested in the firms that operated in this part of Wales, the treasures that are right under our feet, yet so often overlooked.

Paul gains huge satisfaction from the simple pleasure of taking a rusty old implement, and with just elbow grease and patience, resurrecting the sorry old relic, so that it is almost as good as new. Just knowing that, with a little bit of effort, one has preserved an artifact for perhaps another 50 years is a great feeling in itself. Even when restored, many of these old implements aren’t worth a great deal of money, but I like to think that the best of us in this hobby do it for love, and not for money.

Talking of money, studies suggest that extra wealth doesn’t actually make a huge difference to our happiness levels. Once we have enough to comfortably house and feed ourselves, having more money, even a lot more money, doesn’t make us significantly happier. To enjoy happiness, it seems that we must find some way of enhancing our own sense of well-being. It is important to have a sense of purpose in your life, enjoy good friendships and have an interest, a job or pastime that engages your mind and gives you pleasure.

That interest, hobby or pastime will also help keep you young and healthy. We all know that people who have no interest in anything are extremely dull company, and we also know that being actively engaged in projects helps keep us fit and active, both physically and mentally. I know of many people well into their 80s and 90s who are extremely active in the vintage tractor movement, and who regularly plough fields, repair engines and chew the fat along with the younger folk who share a common interest.

I know an elderly gentleman who makes bridles and harness for heavy horses. He’s in his 90s, and I’m sure he probably doesn’t need to work, but work he does, for the love of it though, and not for the money. I called to see him one evening, and there he was sitting at his kitchen table with all of his leatherwork laid out before him. “I do a bit every evening,” he told me. “It’s better than watching rubbish on the television.” How true. I was told he would be able to make up a piece for a donkey bridle for me, which he did, there and then. “I’m never lonely,” he smiled as he punched some holes in the leather, “because there are always people like yourself dropping in.”

One should never underestimate the therapeutic benefits of engaging one’s mind in a favourite hobby. Hours pass without a negative thought or worry entering our heads, and at the end of the day there is a sense of achievement, of knowing that time wasn’t wasted, and of having gotten a little closer towards a personal goal.

Therapeutic benefits

Another gentleman I know owns two tractors and gains an enormous amount of pleasure from of them. John Davies, a farmer’s son, spent most of his life working as an agricultural contractor. When he fell ill with cancer a few years ago, he underwent chemotherapy. He was unable to work for some time, but not being one to cope well with sitting around doing nothing, John felt that he needed a project to cheer him up and to give him something to think about apart from cancer.

Engaging oneself in a project is a positive way to boost morale when dealing with a life-threatening illness, so with that in mind John and his eldest son, Gwyn, headed off to a nearby auction for a bit of “retail therapy.” John and Gwyn were keen to bid on a Massey Ferguson 35X, as they knew it was a tractor that had spent its life in their area of Wales. They were successful with their bid and the pair happily took their new tractor home. The registration plate of the tractor is “5807 UN.” UN designates a Denbighshire plate, but as it happens, it is also Welsh for “one,” which is also significant in that this was John’s first collectible tractor.

As soon as John and Gwyn brought the 35X back to John’s yard, they embarked on the restoration project. Days of relentless preparation – in the form of stripping the tractor down, cleaning and sanding – took place. John decided he wanted to finish the tractor in time to take it on the Flintshire Vintage & Classic Tractor Society Road Run. It was a real goal to aim for, and something positive to look forward to. There was a lot of elbow grease involved in the restoration, plenty of fiddly work and a bit of shopping around for replacement parts, all of which proved to be no small achievement for someone who was going through chemotherapy and frequently suffered from bouts of sickness.

However, the fact that John had something to focus on and look forward to, something other than cancer and hospital appointments, really helped the dark days fly by. “It was immensely therapeutic for me,” he says, “and above all, it took my mind off what I was going through, and stopped me brooding.” John managed to get the tractor finished, and attended the Road Run with his new gleaming tractor, much to the pride of his family.

John went on to beat cancer, but he will never forget how it felt to have that question mark hanging over his life. Today he is grateful not only for the support of his family, but also for an old tractor that gave him something to focus on for a while. The 35X also launched a new hobby for him. John went on to buy a second tractor, a 1947 David Brown Cropmaster, with which he began to plough competitively.

As an agricultural contractor, John has ploughed thousands of acres of land over the years. But he had never ploughed competitively. “There are a few of us older lads who have just taken up the hobby,” he says. John is also proud to be a member of two local vintage tractor clubs. He says that tractor clubs are like a lifeline to people who wish to embark on a new hobby. They offer support and friendship to many people who are elderly or who live alone and they also help raise a huge amount of money for charity.

A refreshing change

My brother Pete has always claimed that ploughing on a vintage tractor is good for the soul. Sometimes on days off from his job working on the highways for the local authority, Pete will go and plough a field. He has found that some large contractors don’t wish to bother ploughing small parcels, and he is more than happy to fill the gap in the market. He claims that he enters an almost trance-like state as he completes furrow after furrow, and that it is impossible to be stressed or in a bad mood whilst ploughing. Eating your lunch leaning up against a tree beside your favourite tractor makes for the best picnic ever, and at the close of the day, being able to stand and survey the neatly folded brown furrow gives one a real sense of pride. “Good honest work, that’s what it is,” he says.

Sometimes a change really is as good as a rest, and for people who live and work in towns and offices, the opportunity to get away from the desk and do something completely different is therapy in itself. Whilst many people involved in the vintage tractor hobby come from farming backgrounds, some enjoy the hobby because it is so utterly different from what they do in their day-to-day lives.

Consider accountant-turned-competitive ploughman Robert Godfrey, who spends every available piece of spare time ploughing on his Ferguson tractor. “I’m always pleased to get out of my suit, away from the desk and behind the wheel of the tractor,” he says. When he started “messing around with tractors” in the 1970s, he says, he was unusual. Nearly all the other enthusiasts were from the agricultural community. “I really was the oddball in those days,” he says with a laugh. “A chartered accountant in the middle of all the farmers!”

Robert has found that tractor and ploughing enthusiasts are an extremely friendly and utterly genuine bunch of people, “the nicest people you could hope to meet.” Part of what’s wonderful about competitive ploughmen, he says, is that they participate simply for the love of their machines and for the appreciation of the art of ploughing, not for any financial gain, and not for any recognition.

If you are someone who can gain simple pleasure from tinkering with an old implement or machine, then you probably have your life sorted. You’re the kind of person who never gets bored, and whilst you’re busy engaging your mind and body with a fascinating, yet surprisingly affordable hobby, you’ll also be helping to preserve our rural artifacts for future generations. And that’s a win-win situation.  FC


Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at pheenie@talktalk.net.