Old Farm Trucks

Old farm trucks are one collector’s best-kept secret
By Clell Ballard
October 2012
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The old farmer hand-cranking his ancient John Deere so the truck retrieval could take place. 
Photo Courtesy Clell Ballard
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In today’s world, old trucks have a different status than old cars. The term “truck” in this instance refers to large vehicles built to haul heavy loads. Even though people commonly regard everything from small SUVs to huge over-the-road semis as trucks, originally cars hauled passengers and trucks hauled loads.

The most common truck today — the pickup — primarily hauls people rather than loads. The “real” trucks of earlier times had a small cab (if they had a driver enclosure of any kind) and a large rear platform or box that held cargo. When pneumatic tires became common in the late 1920s, real trucks almost always had dual rear wheels.

Frustrated as they watched older used cars siphon away sales, car manufacturers in the late 1920s lobbied unsuccessfully for passage of a law requiring vehicles older than a certain age to be scrapped. As a result, used cars of every vintage remain widely available at affordable prices. Old trucks, however, never figured into that equation.

Since they were large, slow, accommodated few passengers and “drove and rode like a truck,” most veteran trucks — those that were not completely worn out by extremely rigorous use — had no value and were scrapped. Old farm trucks occasionally escaped that fate but were abandoned nonetheless. Today a person sometimes finds one of those survivors. If he is fortunate, his “find” turns out to be a noteworthy vehicle. That happened to me.

Meet a used ’35 Chevy

An uncle of mine farmed during the Great Depression and continued through World War II and into the next decade. By 1937 he was able to buy a used 1935 Chevrolet 1-1/2-ton truck. For almost 20 years, that truck transported all the grain from his large dryland Idaho farm to storage facilities 10 miles away. The truck was also used to haul loose hay and other items. When a new truck was purchased in the early 1950s, the old Chevrolet had no value so it was just parked far out in the machinery lot.

Although the old farm truck sat outside all its life, our dry climate and my uncle’s careful maintenance meant that it was still in pretty darned good shape when I learned of the truck as a young man. My uncle had retired several years earlier and was getting rid of his equipment. Knowing of my interest in old vehicles, he gave me the Chevy.

As photos accompanying this article show, the truck was pulled out of the weeds by a John Deere Model BR tractor of the same approximate vintage. A note of interest: After getting the truck into the yard, one of the 2-cylinder tractor’s spark plugs was removed and a special fitting installed. The tractor was started again, and as it idled a hose attached to the fitting was used to inflate the truck tires. I was amazed that the engine sounded just the same with the second spark plug out as it did when it was hooked up. I was told that if the correct plug was removed, the John Deere engine worked extremely well as an air compressor.

Plenty of life left

Although clearly very old, the 1935 Chevy was not worn out. The odometer showed more than 38,000 miles and since the speedometer/odometer still worked, that mileage was obviously correct. The engine ran well and everything essential worked, including mechanical brakes. (Although marginal in relation to hydraulic brakes, old vehicles with mechanical brakes always have some braking capability whereas even a small problem with hydraulic brakes renders them completely inoperable.)

The only real issue was the cab’s sagging wooden framework. During two decades of regular use, the truck’s doors were removed during grain harvest and winter wheat seeding in the fall. Although all of the cab’s wood was sound, use without doors in rough fields and on rough roads had caused the glue holding the various pieces together to loosen.

Because of the sagging, it was almost impossible to shut the doors. In all the years I owned the old farm truck, the only significant repair I made was installation of a turnbuckle on each side between the top of the cowl/firewall under the hood to a point on the frame up near the front of the engine. That made it possible to carefully pull the cab straight so the doors fit properly.

Reused as a daily driver

Not many young people have a really old big truck as their “wheels,” but I did. The Chevy was often driven like a car for general transportation in our rural area. Mostly, however, it was utilized as it originally had been. In the summer I worked on another uncle’s ranch and the old Chevy was pressed into service hauling hay bales to the stack, acting as a service truck during grain harvest and hauling seed wheat for fall planting. Its only limitation was nearly bald tires. One had to be careful not to load it too heavily. The tires didn’t look very impressive but none of them ever gave out.

The truck’s sheet metal was basically perfect so some of my summer’s wages were spent on paint that my brother, who had experience painting automobiles, sprayed on it. Diamond T green, as close to the original color as I could obtain, covered the main body. The fenders and wheels were painted black and the grill was painted white like it was when it came from the factory. Although really old, the truck was beautiful, at least in my eyes.

The moral of this story is that anyone interested in old trucks should consider old farm trucks. Whereas trucks used in commercial enterprises are usually “used up” on the job, farm trucks are most often used seasonally. When properly maintained, they are in decent shape when retired. The real finds are those that were shedded (or stored inside). Within the last few years, this author has seen a nice 1940 International K series and an equally nice 1947 KB series truck sold for reasonable sums at farm auctions. Even nicer were a 1942 Chevrolet 1-1/2-ton with a chrome grill and 1953 Chevrolet 1-ton that had been stored inside all their lives. Although each had done service on a grain ranch, they were in “almost new” condition.

Although I eventually had to sell my great 1935 Chevy truck, the good news is it went to an individual whose goal was to restore it. Who knows? Maybe it is still impressing people like it did me many years ago. FC 

A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school. For more than 50 years he’s worked on his uncle’s hay and grain ranch during the summer. Currently they swath, rake and big bale 1,000 acres of dryland hay each summer. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.


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