True Colors of Vintage Iron

Rainbow of Fordsons revives debate over vintage iron restoration options.


Left: A war-time Fordson from England, showing the green color adopted to thwart bomb attacks.

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Recently, this magazine and others have featured "one lung" gasoline engines painted in bright, non-original colors. Some traditional collectors take exception to this practice. There are, in fact, three schools of thought on engine and tractor restoration:

1. Leave the piece in the condition found, if it's at least in decent condition. (Sometimes, a bit of "oil wiping" will bring out the color of original decals on an engine.)

2. If there's a lot of rust, sandblast the piece, and repaint in the original color. (Original color information is fairly easy to obtain, even for pieces produced by obsolete manufacturers.)

3. Paint it as you please. After all, the engine or tractor is yours, and you can rightfully paint it any color you want.

While the original paint colors of many stationary engines can only be guessed at, tractor color schemes were more standard. Probably the best known is the John Deere green and yellow. From the 1920s to the 1950s, while driving along a country road and seeing a farmer busy plowing, you could determine the make of tractor by color alone. Sometimes, though, companies switched colors in the middle of a production run. A good example is the early McCormick-Deering International, which changed abruptly from a dark blue-gray with red wheels to the now well-known "International Red."

Henry Ford's 9N was painted a light "battleship gray" from 1939 until 1948, when Ford's grandson, Henry Ford II, came out with the Ford 8N painted in what now is referred to as a "red belly" and a lighter gray hood, fenders and wheels. Since cast iron tends to rust more quickly than sheet metal, Ford's designers decided to paint the body red. That way, when the paint wore down to the red primer, it wouldn't be as noticeable. Later, Ford changed to a blue-and-gray scheme.

The precise shade of the earlier Fordson gray has always been a matter of conjecture. Ford apparently shopped around to get the best buy on paint. As supplies of paint from varying sources were used, varying shades of gray resulted. The red wheels of that era, however, seemed to stay the same.

When the machinery was shipped to Cork, Ireland, to build the Irish models, some reports suggest that the first Fords produced there had gray bodies with black wheels. The response was apparently negative, and the decision was made to revert to red wheels. But when the English Ford N came out of the plant at Dagenham, England, in 1932, a new scheme was unveiled: dark blue body with orange wheels.

That color scheme continued until 1938, when the decision was made to paint the tractors (body and wheels) yellow-orange. During the early years of World War II, however, the bright-color Fordsons were easy targets for German bombers. The decision was quickly made to paint all British Fordsons (new and old) green. The camouflage worked: The tractors blended in with the countryside and further tractor losses were minimized.

After hostilities ceased, Fordson returned briefly to the pre-war scheme of blue body and orange wheels, until 1953, when the Fordson Major Diesels were introduced. On that model, the body was light blue and the wheels were light orange. Finally, until the end of Fordson production, the wheels became the light gray of the Ford tractors of the same years. Actually, the Fordson Super Major of 1964 was the same color as the Ford 5000.

Today, collectible Fordsons are subject to the whims of their owners. Some, collected by purists, are shown in their correct colors. Other collectors, less bound by convention, adopt different palettes. Either way, one has to admit that these Fordsons in non-standard colors are pretty!

- Jack Heald is national director of the Fordson Tractor Club. Contact him at 250 Robinson Road, Cave Junction, OR 97523; (541) 592-3203.