'52 Farmall Cub Shines Again

A 1952 Farmall Cub "renewed" so it can be put back to work

Kate Will gleefully takes the helm of her 1952 Farmall Cub after starting the tractor for the first time since it ran 10 years ago

Kate Will gleefully takes the helm of her 1952 Farmall Cub after starting the tractor for the first time since it ran 10 years ago. The drawbar and decals haven't been applied yet.

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This story really starts in December 2001, when my wife, Kate, and I were reading in bed one night. Looking through Guy Fay's book, Farmall Tractors in the 1950s, I had the page open to a picture of a Farmall Cub powering a grain mill with a flat belt. Kate happened to glance over her New York Times and exclaimed, "What kind of a cute tractor is that? We need to get one of those!" I was in the final stages of a 1942 Farmall H restoration, and was pleasantly surprised by Kate's enthusiasm, particularly since I already had two International Harvester Cub Cadet garden tractors in the shop. With future projects on hand like those, I didn't feel a great rush to find a Cub. Yet, I wanted to find a Cub before Kate changed her mind.

Earlier that same year, I met Sam Adams, a farmer who runs a rest home for tired iron deep in the east Texas piney woods near Tatum. Sam rescues old iron from the smelter, and International Harvester equipment is his specialty. While I was picking up an old Sidewinder shredder from Sam in February 2002, I mentioned to him that Kate wanted a Cub. Sam's face lit up. "Well I do have an old '52 that I got from some old boy who tried to fix its cracked head with J.B. Weld," he said with a grin. "I'd planned to get her running myself, but I already got enough Cubs around here."

Then he squinted my way and added, "I don't just sell my stuff to anyone, but I know that you will take good care of this old girl." I was in luck, because Sam is particular about to whom he sells old iron. He once refused to part with a set of beautiful, old wagon running gear after he learned that the buyer planned to use it as a yard ornament. I didn't make the trade then, but had about 2,000 miles to ponder that '52 Cub as I drove from Sam's place to our small farm in New Hampshire pulling the 1942 Model H and its Sidewinder on a gooseneck trailer.

Texas was my first stop after leaving Whittier, Calif., where Kate is president of Whittier College. My shop in Whittier is the garage at Wardman House, which is the president's residence at the college. Kate is rather fond of my penchant for old machinery, so the courtyard at Wardman House is often cluttered with tractors, implements and parts. In fact, the H was used several times as a centerpiece for dinners we held in the courtyard during its restoration. It's perfect for large barbecues.

As I drove through Columbus, Ohio, I realized that Sam's Cub was manufactured the same year Kate was born. (Trust me, I do have her kind permission to report this fact.) I looked over at Charlie, my four-legged companion who rides shotgun wherever I travel, and said, "Chuck, that's the right Cub for Kate." I sealed the deal with Sam by cell phone before I hit Mansfield, Ohio, and arranged to pick the tractor up on my return trip west.

A few weeks later in early March 2002, I was back in Texas, loading what I came to call "Kate's Cub" on the trailer for the return trip to Whittier. I wasn't prepared to tackle that tractor yet since I was in the middle of a Cub Cadet 100 restoration, but its looming presence in the garage was a powerful motivator. In late May, just before the end of the school year and my final trek back east for the summer, I dismantled Kate's Cub.

First I took the block and crankshaft to Mike Woodward, an automotive machine shop owner in Whittier. Mike's specialty is building supercharged, nitro-fueled hemi-engines for cars that trial at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Mike was happy to work on the Cub's C-60 engine because he'd never seen one before. He hot-tanked the engine block, and placed it in a rust bath. Then Mike reamed and installed the valve guides, sized the rod bushings, honed the cylinders, ground the crankshaft to 0.010 under, installed hardened exhaust valve seats and decked the block before it was all over.

That summer in New Hampshire, I managed to track down a good, used head and a new after-market drawbar. At the end of September, on my way back to Whittier, I found the draw-bar bolts, clutch, throw-out bearing and after-market radiator at Cub-A-Rama, a small tractor show devoted to Farmall Cubs and Cub Cadets held every year on the last weekend of September in Fredericktown, Mo.

Back on the West Coast, I began the arduous task of cleaning, inspecting and generally renewing the Cub's components. Starting at the rear end, I inspected and cleaned all of the bearings, shafts and gears of the transaxle and final drives. The bearings and gears were in good shape, but I replaced the leather seals with synthetic seals obtained from a bearing company in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. The company was very helpful, and even provided new seals patterned after the mangled remains of those I'd removed. The torque tube was in fine shape and only needed cleaned and painted. Once it was bolted in place, I turned my attention toward the engine.

After 50 years of work and life in Sam's old iron yard, the engine needed lots of work. I purchased new pistons, rings, rod bushings, valves, bearings and a gasket set from a tractor part vendor in Mexico, Mo. The engine assembly went well, except I bent one oil spacer ring. I quickly called another parts supplier in Brooklyn, Wis., and a single ring set was soon on its way, along with several chassis gaskets and front axle pivot bushings. After the engine was mounted on the torque tube, I tackled the front end.

Close inspection of the lower radiator tank casting – an integral structural component of the Cub's front end – revealed a 6-inch-long crack. Rather than weld the cast iron, I opted to order a used tank casting from another tractor supply company in Fredericktown, Mo. While I waited for the part, I cleaned the front axle, resealed the steering gear and added new bushings. The front wheels received new bearings and seals, and I turned a new pivot pin on the lathe because the original was a little wallowed on the bushing lands. Once the casting arrived, I completed the front end, installed the freshly cleaned hydraulic pump and lift assembly. Then I mounted the radiator and a new wiring harness that I fabricated myself.

To make the wiring harness, I removed the old wires and measured them each. Then I cut replacement wires from automotive stock, and crimped and soldered the ends. I bundled the wires in corrugated plastic purchased at an auto parts store to serve as a conduit. For the battery cables, I used welding cable with welding lugs on the bolt end and new battery terminals on the battery end. I also used heavier gauge wire than necessary to ensure the tractor's 6-volt electrical system functioned better than the factory original. Unlike other restorers, I didn't use books or other resources to guide me, but the trial and error process was fairly straightforward.

The engine controls and steering wheel were next in line for restoration. As I reassembled the components, I primed the parts I'd stripped and wire brushed with Rust-Oleum rusty metal primer, even though the metal was no longer rusty. I chose Rust-Oleum "safety red" industrial enamel for the majority of the tractor because it's very close to International Harvester red. Then I used Rust-Oleum high-temperature aluminum paint for the rear tire rims, manifold, exhaust and muffler.

The tractor wasn't restored as much as it was renewed. According to my friend Jim Steele, tractor nut and editor at the Huntsville Times, in Huntsville, Ala., the Cub project, like most of my tractor projects, shouldn't technically be called a "restoration." His word for what I do is "refurbishment," since I don't worry about exact originality, and I always intend to put the machines back to work. I tend to agree with Jim.

In February 2003, the Wardman House courtyard reverberated with distinctive, throaty notes as Kate's Cub came back to life for the first time in years after only a half crank. With some red, east Texas mud still stuck on the rear tires, Kate proudly drove the tractor up and down our hilly California street. Then she steered the red machine over to campus for its official "graduation" and to show off her Cub-collector husband's hard work.

Kate's Cub will make its way to New Hampshire later this year and find productive work on our farm. It'll be in good company, along with a '42 H and several of our nine vintage Cub Cadet garden tractors. Kate thinks that it's gratifying to see the youthful incarnation of that vintage '52. "Now it's as young as I am," she said with a smile.

I say they're both sweet '52s. FC

Oscar "Hank" Will III is an old-iron collector and restorer who is the current editor of Grit. E-mail him at editor@grit.com.