Teaming up on Tractor Collection

Father and son solidify their relationship with a shared collection of 1970s muscle tractors.

Spirit of '76 tractors

The large and the small: The Swansons’ Spirit of ’76 tractors.

Photo courtesy Bob and Kyle Swanson

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Want to cement a father-son relationship? Try a joint tractor collection. “Farming together and also running a cow/calf operation every day can result in some tension,” says 29-year-old Kyle Swanson, St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. “When things do not go as well as we like between us, we can always break the ice by asking, ‘Did you see the tractor I bookmarked on the computer?’ That most always results in us talking again, and work resumes as normal.”

Kyle and his dad, Bob Swanson, 61, also from St. Croix Falls, share a love for old tractors. “Mostly the big muscle tractors from the 1970s,” Bob says. “We’re always on the lookout for something rare and interesting to buy and restore. ‘Can we afford it?’ ‘How do we get it home?’ eventually becomes ‘Let’s go look at it. That doesn’t cost anything.’”

Once the two buy a tractor, they do deep research on the new acquisition for months as fieldwork continues. They check salvage yards and the Internet for replacement parts that will return the tractor to like-new condition. “The real excitement is reassembling it, adding a new paint job and decals,” Bob says, “and standing back, seeing the tractor all finished like the day it was manufactured.”

Go big or go home

A 1967 Versatile 145 is one of the Swansons’ particular favorites. The tractor was long abandoned in a grove of trees on a neighboring tree plantation. “For about 10 years, we’d see it every time we went down the road,” Bob recalls. “Watching it slowly settle down in the ground, overgrown with trees, I felt sad, as its glory days were gone.” Eventually, he feared, the tractor would land in the scrap man’s hands.

Meanwhile, every time Kyle ran into the tractor’s owner, the man offered the Swansons a shot at it. “You like those old tractors,” he said. “Why don’t you buy it?” In 2009, they did just that.

The tractor had a bad transmission, but the Cummins engine was free. With a new battery, diesel fuel and filters, it roared back to life. Luckily, a donor tractor was found and the transmissions swapped. A weak hydraulic pump was also replaced. “It also had decent tires, which we appreciated,” Kyle says. “It’s an easy tractor to work on, as it is a component tractor.”

The Swansons’ Versatile was originally equipped with a cab. “But those cabs were kind of ugly,” Kyle says. “We removed it and made it an open station, which is a little more eye-catching.”

Threshing show crowd pleaser

Versatile tractors were manufactured in Canada in 118-, 125- and 145-hp models. To keep costs low and establish a proven design, Versatile bought complete engines and axles from various manufacturers and assembled the tractors at their factory. When a breakdown occurs, every part can be unbolted and replaced. “It’s a fun tractor to run, a small 4-wheel drive with a lot of power for its size,” Kyle says. “We pull a 6-bottom plow with it. Nothing is more enjoyable than plowing with it on a warm spring day.”

Versatile tractors and equipment competed very well when compared to others manufactured at the same time, Kyle says. “Steiger was just starting to manufacture their 4-wheel drive tractors,” he explains, “but Versatile already had a dealer network set up from selling their popular grain augers and windrowers.”

Every year, the Swansons display their Versatile 145 at the local annual antique tractor and threshing show. Out of all the tractors featured, Kyle says with a grin, the old Versatile is the most photographed unit on the grounds. A large sign on the tractor says, “Kids, climb up on tractor!”

“It’s fun to stand back and watch parents do a double-take as they give their children permission to crawl all over the machine,” Kyle says. “The tractor’s steering wheel gets a workout from the kids, as parents take photographs of their children waving and smiling, having the time of their lives.”

The Black Knight demonstrator

One tractor the Swansons really wanted to add to their collection was the rare 1070 Black Knight demonstrator tractor. After years of looking, they found a perfect example on an online auction and bought it from the original owner in 2007. That man bought it from the dealership that had sent it out to farms as a demonstration tractor.

In the 1070 promotion, each Case dealer was allowed just one demonstrator tractor. It was delivered with a custom plaque on the tractor identifying it as an official demonstrator and bearing the dealer’s name. “Case 1070 demonstrator tractors were delivered with a bright stainless steel muffler,” Bob says, “complete with a heat shield to accent the black paint.” Features like that, along with the gold accent stripes and a deluxe seat inside the cab, made the tractor highly desirable.

“The demonstrator was the only modern tractor painted black,” Bob recalls, “so it really got attention; it stood out. If a farmer was trying out the tractor, hopefully a neighboring farmer would see the peculiar painted tractor and look into it for himself.” Case black demonstrators were made in various models, including the new 4-wheel drive Model 1470.

With only 5,000 hours on the meter, the Swansons knew this one had plenty of life left. “It wasn’t used and abused,” Kyle says. A crinkle in the sheet metal was repaired, a pump and new tires were added and the tractor was painted.

Bicentennial souvenir

In 1976, Bob attended Farmfest ’76 at Lake Crystal, Minnesota. The event’s theme celebrated America’s bicentennial. The main J.I. Case display was a specially produced tractor wearing a particularly patriotic Spirit of ’76 paint job: the newly released 180 hp 1570. The company produced about 200 special edition tractors to coincide with the bicentennial celebration, all embellished with stars and stripes.

“When I saw this tractor,” Bob says, “I thought it was the most beautiful machine I had ever seen. I never forgot it.” Thirty years later, the Swansons happened onto one online. “A dealer in southern Minnesota had one,” Kyle says. “We couldn’t grab the phone fast enough.”

Speaking later with the tractor’s original owner, Bob was surprised to discover that the tractor was the same one he’d seen at the Farmfest 30 years earlier. “We did the background check to make sure it was genuine,” he says. “It was the same one I had fallen in love with.”

By the mid 1980s, the tractor needed some work: new paint, tires and a cab kit. But it ran perfectly. “The engine was big and tough,” Bob says. “Case had tough engines and transmissions, so we ran it on the farm for a year to find out if there were any other troubles that needed to be fixed. When all the restoration was complete, it looked just like it did from years before. Since then it just goes to shows.”

Today it’s a real crowd favorite. “Displayed with a large, original bicentennial flag flying over it, it brings out the patriotic pride in people,” he says, “especially those in the farming community.”

Partner in patriotism

International Harvester celebrated the bicentennial with a special release of its popular Cub Cadet. “It’s almost an identical copy of that Case,” Bob says, “so we display the two together. The big and small ones go really good together.”

Using a regular production tractor, IH applied special decals while adding a white steering wheel and white seat. The special edition was sold in limited production for only six months. Kyle says the engine on their Cub wasn’t running when they found it, but otherwise the unit was in nice condition. “It’s hard to find a basic mower like that with an engine that runs,” he says. “But the white steering wheel and seat were in great condition, and you don’t see that very often. It was well cared for over the years.”

The Swansons restored their Cub Cadet to like-new factory condition. “This one is the only one we’ve ever seen,” Bob says. “It is a pretty primitive little mower by today’s standards, with a manual lift on the mower deck and small horsepower engine.”

Whether they’re looking for a tractor or correct replacement parts, Bob enjoys the thrill of the hunt. “A lot of it involves research to find out how the tractor looked originally,” he says. “That also involves swap meets and junk yards to salvage an old tractor with the correct seat, or adding the little knobs on the dash, or whatever is needed. Then putting it all together and having it painted so it looks as close to brand new as it ever was.”

Picking favorites

The Swansons’ collection currently numbers about 40 collector tractors. Kyle’s favorite is an Allis-Chalmers D21 that he bought right out of high school. “I am partial to Allis,” he admits. “The company was so popular in Wisconsin years ago. The D21 was such a modern-looking, big and powerful tractor when it came out in 1963. It always did well at tractor pulls.”

Bob’s favorite is still the little 8N Ford his father bought new in 1952. “I spent so much time on that tractor that, 50 years later when I sit on it, I can remember the thrill I felt driving it as a young boy, doing a man’s work,” he recalls. “In our neck of the woods, the little 8N Ford was popular on the small dairy farms along with the Farmall Model H and Model M and the Allis-Chalmers WD. There were also a lot of John Deere 2-cylinders throughout the countryside. Now I look back and wonder how we got anything done, working with such small equipment.”

Passion formed early

Bob has fond memories of riding the school bus every day. “As a young boy, riding on the dusty country roads, talking to the other farm boys, our conversation would always turn to what tractor was the best,” he says. “It never failed, whatever tractor a boy’s dad had was the best in his eyes, and he tried to claim bragging rights.”

Nostalgia accounts for a lot of the appeal for old tractors. “It‘s just in you,” Bob says. “Maybe a person is trying to hold on to part of the past. People at tractor shows get so excited to see a tractor like their father or grandfather had when they were growing up. Seeing these old tractors brings out something … it reminds us of wonderful memories of days gone by.”

Lessons learned young leave lasting impressions. “Every boy or girl can remember the excitement at the end of the first day of operating a tractor by themselves,” he says, “and the feeling of pride that they experienced when their efforts were praised. In one afternoon they went from being a child to a young adult. From that moment on, they will always remember the sound of the tractor engine, the power of the machine and the excitement of operating it.” FC


For more information: Bob A. Swanson, 2267 210th Ave., St. Croix Falls, WI 54024; (715) 483-9359; Kyle Swanson, 2042 230th St., St. Croix Falls, WI 54024; (715) 483-3186. Email Bob and Kyle at: swane@centurytel.net.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: bvossler@juno.com.