Keith Kvistad doesn’t know for sure where his father’s love of Ford tractors came from, but the Belle Plaine, Minnesota, man got an inkling when he saw an aerial photograph of the aircraft carrier his father served on during World War II. On the deck of the USS Salerno Bay, Keith spotted tug tractors. He later learned they were Ford-Ferguson 2N Moto-Tugs.
Were those tugs the motivation for his father’s choice of farm equipment? Keith doesn’t know – and his father died in 1973, so the question will never be answered. But the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. “My dad always farmed with Ford tractors on the farm I grew up on,” he says, “so I turned that way, too.”
Today he’s reduced his collection of Fords to a unique trio: a 1949 8N, a 1944 Ford-Ferguson 2N Moto-Tug BNO 40 and a 1947 2N. Once he had seven tractors, but since moving from the farm to town, he’s downsized. “Too many batteries and too many carburetors, for one thing,” he says, “and now I have to keep them at my brother’s farm since I live in town. I just don’t have a spot for everything.”
1949 8N Highboy tractor
Keith bought his first Ford – a 1949 8N – in 1996. About a year after he finished restoration of the 8N, he remembered seeing a “really tall” 8N in Clarkfield, Minnesota, near where he grew up.
“I went back and knocked on the door of the people who I thought owned it,” he says, “and asked if they by chance still had that tall tractor.” They did, but they had removed the stilts years earlier. Keith found all the parts – a bit rusted – in a nearby grove. He wanted to buy the seller’s 8N too, but it was still being used. So he decided to put the stilts on his own 8N.
The stilts were originally sold as a factory-built kit by Tractor Stilts Co., Omaha, Nebraska. The aftermarket modification allowed the farmer to drive above corn to de-tassel or drop-nozzle spray the rows. “The stilts enable you to use your existing tractor instead of buying a sprayer,” Keith says. He has the original spray tank and the booms that cross the front axle, but he’s never put them on.
According to authors Randy Leffingwell and Robert N. Pripps in Farmall, 2nd Edition: The Red Tractor that Revolutionized Farming, Tractor Stilts Co. produced its first ultra-high-clearance conversion in 1948. Soon after, it began to manufacture kits for nearly every tractor make and model.
A whole new perspective
Keith sandblasted and painted the stilts, and made new spindles for the front. “A sleeve on the original spindle goes up inside the tube, and a pipe with collar comes down and fits over the spindle,” he says. “I had those remade, cutting them off with a torch because they’d been rusted together for so long that I couldn’t pull them apart.” He bought new 12-foot chains to replace rusted chains on each side.
At a machine shop, Keith had a keyway machined to keep the spindle and collar pinned together so they move together. His brother, Dennis, helped him with reassembly. They used a front-end loader to lift the tractor, and a 10-foot ladder helped them get high enough to install the stilt bolts onto the 8N.
Tractor Stilts Co. produced the stilts in two clearances: 4-1/2-foot and 6-foot. Installation of Keith’s stilts – 6-footers – presented no particular challenge. “Putting the stilts on was self-explanatory,” he says. “I’m pretty mechanically inclined, and I had seen a picture of how it goes together.”
The payoff was immediate. “It’s a pretty cool experience when you get in the air,” Keith says. “You can’t believe how tall it is.”
Not a quick conversion
Keith found vintage ads showing all parts attached with bolts. “Nothing is welded,” he says, “so the stilts can be used to spray and then removed so the tractor can be used for regular farm work. They claim you can set it up in an hour, but it took Dennis and me most of a day to get it done,” he says with a laugh. And removal of the stilts is no easy job. The previous owner removed the stilts in a novel way, Keith was told, by driving the tractor with stilts over a large round bale of hay, where the stilts were removed and replaced by wheels. “Then they pushed the tractor off the hay onto the ground.”
Once the stilts were installed, Keith took the highboy for a spin. He drove it slowly, making sure he knew how to run it properly. “It turns a little bit harder, but it reacts fine, and the brakes stop it right now,” he says. “Taking off, you have to ease the clutch out so the chains don’t jump around. Now I drive it in high gear on the road and it drives just fine. I had my 8-year-old driving it last summer. It drives like a regular tractor, but it’s slow because of the short tires on it. Maybe I should put overdrive in it.”
Keith enjoys being at the wheel of the highboy. “It’s really stable, and it’s cool to drive,” he says. “You get a little different feeling when the chains are tightening up, but there’s a thrill to driving it. Everyone smiles when they see you on it.” Especially when he’d have a friend drive a Farmall Cub directly beneath the 8N.
That said, the rig doesn’t get a lot of use. “The only time I run it now is during tractor parades at shows,” he says, “or occasionally to give rides to people.” It’s proven difficult to take to shows, because the space at the bottom of the stilts is more than 8 feet wide, the normal width of a trailer.
1944 Ford-Ferguson 2N Moto-Tug
When Keith saw a Ford-Ferguson 2N Moto-Tug listed on a sale bill, he knew he had to have it. “But the auction for the Moto-Tug was the same weekend as my niece’s wedding,” he says, “where I was to be the photographer.” He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to tell Palmer Fossum, his good friend and inveterate collector of Ford tractors, “because I knew he would go and buy it.”
Finally, he realized that was his only choice, and sure enough, Palmer bought the Moto-Tug. Afterward, Palmer told his friend that if he ever decided to sell the Moto-Tug, he’d give Keith the first option on it.
And that is exactly what happened. In 1996, Keith ended up with the tractor. “It had sat quite a few years without being restored, and I didn’t restore it until three years ago,” he says. “Seeing that photo of the Moto-Tugs on the aircraft carrier inspired me to restore it.”
Keith says the Moto-Tug was made in two versions: BNO 25 and BNO 40. The primary difference was in the wheels. The BNO 25 had single rear wheels; the BNO 40 had dual rear wheels.
“They had fenders on the front and back, which they used to stack more weight on the back of the 40,” he says. “The Moto-Tugs pulled around big airplanes on aircraft carriers or on an air base. They even pulled carts with bombs on them. The duals could pull bigger airplanes and bigger loads.”
The Moto-Tug was equipped with several unique features. Like Ford trucks of that era, it had hydraulic brakes on the back, instead of push brakes. It had a handbrake, doubtless to keep it from rolling on the carrier’s deck in rough seas. The gas tank had a threaded brass gas cap to prevent sparks. The tug had a one-piece front axle, totally different from the three-piece units more commonly found on Ford tractors. There were no hydraulics, 3-point hitch or PTO. “They just have caps over the places where those would be located on other Fords,” Keith says.
Surprising palette of colors
Keith believes the Moto-Tug came in four colors: red, blue, gray and yellow, like his. “I have to admit I’m not positive mine was originally painted yellow,” he says. “Paint was worn off and it looked like it might have been red. But I wanted something different, so I painted it yellow with an automotive paint that was not very cheap.”
The finished result is an unusual tractor, and one that keeps the memory of his late father alive. “It gives me a good feeling that this Moto-Tug is like one he might have buzzed around on when he was in the service. It’s pretty unique.” FC
Moto-Tug well suited to unique role in U.S. military
In Classic Ford Tractors, author Cletus Holman says that a small production run of aircraft tow tractors was built for the U.S. military by Ford from converted 2N farm tractors. “The Moto-Tug is a compact power unit,” he says, “specially designed for the variety of pulling jobs found on land and sea airports.”
Automotive and Aviation Industries, Volume 89, reported that the Ford-Ferguson Moto-Tug was “close to the ground and compact, here is power, ready to go places, and take heavy loads along. It is easy to run, gets in and out of tight corners, has low operating cost, and has the high quality of the Ford tractor throughout. It is built in two models, with drawbar pulls of 2,500 lbs.”
The smaller Moto-Tug weighed 3,720 pounds. The larger one (with dual rear wheels, like Keith’s) weighed 5,640 pounds.
According to an online source, Ford added cast iron plate around the front and rear of the tractors. More than 1,000 pounds of cast iron weights were added over the front and rear axles to make it heavy.
The Moto-Tug was equipped with four 6.50-by-20-inch rear tires, hydraulic brakes and an emergency brake, but the engine housing and steering wheel retained the looks of a classic Ford farm tractor. Some had two 12-volt batteries, possibly to use in starting aircraft.
Approximately 10,000 of these converted tractors were placed on aircraft carriers, docks and at foreign and domestic airports. Today only a handful still exist. – Bill Vossler
For more information: Keith Kvistad, 130 S. Eagle St., Belle Plaine, MN 56011; (952) 873-4792(home);
(952) 210-5830 (cell); email: Koostoddy@mchsi.com.
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;