Golden State Beauty

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The IH 544 hydro

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Dennis Stewart is no stranger to hydraulic systems. He worked with them at a crane manufacturing company in Kansas, and now writes specifications for hydraulic boom trucks and other vehicles for a large southern California utility company. While Dennis enjoys working on machinery, he never could've predicted that he'd haul home the rough and very incomplete remains of an International Harvester Farmall 544 Hydro in August 2001.

The adventure began when Dennis' friend spotted an old two-cylinder John Deere tractor for sale while the pair visited the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum in Vista, Calif. As his friend negotiated to buy the tractor, Dennis wandered around the museum and found a tangled pile of junk that instantly intrigued him. Hidden within was the engine and transaxle for a 1970 IH Farmall 544 Hydro diesel. The hood and grille were also there, but not much else ... except a fascinating story.

Forgotten Farmall

In 1970, the Frazee family - known mostly for development and marketing of Ranunculus flower varieties and the establishment of the flower farming business, the Flower FieldsĀ®, of Carlsbad, Calif. - ran a large-scale flower and bulb cultivation business in San Diego County. In a quest to make the operation more labor efficient, the Frazees designed and built a bulb-harvesting machine that moved workers easily through the fields to save labor. The machine holds up to eight people, and bulbs could be dug, sorted and boxed with relative ease with so many workers atop the device. To power and control the giant bulb harvester, the Frazees purchased the Farmall 544 Hydro and installed the big tractor atop the bulb harvester. The prototype harvester worked for about 250 hours before it was dismantled, but its use laid the groundwork for production of two new harvesters powered by components taken from IH Farmall 656 Hydro tractors. After the Frazees sold their business in 1993, the remains of that 544 Hydro ended up in the Vista museum where Dennis discovered the forgotten heap.

Dennis and his wife, Margaret, finished an extensive two-year restoration of their house in Norco, Calif, in the spring of 2001. Burned out by home repair, Dennis says he was 'ready for a project of a different sort.' Memories of that pile of unidentified tractor 'junk' he'd seen at the museum haunted him. He was most fascinated by its hydrostatic transmission and the fact that this IH 544 was never actually used as a traditional tractor. The possibility of rebuilding it was just the challenge he needed. Within days of first seeing the 544 at the museum, Dennis managed to negotiate a price and purchased the disassembled machine. So began a 13-month journey of discovery and renewal for Dennis and the Farmall.

Inventory and assess

The real work began in late August 2001, after a large boom truck delivered the tractor's remains to Dennis' home. When he placed the tractor body on blocks in his driveway, even the neighborhood children were fascinated by the sight. In the months that followed, Dennis says he came to know the tractor's soul as he painstakingly deconstructed the machine.

Like a surgeon before a delicate operation, he cleaned, inspected, measured and made a meticulous list of useable parts and an equally detailed list of missing parts and those that needed replacement or repair. Dennis searched the Internet for used-parts dealers and found the perfect dealer in Brawley, Calif., located a couple hours from his Norco home. Amazingly, he learned that the salvage yard had more than one IH 544 on the lot, and Dennis spent the better part of a day prowling the site hunting for missing parts. After an exhaustive search, Dennis finally had most of the parts to reassemble the jigsaw tractor, but the task had just started.

With the parts assembled, Dennis cleaned each piece of the dismantled tractor and salvaged components. Some were merely wire brushed to a clean sheen but many were sandblasted to bare metal. To ensure the metal was properly prepared, Dennis constructed a homemade sand-blasting booth in his back yard where he literally used tons of sand to remove layers of dirt, paint and rust. In the process, Dennis became intimately acquainted with every nut and bolt of the tractor because he handled every piece many times.

Devil in the details

The Frazee family replaced the tractor's wheels with chain sprockets, which were keyed onto the ends of the rear-axle shafts in order to turn the bulb harvester's wheels 6 feet below. Unfortunately, one of the sprockets was loose when the tractor still pushed the bulb harvester, and the sprocket hub ground the shaft to a point as the axle turned. Dennis repaired the ruined shaft by carefully welding additional steel onto the axle's end, and hand filed it back to specifications, then did the same to the large wheel clamp key-way.

Another problem he discovered was that the front-axle pivot pin wore through its bushing and ruined the pivot bore. Rather than replace the wallowed steel and mill it back to its original specifications, Dennis used a hole saw to cut the front and rear of the main axle tube at the pivot. Next, he cut a properly sized section of thick-walled tubing, inserted it into the main axle tube, carefully aligned the tubing to the pivot pin and welded it into place. Many other assemblies -such as the hitch and rock-box - required similarly creative repairs. Undaunted, Dennis met each challenge.

The tractor was exposed to the elements for nearly three decades, but Dennis eventually coaxed the low-hour engine to turn. Yet, the two middle cylinders of the D239 Diesel engine, built at the International Harvester Nuess Works in West Germany, were severely pitted and required replacement. The head, crank and most other critical components were in good shape, although small problems continued to surface as the project unfolded. The injector pump was varnished and its cam lobe was worn, so Dennis rebuilt the pump and bought a new-old stock cam from a Tulare, Calif. supplier. The throttle linkage was missing, and Dennis fabricated one from scratch. The hydraulic drive pump and motor were dirty, but nicely intact, and only required new O-rings, seals and gaskets. Unlike other components, the ever-important differential merely needed cleaned and assembled.

Body basics

Body work on the tractor was more tedious. To repair dozens of small holes in the fenders, Dennis used fine-threaded taps to cut threads in the sheet metal. Then he inserted thin slices of threaded metal rod into the tapped holes, heated the pieces cherry-red and peened them flat to the outsides of the fenders. The process stretched the fender metal around the repaired area, which slightly raised the center of each repair. To flatten the raised areas, Dennis heated the metal and shrank it back into place with a wet cloth. With more than 20 of those time-consuming repairs on the fenders alone, Dennis was quite accomplished by the time he finished. Parts of the sheet metal, like the operator station's pedestal cover, didn't survive the sand blast because the caustic desert dust that blows around the nearby Salton Sea corroded the metal too badly through the years. To replace the crucial exterior steel, Dennis drew plans from the originals and had a local sheet-metal shop fabricate replicas.

Instead of repainting components, Dennis took the tractor's parts to a Riverside, Calif., business, where parts were powder coated IH red or white. Even the rear-axle shafts were powder-coated to resemble oiled steel. Dennis used liquid metal to fair the sheet metal because the powder coating process involves baking at 400 degrees. Gasket surfaces, bearing and bushing bores were covered with a special high-temperature plastic masking tape, and the end result is a beautiful, durable finish that coated the transmission and axle housings as well.

Dennis kept all the original bolts and other fasteners as he dismantled the machine, because many had IH-embossed heads. Dennis plated the fasteners in a three-step process with help from an Ontario, Calif., business. First, the blasted and wire-brushed bolts (and other bright parts including some injection pump components) were baked at 375 degrees for three hours, cooled and then immersed in an acid-etching and zinc-plating solution. The process also added a gold-tone to the finish. Finally, the hardware was again baked at 375 degrees for three hours to prevent internal stress in the metal.

Dennis says the brightest point in the project was when he assembled the first prepared components. Like a phoenix, the tractor coalesced once again from the pile of pieces and parts before his eyes. Even though he took great care to restore the tractor, Dennis didn't use original fabric for every task. He used a few hydraulic hoses where steel tubing was originally installed, and also opted to use a 12-volt battery mounted in a box to the left of the seat pedestal instead of two 6-volt batteries. Dennis also added lights and turn signals so he could safely operate the tractor on Norco's boulevards and lanes.

The gilded goal

Dennis was proud of his careful restoration, but was well into the reassembly phase when he decided to paint the tractor to resemble a Gold Demonstrator model. Using a photo on page 64 of Kenneth Updike's book International Harvester Tractors 1955-1985, Dennis successfully reproduced the golden paint scheme and decals for his tractor.

According to Updike, the Gold Demonstrator program was exclusive to IH hydrostatic tractor models 544, 656, 826, 1026 and 1456. The promotion was only in place for 1970 models, and was designed to attract attention to the tractors, especially from potential customers. Updike hasn't located any production records that document the quantity or serial numbers of Gold Demonstrator models manufactured. Yet, with more than 1,000 IH dealers nationwide in 1970, it's conceivable that each dealership received at least one, much like the 1950 white Farmall promotion that planted gleaming tractors on dealer lots across America. Also like those famed white Farmalls, the Gold Demonstrator tractors were eventually repainted and sold as regular models.

To achieve the Gold Demonstrator design, a local paint shop sprayed the appropriate pieces of sheet metal with Aztec Gold paint. The decals were locally made after some careful measurement and scaling from a picture in Updike's book.

When the project was completed in September 2002, Dennis promptly took the tractor to the fall show at the Vista museum where he'd found the tractor lying in a heap a year earlier. His proudest moment was when John Frazee -whose family once used the 544 to power that bulb harvester 30 years before - stopped to see the tractor that was never used as a tractor. Finally intact, it was a fitting rebirth into a very special Gold Demonstrator model.

For those who want to hear about the restoration project or learn what project Dennis Stewart plans to tackle next, he welcomes e-mail at Tractor544@yahoo.com. FC

- Oscar 'Hank' Will III is an old-iron collector and restorer who retired from farming in 1999 and from academia in 1996. He splits his time between his home in Whittier, Calif, and his farm in East Andover, N.H. As a result, he travels coast to coast with his Welsh Corgi Charlie, a.k.a. Road Dawg, and he writes about the machines and people he meets in between. Write him at 13952 Summit Drive, Whittier, CA 90602; or call (562) 696-4024; or e-mail: owill@mail.whittier.edu

IH Farmall 544 Hydro diesel at a glance

IH D-239 engine with a 3 7/8-inch bore and 5.06-inch stroke
52 hp at 2,200 RPM
Hydrostatic drive and power steering
Independent PTO and 3-point hitch
Produced from 1968 to 1973.