If you needed to build a tractor that anybody could drive, even those who have never used one, what kind of tractor might it be? According to Mike Zins, it might be one like the 1972 Massey Ferguson 40 military tractor he owns. And where can you find such a beast? At least one turned up on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota.
Mike Zins grew up in the small town of Nicollet, Minnesota, with a farm field about 100 yards from his family’s home. Next to the field was an orchard with apple, plum and cherry trees, all of which helped inspire his interest in horticulture. After graduating from high school in 1960, he went to the University of Minnesota, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in horticulture in 1964.
After military service in the U.S. Air Force and a brief stint at a wholesale nursery, Mike worked at the university’s landscape arboretum. Eventually, he joined the Cooperative Extension System and taught on the St. Paul campus. But it wasn’t all work. “Along the way,” he says, “other activities brought me in contact with new friends who like old equipment like sawmills, planers, tractors and tracked machines.”
By 2000, Mike had bought his first crawler: a 1948 Cletrac BGSH dozer that became one of several Cletracs and Olivers to find a home at his place. Then the collecting bug settled in, and things snowballed. He picked up everything from the smallest of the Oliver line (the OC-3) to the biggest machine Oliver built (the OC-18).
Always on the lookout for new additions to his collection, he picked up an OC-156 track loader in western Minnesota, where it had been used in a gravel pit. This large, 2-yard loader is very uncommon. Fewer than 100 loaders of that size were built. In the past, it was used to lay gas pipelines across the state. When Mike bought it, it was “used and abused” and needed help on everything from leaking hydraulic cylinders to a broken main rear bearing. Fortunately, friends made the needed repairs, and the crawler is back in business.
Out of its element
In addition to his crawlers, Mike has wheeled tractors, including a Massey Ferguson 40 military tractor. A pair of the tractors had been purchased through military surplus years earlier; this one was designated for use by the Animal Science Department at the university’s St. Paul campus.
When he taught horticulture classes on the St. Paul campus, Mike’s outdoor lab classes often passed by the tractor, which sat unmoving next to the fairgrounds for several years. “I was surprised to see one in Minnesota,” he says, “because it’s so far removed from military bases.”
Planting the seed
After inquiring about its owner, he learned that the university’s Animal Science Department owned the tractor, but was not currently using it. Mike put out the word that if they ever wanted to sell it, he was interested. When he retired in 2003, he left his email address. “Fast forward six years,” he says, “and out of the blue, I got an email from a guy who remembered that I’d asked about it. He said they were auctioning it off at the Rosemount Experiment Station, along with other department equipment.”
The farm shop on campus had gotten the tractor running and fixed minor problems, but did not fix the broken hydraulic line for the power steering. “Many lookers at the auction liked the military look of the tractor,” Mike says, “but they didn’t bid. I think that broken hydraulic line scared away potential bidders.”
Getting the tractor onto the trailer was a huge chore. It wouldn’t start, and it lacked power steering. “After years of not running, the cable that shuts off the fuel supply to kill the engine wouldn’t return to the start position,” he says. “As a result, the tractor wouldn’t start after the auction and it couldn’t be loaded. A couple of young auction helpers played around with the cable and discovered the problem.”
Finally he got it on the trailer and home to his shed. “When I removed the hood,” he says, “I found the broken hydraulic line and replaced it.” He also replaced other minor items, like gauges and wiring.
Making the argument for original
Mike debated whether the tractor should be repainted, but old tractor buffs suggested that he should leave it original. “The paint job is rough,” he says, “but a friend who’d served in the Marines said they always just brush-painted the vehicles he worked on. When the Marines used the tractor for towing, the front and rear lights would have been working. Neglect and abuse after military use left them in need of repair.”
The number “22” – perhaps the number of a former Marine unit – appears on the tractor in several places. Mike says his friend thinks the tires are original. “They’re not in the best of shape,” he says, “but very few miles are put on the tractor each year. Usually it gets its annual exercise at the Le Sueur County (Minnesota) Pioneer Power Show, where it is driven in the parade.”
There, the tractor generates interest because it is military and different from the agricultural models more commonly displayed. “People are interested in it,” he says. “They ask where it came from, and if it’s for sale.”
Built to military specifications
The military model differs from the regular Massey Ferguson 40 in its boxy appearance. That distinction is created by the tractor’s square hood and heavy-duty front wheel fenders. “Unlike most ag tractors with thinner sheet metal, the military hood, and other metal, is thicker,” Mike says. “It has heavy steel lift brackets for lifting the tractor straight up to be placed on a ship or other military transport item. It was obviously built for military specs.” The tractor has a 3-cylinder Perkins diesel engine.
Although the tractor was once balky to start, increased usage has loosened the cable. Now it operates properly and starts right up on cranking. “It’s the little things like that that can drive a person crazy in this hobby,” Mike says with a laugh.
The tractor is a different breed of cat. “It’s different than most older tractors,” he says. It doesn’t have a foot clutch. It has both rear brakes on the left side for the left and right rear wheels. On the right side is a horseshoe-shaped foot pedal with a lever in the center for the throttle. It all pivots in the center; to stay in neutral, do not depress it. To go ahead, push down on the right side of the pedal. To go faster, push the center lever as well. To reverse, push down on the left side of the pedal. Another lever gives the option of high or low speed range. “It is a simple running affair,” Mike says. “All the tractor can do is pull. There is no power-takeoff, so it’s made strictly for pulling objects.”
That said, Mike says he likes driving it. “The tractor is easy to drive, and handles nicely,” he says. “It probably was made for military personnel who had little experience driving a conventional tractor. The low range and power steering make the tractor very maneuverable in tight spaces. The high range gives the capability of moving along at a good, safe speed as well.”
Unique finds near bases
Mike and his wife spend winters on Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. There, he has an unusual opportunity to see old military items. “On Kauai, or any place where military bases are relatively close by, you will see more surplus military equipment in the local communities,” he says. “There are fewer chances of seeing equipment in areas farther from bases, such as Minnesota.”
Mike says he’s gotten deeper into the old tractors than he ever expected. “I have quite a few tractors and crawlers that work, but quite a few that need help and TLC,” he says. I’d rather see an old machine salvaged than scrapped out. Every year that goes by, the old machines become fewer and less available. By keeping them out of the bone yard, I can help prevent some of that.” FC
For more information: Mike Zins, 3-3400 Kuhio Hwy., C-101, Lihue, HI 96766; (612) 708-0757.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.