Old Iron Gets New Lease on Life

Canadian collector relishes family ties in restored tractors


Left: Joe Molnar at the controls of his restored John Deere Model H tractor.

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To say Joe Molnar's favorite color is green is an understatement. Bookshelves in his home are filled with scale models of various John Deere tractors showing the evolution from steel-wheeled to modern four-wheel drive, articulated models. Intermingled with them are the 10 awards Joe has won when showing his restored, full-size machines.

Joe and his wife, Donna, live on an 850-acre farm near Kennedy, Saskatchewan, Canada. It's the farm Joe grew up on. Like the farm, most of the tractors he has restored have a family connection. "It sort of all started by accident," Joe says. "The 1951 John Deere AR my dad bought new. It was getting to be sad looking and it needed a paint job." Joe decided to spruce it up as a winter project. It was a working tractor, still used for a variety of jobs around the farm. Until 1964 it had been the primary power unit on Joe's dad's 640-acre farm, but the years of hard work were starting to show.

Joe's son, Brian, had just finished school and was helping work on the AR. He suggested if they were going to go to the trouble to restore the tractor, it should be done right. "So, we tore it all to pieces," Joe recalls, "cleaned it and painted it." Joe was so happy with the results that he moved on to another project.

But that wasn't the end of the story for the AR. After completing work on it, Joe began showing the piece in regional antique machinery events. It started winning awards … a trend that has continued with all three of the fully restored tractors Joe now owns. Perhaps because it was the Molnars' first full restoration project, the AR seems to have a special place in the family. When Brian was married in a nearby city, the AR was taken there to be present in the wedding photographs.

Next up for restoration was a 1945 John Deere H Donna's father had farmed with. "He bought it used in 1959," Joe says. It had been unused for about 20 years. Fortunately, the engine hadn't seized. Although Joe had the restoration of one John Deere under his belt, the Model H project required research to make sure the end result was historically correct. "You still have to look in books," he says, "and you have to get service manuals for all of them." Joe located all the manuals he needed from a specialty printer in the U.S.

The Model H was completed in much less time than the AR. "But it became a job," Joe says of the hectic work schedule he'd set. "It took me probably four months, every night, for five or six hours a night." Lesson learned. Since then, Joe keeps to a comfortable pace on his projects.

The most striking thing about the Model H is its diminutive size. With only 9.7 drawbar horsepower, it is remarkably small for a prairie tractor. However, when Donna's father first brought it home, it probably seemed like a powerhouse. The first tractor the family owned, it replaced a team of horses that had been used for field work until then.

Ironically, Joe found this small machine to be his most expensive restoration effort so far. "All those little, tiny parts are very expensive," he says. Finding John Deere parts posed no difficulty: All Joe had to do was drive to his nearest John Deere dealer and order what he needed. When he first walked into the farm machinery dealer to order parts for a tractor long since out of production, he presented a bit of a novelty. "I got a few strange looks," he says. Today, though, orders of old parts rarely cause a stir.

After completing the Model H, Joe began thinking about the 1945 Massey-Harris 102 his father had purchased in 1954. With fond memories of growing up with the tractor, he set out to find a similar one for his next effort, as the original had long since been traded away. But all the 102s that were being sold or auctioned commanded prices higher than he was willing to pay. Then a stroke of luck turned what seemed like a lost cause into a remarkable find.

Joe was returning from an auction in yet another failed effort to find an affordable 102 when he met one of his neighbors. When the neighbor asked where he'd been, Joe explained. The neighbor had good news. "He said, I've got one sitting in the bush," Joe recalls. "It's been sitting there for probably 30 years." So we jumped in the truck and went and looked at it, and it was the one we (previously) owned."

After Joe's father traded in the 102 on a larger Model 44 in 1964, the little 102 was purchased by the town of Kennedy and used to collect household trash. Later, it disappeared. Joe didn't see it again until the day he found it in his neighbor's bush. But it wasn't anywhere near complete. The motor, radiator and most of the sheet metal were missing. And, what was left was firmly stuck in place. Brush had grown up around it, holding it fast. Joe recalls cutting trees with his chainsaw for about 20 minutes in order to free up the tractor.

Until tackling the 102, Joe had little difficulty sourcing parts. But the 102 was different. "That was an experience," he says. "With John Deere, if you need a part, you go get it. With Massey-Harris, you get nothing." It took lots of talking with neighbors and visiting, he says, but word of mouth lead him to four other 102s that he used as parts donors. In order to get a working engine, he finally turned to a Model 34 Massey Ferguson self-propelled swather. The swather's motor was identical to the one originally used in the 102. A new set of gaskets was installed to eliminate leaks, and the motor was up and running.

The 102 isn't the only gem Joe has found hiding in a bush. Three years ago, another neighbor told him about an old tractor sitting in the way of some bulldozing he was going to do. It turned out to be a 1941 John Deere Model A. "I brought it home, and two hours later it was running," he says.

The Model A is partially restored now, and Joe continues to work on it. Next, he wants to replace the rear axles. A cutting torch had been used to cut off the ends of the axle shafts that extend beyond the tires. Why would someone do that? "Maybe because it gets you right in the knee when you walk past it," Joe says with a laugh. His goal is a high-quality, correct restoration on this tractor. With each project, he says, "You get to know a few more little tricks on doing things." One of those tricks will focus on the cast metal parts. Joe plans to sand and fill in the casting imperfections before painting, creating a very smooth finish. When the final coat of paint dries, the tractor will look more polished than it did when it left the factory.

One final tractor sits in the Molnars' yard: a 1929 John Deere Model D. It looks great, but doesn't run. Joe has been asked to give it a fresh new appearance before it is set up as part of a centennial anniversary display at the nearby town of Kennedy.

There are many other projects-in-waiting around the Molnar farm, ranging from an original John Deere wagon to a Massey-Harris cultivator. Based on the quality restoration work Joe has already rolled out of his shop, the future of these old machines looks bright indeed.

- For more information, contact Joe Molnar at: (306) 538-4610.

- Scott Garvey is a freelance writer specializing in articles on antique farm machinery and agriculture. He and his wife, Caron, live on a small farm in southeastern Saskatchewan.