Old Tractors vs. Vintage Tractors

Tales from Wales: Josephine Roberts offers a personal insight into what's in vogue for tractor collectors over in Blighty!

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A grey Ferguson tractor complete with finger-bar mower. So popular and successful was the “little grey Fergie” that at one time almost every farm had one. Today the Fergie is the tractor you’re most likely to see in large numbers at vintage events. A petrol/TVO model can be purchased for less than £1,000 ($2,035 U.S.), making it one of the more affordable vintage tractors available in the U.K.

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Little pockets of wet and windy Wales are still firmly stuck in the 1960s. You can't blame people: The 1960s was a good era after all, and things were cheaper then, so why not stay there? If you're a hill farmer, a thin covering of little mountain sheep are about all you can hope to make a living from, so what on earth would be the point of shelling out on a gigantic modern tractor that you would probably have to mortgage the family home in order to buy?

This is what makes little old-fashioned North Wales such a great place for tractor spotting. Many times I'll be driving along a road and come up behind an old guy with his flat cap pulled down low, chugging along on an old muck-covered 1960s tractor, with his arm resting on what's left of the mudguard, casting a shrewd eye over his neighbor's fields as he bounces by.

What makes people like that chap so special is that they haven't decided that old tractors are the latest big thing, and they haven't rushed out armed with a checkbook to buy the rarities before they're all snapped up. They are actually still using these machines, still living in the era, and they probably think that showing a restored vintage tractor is a criminal waste of a perfectly serviceable machine!

Don't get me wrong, we have our collectors here too, and a sterling job they do of making sure our antiques don't all rot away in the hedgerows, but there's nothing like catching a glimpse of a real live, active vintage owner, defiantly sticking to his or her era, despite the modernity that's racing along all around.

It all rather reminds me of a townie friend of mine who visited from Manchester a couple of years ago. She told me that the latest thing amongst the cool lads of the city was to wear 1980s style zig-zag jumpers, with old farmer-style flat caps. "But around here we're still wearing those from the first time around!" I told her. "Does that make us suddenly the height of fashion, or just terribly behind the times?"

In that very same way, many people are still farming with their faithful old tractors, whilst in the meantime those living a more modern lifestyle are viewing the old tractors as antiques potentially worth a fortune. Which all just goes to show how fickle fashion is. One person's has-been is another person's antique, and that goes for furniture, clothes and tractors!

Some large farms still use vintage tractors like the Massey Ferguson 35, the Ford 2000, the Fordson Dexta, the Nuffield or the International 275 for jobs like, dare I say it, scraping cow dung off the concrete yard. Many farmers, though, have begun to realize that somewhere there are people who, for reasons best known to themselves, actually collect these outdated little tractors, and have since sold their has-beens to the collectors. These collectors are usually overjoyed to have sourced an unrestored, wholly original "just off the farm" tractor that's still covered in authentic, wholly original cattle dung!

So, one could argue that in their quest to preserve the elderly tractors of Great Britain, the collectors have, to some extent, brought about the demise of the working old tractors of Great Britain, if you know what I mean. For instance, just 10 years ago, a 1960 Massey Ferguson 35 was considered far too puny and old-fashioned for the farmers, but was just the job for the smallholder. Such a tractor could be purchased in fair condition for less than £400 ($817 U.S.), and would have had years of useful life ahead of it. Now the smallholder has to compete with the collectors, and may have to pay anything up to £3,500 ($7,145 U.S.) for a 3-cylinder MF 35, which makes the small Chinese flat-pack-brand-new-straight-out-of-the-box tractors seem like an altogether better buy for someone who just needs a small, straightforward tractor.

So we are seeing fewer and fewer 1960s tractors still in work, with many having retired and joined the ranks of the much older vintage tractors on the show circuit. The Fordson Major, once a commonplace sight on farms and smallholdings, has rather abruptly given up work to become an "antique" (along with its older brothers the Fordson Model N and the E27N) and is now commonly seen on the show circuit and at plowing matches.

Still regularly seen in action on the smaller farms and smallholdings of Britain are the tractors of the late 1960s, '70s and early '80s. These are now the affordable old bangers that haven't yet reached the sky-high prices of the vintage tractors. Personally, I can understand why some of them don't hold much appeal for collectors. Aside from the fact that they aren't quite old enough to be collectable yet, I just happen to feel that the 1970s wasn't a particularly stylish moment in time.

I'm sorry if I'm offending those people who love 1970s tractors. It's just a matter of personal taste, and I happen to think that from the '70s onwards, tractors started to become boxier (I hesitate to use the word "uglier"), and more functional-looking, with the smooth curvy lines that I think of as quintessentially vintage becoming a thing of the past. Alright, I'm a dreamer, living in the past and all that, and I know that if you want to use any even relatively modern machinery then you'll want a big boxy 1980 tractor, but I'm not talking about what's useful here, I'm talking about what's beautiful.

My brother would disagree with me. He's an altogether more practical person than I am, and having his feet more firmly placed on the ground than myself, he is able to see the charm and the merits of tractors from the late 1960s to the early '80s. He gazes at his rather rusty 1972 four-wheel-drive Zetor 5545 and says, "Isn't that a handsome beast of a tractor," and I nod slowly and say "Mmm," not wanting to offend, because after all it comes in handy to have the help of a four-wheel drive from time to time. Like the time I got the 35 bogged down in the marsh with a transport-box full of firewood and had to be towed out with the Zetor. Oh, the shame of it. And right by the roadside for all to see.

Joking aside, tractors with cabs don't really do it for me. Somehow they just get in the way, rather like a faring on a motorbike. The eastern European tractors are quite popular here though, partly because of the fact that they are affordable and no-nonsense. It has to be said, though, that a certain snobbery prevails where people tend to think British and American tractors are quite simply better tractors. (Most people here consider the rather expensive John Deere to be the Rolls Royce of tractors!) Personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with a Zetor, it's just that I'm going on aesthetics, and I prefer the look of the earlier models. A friend of mine has a Zetor 3011, and that's a whole lot more shapely tractor than the 5545 if you ask me.

One interesting point about Zetors, though, is the fact that the way you pronounce the name shows where your roots are. The English pronounce it with the first syllable rhyming with "beet," like Zee-tor. The Welsh, however, pronounce the first syllable with a short sound: "Zet" rhyming with "bet," like "Zet-tor." I like to think that in Brno, the Czech Republic, where Zetors originate, the locals pronounce the name in the same way we Welsh do, but quite possibly I'm wrong! FC

Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at pheenie@talktalk.net