Reviving an Oliver 500

Family ties wrap tightly around rare Oliver 500 tractor and implements

David McGuire and his father, Victor, and David’s handsomely restored Oliver 500

David McGuire and his father, Victor, and David’s handsomely restored Oliver 500.

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On Feb. 24, 1962, my dad, Victor McGuire, purchased an Oliver 500 gasoline tractor with four Oliver implements: a 356 sickle mower, 330 disc, 3240 2-bottom plow and 5024 wagon running gear. He still has all but the original tractor and the disc. We still use those original implements from time to time. Dad purchased the remaining implements in 1963 and still has most of them. This is how this story gets started. 

Partners across the pond

In 1960, Oliver Corp. and David Brown worked out a deal in which David Brown of England would manufacture a small economical tractor to add to Oliver’s American line. No one at the time really understood this because Oliver already had a small utility tractor with the Oliver 550, which had been in production since 1958 and was a very dependable tractor.

Oliver apparently decided that it would be less expensive to rebadge a David Brown Model 850 tractor than to build the new model itself. For David Brown, it was a way to get a foothold in the U.S. market.

The David Brown 850 was a dependable model but less powerful than the 950, the company’s bestseller at the time. With the addition of meadow green and clover white paint, an Oliver checkerboard grille and decals, the 850 was transformed into the Oliver 500. All David Brown 850s were diesel models. Crop Master gasoline engines were used in the rebadged tractors exported to the U.S., where gasoline tractors remained popular.

The first tractor built by David Brown for export to the U.S., Oliver 500 tractors were shipped to several East Coast ports. The 500 was priced less than American-built 550 models and had a rear differential lock, which the American-made tractors lacked.

The Camargo connection

In Mt. Sterling, Ky., Lonnie Amburgey ran a very successful Oliver farm equipment dealership at Camargo Tractor Sales. Respected by area farmers, he was responsible for introducing Oliver tractors into the surrounding area. I am sad to say he died in 1979 at the age of 58.

When Dad purchased his tractor it was still on the dock in New York. Dad had looked at Oliver 500 models at the dealership that had already been sold and were being set up for delivery when he made the deal. Dad’s tractor was to be on the next load Lonnie brought back from New York.

When Lonnie’s driver arrived with a load from New York, Lonnie would bring the tractors into his shop, put fluid in the rear tires, take a front bumper that fit other Oliver models, fabricate mounts and bolt them to the front loader pads. If the buyer needed a loader, Lonnie installed a Freeman loader; if the buyer needed hydraulics, Lonnie installed external hydraulics. When I was a little boy, my dad told me that you could always tell an Oliver 500 that Lonnie had sold by looking at the front bumper, if it hadn’t been removed.

No looking back

Dad used his tractor for 13 years and had more than 3,200 hours on it when it caught fire one spring day in 1975. We never knew the cause of the fire. At the time, parts were really hard to come up with, so Dad wound up selling the tractor back to the dealership. Although I did not want to see it go, I was glad that Lonnie was the one to get it back, because he was the one who had put it here in the first place.

Of course I tried to talk Dad into fixing it back and keeping it, because this was the first vehicle I had driven on my own. I have fond memories of riding on the battery box on the left side beside the driver’s seat. Dad would let me ride with him when he was doing light work. I also remember being in bed at night and hearing Dad come in after dark and put the tractor in the barn beside our house. I’ve always been interested in farm machinery and I had many happy memories of that old tractor.

So, before Lonnie’s driver came to pick up the tractor, I removed the key from the ignition switch and stored it in a jewelry box. I knew the tractor would never run again because Lonnie was going to use it for parts. I knew no one would be using the key and I had a souvenir.

Same model, same dealer

In the summer of 2006 I purchased an Oliver 500 tractor Lonnie had sold new at about the same time my dad had purchased his. It was first owned by a man who lived near us, but it had been through five owners by the time I got it. Although it was mechanically sound, it needed sheet metal work, new paint and decals. I went right to work restoring the Oliver to its original condition.

After I got the tractor restored, I went to the jewelry box where the key to Dad’s tractor had been stored all those years. I got the key to my dad’s tractor and replaced it with the key to my tractor. The key Dad now uses to start my tractor is the same one he used on his tractor years ago. When I see him on the tractor I restored it takes me back to my childhood.

After the 500, a 600

As for the deal between Oliver and David Brown, which started in 1960 and ended in 1963, 1,648 Oliver 500 models were produced, more diesels than gasoline models (all of the 1963 models were diesels).

In 1962, David Brown used its 990 to produce an Oliver 600 model. The 600 was produced for just two years, 1962-63, with a production run of fewer than 500. The Oliver 600 was to be sold only in the U.S. because David Brown didn’t want to impact Canadian sales of the 990. The Oliver 500 could be sold in the U.S. and Canada.

Ford Tractor Co. dropped 13 distribution centers to start getting their tractors direct from the factory. Of the company’s 13 distribution centers, two closed. David Brown made arrangements with the other 11 to distribute its tractors and ended its agreement with Oliver. Finally David Brown could sell its tractors under its own name. Parts for the Oliver 500 became hard to get because David Brown 850 models were never exported to the U.S. and were discontinued in 1965 altogether. That is why my dad didn’t fix his tractor, and why Lonnie wanted it as a parts donor.

If you have an Oliver 500 or have ever seen one, they are rare. Oliver 600 models are very rare: I know of only about five that are running. Based on the number of people I know who own an Oliver 500, there are about 30 Oliver 500 tractors in operation. Seven of those (including mine) were sold by Lonnie Amburgey of Camargo Tractor Sales. I take the one I have to local shows and parades. We also use it for light work around the farm. People always ask me about the tractor, because they’ve never seen or even heard of those tractors.

As for the Oliver Corp., it (along with Minneapolis-Moline and Cockshutt) was purchased by White Farm Equipment Co. An arrangement between Cockshutt and Fiat of Italy extended to Oliver. Oliver and Fiat partnered on a smaller line of tractors until the Oliver name was dropped in 1975. FC 

For more information: David McGuire, oliver@mrtc.com.