For the Love of Rusty Old Tractors

Variety is the spice of life, and this applies to old tractors as well.

massey ferguson 135

This Massey Ferguson 135 has crossed the line from unrestored to neglected and is ripe for restoration.

Photo by Josephine Roberts

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There are still plenty of unrestored tractors to see here in Wales. Are they neglected old workhorses, or beautiful works of art? It’s all a matter of taste.

I notice as I leaf through Farm Collector magazine that most of the tractors featured in these pages are beautifully restored to look just as they did on the day they came out of the factory. These gleaming pieces of engineering take us back to the day when these tractors were brand new and current, and the results of these painstaking restorations also showcase the amazing skills of enthusiastic restorers and owners. Restoring an old wreck and transforming it into a sparkling, smooth-running showpiece is like bringing something back from the dead. It must be an amazing feeling to bring about such a transformation. The results must be an enormous source of pride to the restorers, and to their families too.

Thorough restorers must give a sigh of blissful satisfaction when, having completed a restoration, they are confident of having preserved the tractor for another few decades and the next generation. We are only custodians of these beautiful machines, keeping them safe for our children and grandchildren, because “they ain’t making any more of them,” as they say. Without our conscientious restorers, we would have lost a huge number of our historic tractors to the scrap man. I have every admiration for anyone who has the skills and dedication to save our old relics and preserve them for the future.

Variety is the spice of life

However, a tireless restorer I am not. Quality restorations are beyond me and my humble abilities. I feel that unless one is going to do a really good job on a cosmetic restoration, then the best bet is to leave well enough alone and not attempt to restore but simply to aim to preserve.

I have a tractor (a 1953 David Brown) that is, to put it honestly, downright scruffy and almost devoid of the bright red paint that it would have worn when new. Initially I didn’t repaint this tractor because I knew I couldn’t do it justice. I’m what we call here “cack handed” with a paintbrush, and downright impatient with sandpaper, and I knew full well that I couldn’t afford to pay an expert to do the job for me, so it was left as it was.

But over the years I’ve begun to feel glad that I never repainted this tractor. I’ve come to really love its warm and weathered look. Also, it’s a look that has gained a bit of popularity in recent years. Not that I’m one to follow fashion of course, but it’s always nice to discover that by doing nothing at all, you have inadvertently attained the height of fashion.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m not evangelical about the natural aging of tractors; I have the utmost admiration for anyone who has the ability to make an old tractor look like new again, and I think it would be a terrible thing if everyone did as I have done and let their tractors gently age in a coating of rust. But the good thing is everyone isn’t doing that, and just sometimes, it is really nice to see what an old tractor looks like after 50-odd years of life and work. Seeing a variety of tractors, different makes, some restored, some not, is what I really like about shows. It would be a dull world if all tractors looked the same.

But what is ‘original’?

As I browse through the “for sale” adverts in the back of the numerous tractor magazines that we have here in the U.K., I frequently see old, unrestored tractors described as being “in original condition.” On a grammatical level this makes me roll my eyes, because to me the word “original” means the earliest form of something, something that hasn’t been altered, which isn’t a copy, and is as it was in the beginning. Therefore an “original” tractor is one that looks like it did when it was first made, not when it has aged, and not when it has been restored either. So, to me, the word “original” is almost always incorrectly used when applied to old tractors. Our weathered tractors are unrestored, yes, but original, no.

Other terms exist to describe these often rather scruffy tractors. Take “unmolested,” for instance. This common description rather piously suggests that anyone who restores or alters a tractor in any way is somehow committing a hideous crime. “In its works clothes” is another term I see being used to describe unrestored tractors. This is an altogether more pleasant term that implies the poor, humble hardworking machine didn’t have time to change its clothing before finding itself in the classified ad or the show ring.

Slightly more pretentious are those ads that describe unique and beautiful patinas. I’ve been guilty of using those terms many a time myself, purely because I can’t help liking the easy-on-the-eye, soft hues of worn and weathered paint. To me, they are attractive pieces of art. I’m aware not everyone feels the same. A more honest term for some of the unrestored tractors I see in adverts would be “totally neglected.” Because there is a state which exists just beyond “naturally aged,” and that is “badly corroded.” So, yes, there is a fine line between tinwork that is unrestored and tinwork that is beyond hope.

Memories in the making

Rightly or wrongly I find the weathered look aesthetically pleasing in tractors, but it’s not just about the “unique patina,” because sometimes the wear and tear on a tractor can tell a really special story. There might be a dent caused when Uncle Bill slid the tractor into the gatepost that year in the snow, or there might be worn patch on the mudguard paint where Granddad used to rest his arm as he drove. Such wear is seen by some people not as an imperfection but as a memory, and these memories can be far more important than a shiny new paint job.

Sometimes I see old tractors bearing the original badge from the dealership. The badge might be worn, and of course a modern copy could easily be obtained, but unless the original badge was totally unreadable I think I would prefer to leave it as it is, because this is the actual badge fixed on by some long-since passed away person, who worked for a long-gone dealership, and a replica just isn’t quite the same.

The shabby chic look

Natural aging is one thing, but artificial creation of a distressed look is another matter altogether. Some people buy or build a machine that looks like new and then try to make it look old, as though it has been around the clock a few times. This just goes to show what a quirky lot we humans are. We cut holes in perfectly good jeans to make them look well worn, and we apply expensive paint effects onto perfectly good cupboards in order to give them a history that they clearly don’t have. This is fakery plain and simple, and it’s all rather silly, even if at first glance it does create a “wow” factor.

This reminds me of a biker friend of my father’s who bought a denim waistcoat to wear over his biker jacket, but the waistcoat was rather too new looking for his liking, so he decided to tow it on a piece of rope behind his truck for a while, to give it more of a well-travelled look. However, he forgot it was there, and when he stopped for his lunch he spotted it, and was annoyed to discover that all that was left of the waistcoat was a few tattered remains. There wasn’t enough of it left to wear and it had to be thrown into the nearest bin. Sometimes fakery just isn’t worth it.

Caring for the rusty relic

Rusty old relics should really be protected from further decay, especially in the damp maritime climate that we have here in the U.K. My late father’s method for preserving rusty metal was always to use old engine oil diluted with a splash of diesel. He would paint this liberally on anything he wanted to protect, be that wooden fencing, rusty metal or the underneath of the family car! It might have provided a waterproof coating, but the health risks and subsequent mess probably far outweighed any of the benefits.

Some collectors wipe their unrestored tractors with lubricating oil such as WD-40, which is handy as it comes in a spray can and can easily be applied. I received a tip a few years ago from an American reader who recommended linseed oil. I apply this with a rag and I find that a small bottle gives the whole tractor a liberal coating. The smell is nice, and I find the product less messy and sticky than lubricating oil. Linseed oil gives a nice healthy glow to the tractor, and takes only 10 minutes or so to apply. I doubt that linseed oil would last long on a tractor that was left outdoors, but on a tractor housed in a building the effect lasts for a few months before a reapplication is needed.

I have heard of using sunflower oil for the same purpose. This costs even less than linseed oil, isn’t harmful to the skin, and, like linseed oil, it can be applied with a brush or put into a hand sprayer. A word of warning about linseed oil though: Be careful what you do with the cloths and rags that you use to apply this product. They can be combustible and should be disposed of very carefully.

Serious fans of the aged patina often prepare the tin work so that it has the perfect distressed look, and then apply several coats of clear matte lacquer or varnish. This preserves the look more permanently than an oil application. Of course, proper application of lacquer or varnish could take almost as long as a proper paint job, so personally I’d much prefer to stick with the quick and easy linseed oil.

Beautiful in their own way

So, as I’ve explained, I’m not trying to convert anyone into becoming a fan of natural aging. If you are one of those thorough, tireless, conscientious restorers with an eye for detail and a shed-load of patience, then I take my hat off to you, and please don’t even for a moment consider stopping doing what you do best: Old tractors need people like you! But maybe you would just this once indulge me and take a look of some of the rusty old relics that I have pictured here. They are beautiful in their own way, aren’t they? Not better than a restored tractor of course, just different. 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
.