The Sears Suburban Goes Urban

With a new outlook on life, a 1976 Sears Suburban garden tractor is back in business.

1976 Suburban SS18

The 1976 Suburban SS18 in its work clothes.

Photo by Rodney Ahlgrim

Content Tools

For those dwelling in urban areas, space can limit what kind of equipment you may have, and maintaining such property can require extensive personal time just to keep things in order. I had been having just such reflections on the farm-sized equipment at our farm in Kansas and found my solution to be that very kind of equipment – except on a much smaller scale.

‘Tractor for the suburban farm’

On a spring afternoon in the late 1980s, Dad and I attended a farm equipment consignment auction. The sun was setting in the west as the auctioneer hurriedly auctioned off three remaining garden tractors at the close of the sale. I recall wanting the John Deere 110 hydro. However, a Sears Suburban SS18 Twin would become my prized possession (and mental therapy for many years into the future) for the price of $260. Dad paid the cashier and instructed me to stay with his purchase until he returned with the pickup.

The Suburban tractor, manufactured by Roper under the Sears name, was available with a variety of attachments. These seem to have been marketed to small-acreage residents who chose a self-sufficient lifestyle. In period advertising, they were even marketed as a “Shortcut to Leisure.”

I had always wanted a John Deere 110 patio tractor (so named for the line’s white belly and hoods in Spruce Blue, April Yellow, Patio Red and Sunset Orange, marketed to match colors popular at the time). But the Suburban won out after I saw a vintage Sears ad that read, “The Tractor for the Suburban Farm.” As steeped as I am in all things farm-related, this struck a chord in me. Plus, the availability of more than 30 attachments (some like their full-size counterparts) – including a dump rake, front-mounted generator and chipper shredders – offered wide versatility to one piece of powered equipment.

Rescued from long neglect

After the auction, the tractor spent the next 35 years circling the 1-acre farmyard as the resident mower and towing bale trailers loaded with fallen tree limbs. About 15 years ago, it developed a stubborn traveling miss and the steering stiffened up, leading to major drivability issues. Eventually it entered a long period of disuse.

In May 2014, with my small Holsclaw utility trailer in tow, I headed to Kansas to rescue the Suburban from the weeds and eight years of neglect. By the time my interest and need were rekindled, the tractor was a complete loss by most standards. The only things that weren’t seized up were the engine, transmission and ignition switch. Disappointment settled in as the Bakelite steering tower, weakened by years of exposure to sun and moisture, shattered like a sheet of ice falling off a tin roof.

Aside from being a piece from the farm that is city-sized yet with attachments like its big brethren, the tractor’s primary function was to mow the street easement, where a thick stand of grass might cause my 6-1/2 hp 22-inch push mower to chuck its rod through the block. Use as the big iron tillage component of my largely heirloom vegetable garden would come in second. Restoration of the tractor would follow as time and funds allowed.

Coaxed back to life

To bring the Burb (as I now call it) to working condition, my first purchase was a basic lawn tractor battery. Then I purged the stale gas from the under-seat tank and fuel line and cleaned years of sediment out of the carburetor. Any time I walked by, I sprayed copious amounts of penetrating oil full to overflowing on the throttle and choke cables, clutch and brake fulcrum points, and steering assembly.

When coupled with patience, WD-40 proved its worth, as in a month (give or take), I got everything freed up without a single part replacement. With the engine brought back to life (after several backfires that probably kept the local police on edge), the Burb was used to mow the easement – but the old drivability issues returned.

After repeated testing of points, coil and condenser, and spark plug replacement, I came to the conclusion that the tractor’s more-than-40-year-old ignition system was all used up. I set forth with the time-consuming task of finding new components. The tractor’s Onan Model BG engine is uncommon, compared to its Briggs & Stratton, Kohler and Tecumseh counterparts. Pricing for complete replacements came in at $300 and up, too much for me to invest at the time.

A rainy inspiration

The final answer to the persistent misfiring dilemma came about in an unusual way. Since relocating the Burb, I’ve continually searched for reasonably priced attachments to add to my “UrBine Farm” collection. After retrieving a 3-point cultivator in a neighboring community one cold and rainy November night, I swapped the trailer from the back of the mini-van to the Burb to pull my find into the side yard.

As rain dripped down, I unknowingly put the tractor into high gear. With the tractor throttle just off idle, I released the clutch. The wet belt acted as a torque amplifier. When the belt and governor caught at the same time, the tractor power-slid, resulting in a rather unexpected and speedy trip through the back gate, narrowly missing the van.

Caught between what just happened? and I want to do that again!, I left the tractor running to charge the battery while I pulled the van into the garage. The erratic misfiring had started by the time I returned. That’s when I noticed a blue strobe-light effect and snapping noise coming from under the hood, a fact I noted for later reference.

Back in business

The culprit was finally found during a points swap and adjustment. Forty years of faithful use had caused the lead wire from the coil to the points to deteriorate under the intake manifold (out of sight), resulting in intermittent shorts, especially in high humidity. Within a minute, I had a new one built and installed.

After reinstalling all the original ignition components and starting back at square one with carburetor adjustments setting high/low needles within operational specs, the Onan now runs a strong high idle, throwing grass clippings 20 feet out the deck discharge chute, with the nice throaty low-speed exhaust note that only an opposed twin can have.

As my search continues for the rare and useful attachments manufactured for these once popular small tractors, the Suburban continues working year-round mowing, plowing, dragging fallen limbs and hauling all manner of produce and yard mulch around this one-quarter acre of UrBine Farm. FC


Raised on a family farm in central Kansas, Rodney Ahlgrim now lives in Edmond, Oklahoma, where he works as a fleet technician for a local school district. In his free time, he enjoys writing humorous essays and making periodic visits with his family to the home place. Email Rodney at rahlg@swbell.net.

Have a story to share about your old iron project, discovery or collection? Jot it down, gather up good quality prints or digital images and send it to us: Editor, Farm Collector Magazine, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; email: editor@farmcollector.com.