British tractors, like Fergusons and David Browns, are of course the most commonly seen vintage tractors in the U.K.
Yet, at every show there are always a handful of American tractors on display, too.
John Deere tractors are famous the world over, and in their green and yellow livery they are easily spotted in the lineup at British shows. We sometimes see Allis-Chalmers tractors here, too: mostly the Allis B, which, being a “dainty,” lightweight sort of tractor, is a popular choice for the collector who wants something a bit different from the British stuff, but doesn’t want to haul some great heavyweight around on a trailer. Less commonly seen is the charmingly named Minneapolis-Moline.
American tractors in the U.K. fall into three main categories: tractors originally meant for the U.K. market, those sent to Britain as part of the 1941 Lend-Lease Act and those brought into Britain by (or for) U.K. collectors.
Remnants of Lend-Lease Act
The Lend-Lease Act was America’s way of helping Britain out. Prior to World War I, British agriculture was, for many of the poorer farmers, still a horse-drawn affair. In the period between the First and Second World Wars, a huge amount of food was imported into Britain, which in turn drove British agriculture into decline.
The dangers of shipping during World War II slashed those imports, and Britain was forced to start ploughing every possible acre to produce food for our hungry nation. The problem was that much of our workforce had been sent to war, and whilst of course there were tractors here, there were not enough for our rapidly increasing needs. So, tractors and implements imported from the U.S. were put to use by what farm workers remained (those on “reserved occupation,” those unfit to be soldiers, and the Women’s Land Army).
When we look at these Lend-Lease tractors, most of which are now collectors’ items, it’s sobering to think that these machines actually hark back to a very troubled time in our history. Many of the American tractors that I see in people’s collections today are Lend-Lease tractors.
The Standard Fordson was common here during the 1940s, and many people think of it as being the machine that kept Britain fed through hard times. You can imagine that, for people only accustomed to the sight of a small Fordson tractor, the sight of a bright yellow Minneapolis-Moline would have been quite an eye opener!
Collection rooted in war time
One collector I know has a bit of a passion for old American tractors. Hefin Jones of North Wales has several Lend-Lease tractors. The most visually striking of them all is the canary yellow Minneapolis-Moline GTS.
This 1941 50 hp machine is a beast of a tractor even by today’s standards, but it must have seemed even larger back in 1941 alongside the small Fordsons and early David Browns, its British contemporaries. Shipped from the U.S. to Lincolnshire, England, the tractor eventually found its way to North Wales, where it spent the reminder of its working life powering a threshing machine. Hefin bought this tractor in 1987. When I asked him what it is like to drive, he replied proudly, “A monster!”
Whilst the large tractors of the day might have been useful to the owners of the larger farms in Britain, they would have been totally unsuitable on small hilly farms. No doubt efforts were made to match tractors to the farm, but it doesn’t appear that farmers had any choice about exactly what tractor they would receive through the Lend-Lease program. Hefin told me about a farmer who was hoping to receive a Minneapolis-Moline. Instead, he got a Massey-Harris 102 Senior (which Hefin now owns).
A man who enjoys investigating the history of his tractors, Hefin tracked down the first British owner of the Massey-Harris. That gentleman, from Kettering, England, must have done his research and decided that a Minneapolis-Moline was the machine for him, and was somewhat disappointed when he was given the Massey. He disliked the cumbersome nature of the tractor, its steel wheels and extremely slow top speed. Probably due to the fact that it was on steel wheels, the top gear appeared to have been blocked off (though years later Hefin discovered that, rather than being blocked off, the top gear just wasn’t there at all!).
This story, it must be admitted, appears to be a classic case of “looking a gift horse in the mouth.” But, times were changing beneath people’s feet, and I don’t suppose this farmer particularly liked the changes that were happening in his world because of the war.
Now back to that Massey-Harris. If it was considered cumbersome in the relatively flat country of Kettering, then it was going to be even less suited to the steep hillsides and small fields of North Wales, which is where it ended up going to work after the war. Hefin bought the tractor in 1971 and restored it, and at last it is with someone who actually appreciates it, though he does admit that it isn’t a tractor he would particularly like to have to drive across a steep Welsh hillside.
Hefin’s collection includes another Lend-Lease tractor, a 1939 Case Model R. This little tractor arrived new from the U.S. to Bellis Bros., a market garden near Wrexham, North Wales, in 1939. Hefin’s wife, Eleri, actually found this tractor: She spotted it whilst visiting a friend in 1975. Doing his detective work, Hefin discovered that he is the tractor’s 13th owner, and that no one kept the tractor for very long. It’s a lovely little tractor, but some owners may have found it rather small for their needs.
Hefin restored the Case in 1995 and rebuilt the engine. The parts had to come from Wisconsin, which wasn’t a big problem, as Hefin claims he’s always found it fairly easy to source parts from the U.S., and that people over there (yes, you lot!) have always been most helpful. Hefin is very fond of this little tractor, as it is the one he learned to plough with. He uses his tractors as much as possible, and frequently competes in ploughing matches throughout Wales, though more often than not these days he is to be seen ploughing with his Fordson Model N and trailer plough.
A passion for green machines
Whist Hefin takes an interest in various makes of American tractors, some collectors stick to just one. Many of you are fans of John Deere tractors, and I’m sure you won’t be surprised to find that those tractors are popular with collectors all over the U.K. too.
Tony Corniall, Anglesey, North Wales, is one enthusiast who has time only for John Deere. He has four John Deere tractors: a 4240, a 4250, an 820 and a “baby” John Deere, namely a 2007 3720. The 4240 and the 4250 are highly practical classics, and Tony is a huge fan of the fantastic engineering that makes these tractors such a pleasure to drive.
Despite being more than 25 years old, the 1978 4240 still handles like new, and has been so well cared for that it shows very few signs of wear. A few years back a gentleman commented to Tony that he must be doing all right if he could afford a brand new John Deere, which was amusing as the tractor was then almost a quarter of a century old.
The 820 is the wild card in an otherwise quite sensible pack of tractors. Tony had read about the 820 and what a beast it was, but he had never seen one in the flesh. “I liked the idea of these two great big cylinders and the donkey engine,” he says. “It all sounded quite bonkers!”
Tony was lucky enough to be able to talk to Don MacMillan, an author who is recognized over here as a leading authority on John Deere tractors. “They say he even has green blood!” Tony says with a laugh.
Don confirmed that the 820 really was quite a machine, especially for its age, and that it would probably be capable of out-pulling the 4240. Don was able to give Tony a lead on one that happened to be for sale in this country, and it wasn’t long before Tony was the happy new owner of this noisy creature. This 1958 75 hp John Deere 820 spent most of its life in Saskatchewan, Canada, and was brought to the U.K. in 2002. Tony is enormously fond of this tractor, and he couldn’t wait for me to hear it fire up. “It must have pistons like buckets!” he told me with his infectious enthusiasm.
Crossing the pond
In recent years vintage and classic tractor collecting has become big business in the U.K., and the desire to own the exotic and unusual has led to a great number of tractors being brought in from overseas.
According to Ben Wheeler, who imports tractors into the U.K., it costs roughly £1,200 (about $1,930) to bring each tractor over, which, when one considers the price of transporting a person that far, doesn’t actually seem that expensive. The process does require an enormous amount of paperwork. Ben says the John Deere R is probably one of the “most wanted” tractors here in the U.K.
Some might question the ethics of taking pieces of heritage from the country of their origin and selling them to other parts of the world, but the fact is the world has become one big marketplace. One thing that can be said in favor of this new global interest in antique and classic tractors is that at least it means the tractors in question are being valued and cared for. FCJosephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.