True Colors of Vintage Iron
Recently, this magazine and others have
featured “one lung” gasoline engines painted in bright,
non-original colors. Some traditional collectors take exception to
this practice. There are, in fact, three schools of thought on
engine and tractor restoration:
1. Leave the piece in the condition found, if
it’s at least in decent condition. (Sometimes, a bit of “oil
wiping” will bring out the color of original decals on an
2. If there’s a lot of rust, sandblast the
piece, and repaint in the original color. (Original color
information is fairly easy to obtain, even for pieces produced by
3. Paint it as you please. After all, the
engine or tractor is yours, and you can rightfully paint it any
color you want.
While the original paint colors of many stationary engines can
only be guessed at, tractor color schemes were more standard.
Probably the best known is the John Deere green and yellow. From
the 1920s to the 1950s, while driving along a country road and
seeing a farmer busy plowing, you could determine the make of
tractor by color alone. Sometimes, though, companies switched
colors in the middle of a production run. A good example is the
early McCormick-Deering International, which changed abruptly from
a dark blue-gray with red wheels to the now well-known
Henry Ford’s 9N was painted a light “battleship gray” from 1939
until 1948, when Ford’s grandson, Henry Ford II, came out with the
Ford 8N painted in what now is referred to as a “red belly” and a
lighter gray hood, fenders and wheels. Since cast iron tends to
rust more quickly than sheet metal, Ford’s designers decided to
paint the body red. That way, when the paint wore down to the red
primer, it wouldn’t be as noticeable. Later, Ford changed to a
The precise shade of the earlier Fordson gray has always been a
matter of conjecture. Ford apparently shopped around to get the
best buy on paint. As supplies of paint from varying sources were
used, varying shades of gray resulted. The red wheels of that era,
however, seemed to stay the same.
When the machinery was shipped to Cork, Ireland, to build the
Irish models, some reports suggest that the first Fords produced
there had gray bodies with black wheels. The response was
apparently negative, and the decision was made to revert to red
wheels. But when the English Ford N came out of the plant at
Dagenham, England, in 1932, a new scheme was unveiled: dark blue
body with orange wheels.
That color scheme continued until 1938, when the decision was
made to paint the tractors (body and wheels) yellow-orange. During
the early years of World War II, however, the bright-color Fordsons
were easy targets for German bombers. The decision was quickly made
to paint all British Fordsons (new and old) green. The camouflage
worked: The tractors blended in with the countryside and further
tractor losses were minimized.
After hostilities ceased, Fordson returned briefly to the
pre-war scheme of blue body and orange wheels, until 1953, when the
Fordson Major Diesels were introduced. On that model, the body was
light blue and the wheels were light orange. Finally, until the end
of Fordson production, the wheels became the light gray of the Ford
tractors of the same years. Actually, the Fordson Super Major of
1964 was the same color as the Ford 5000.
Today, collectible Fordsons are subject to the whims of their
owners. Some, collected by purists, are shown in their correct
colors. Other collectors, less bound by convention, adopt different
palettes. Either way, one has to admit that these Fordsons in
non-standard colors are pretty!
– Jack Heald is national director of the Fordson Tractor
Club. Contact him at 250 Robinson Road, Cave Junction, OR 97523;
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