Nichols, N.Y. man gives a 1934 Plymouth tractor the restoration it deserves
Norm Westervelt has invested more than three years in the restoration of his Plymouth tractor. After pouring something like 2,400 hours into the tractor, he's quick to admit that it was a massive undertaking, but he doesn't begrudge a minute of the project.
"It was my biggest restoration project," he says. "After I got started, it took three and a half years to finish it. But that's hobby time ... I always looked at it as fun, as a real challenge. It was a delight going out there. Every day that it was 20 degrees or above, I'd go work on it."
Norm, who lives in Nichols, N.Y., is retired from 30 years with IBM, where he worked as a field representative and later in research and design. He is now the proud owner of a 1934 Plymouth, "one of the nicest two in the country," he says.
The R38 Plymouth was made by the Fate-Root-Heath Company in Plymouth, Ohio. The company started with the Plymouth 10-20 in 1934. Within about a year, though, the tractor's name was changed to Silver King.
"Walter Chrysler took exception to the name 'Plymouth'," Norm says.
Because the name was so short-lived, few Plymouths were made. Many, though, have passed the test of time.
"It's amazing to me that of 200 made, there's still 40 running," he says. "It's a tough little tractor."
It was also a speedy little number.
"The Silver King's main claim to fame was 'It's fast from farm to field.' It'd go 24-25 mph," Norm says. "The Plymouth was the same way: If you had the courage to do it, it'd just fly."
The Silver King was made in two configurations: the utility tractor, and a three-wheeler. "The three-wheeler was a two-plow tractor, and the Plymouth was always the little four-wheeler," he says. "It was a great cultivating tractor ... it was a pretty ambitious little tractor."
The Plymouth is a rare breed.
"There just were not many made," Norm says. "But never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd have one. There were approximately 200 made, and mine is number 75. It's kind of thrilling to know so few were made, and I have one."
Norm first heard about the Silver King from a neighbor, who raved about the one he'd bought new. When he was in the process of buying another vintage tractor, Norm learned of a Silver King for sale, and he quickly added it to his collection.
"I took it to a show the next year," he says. "It was in really good shape: All it needed was paint and decals."
His next tractor, though, was another story. On his way to another show, he'd stopped to look at an old Ford truck. While there, he learned of a Plymouth that might be available.
"I went to see it, and when I got there, on a junk pile was the remains of a tractor," he says. It was definitely a "fixer-upper."
"This guy had no idea what he had: He'd found it on a hedgerow," Norm says. "When they'd loaded it up, it had broken in two and just twisted everything. But the radiator was in pretty good shape, and it had the name plate, so I said 'OK: some day this is going to be a tractor. Something's got to happen here.'"
And something did happen, but not quickly.
"It took me five years to find an engine for it," he says. "I found an engine block and four pistons in Ohio. I started buying Hercules power units (the Plymouth was originally equipped with a Hercules IXA four-cylinder motor). Almost everything in it was from used parts, and I hand fit every single part. It took a month just to complete the engine, and I totally rebuilt the transmission. I had what you'd call an intimate relationship with that tractor."
It was a relationship that taught the virtue of patience.
"Patience is the name of the game in restoration," he says. "When I turned the engine block over, and saw the broken-off oil pump ... Well, it took me 12 hours to get that out of the block. You don't want to damage anything else! It's kind of exciting to finally get a little movement ..."
He also learned the merits of perseverance.
"You can't be scared to try lots of different things," he says. "I'd done sheet metal work and painting, and I almost hired a guy to do some painting on the Plymouth. But then I decided 'no': I had done everything else myself ... I'm going to paint it myself, too.
"Well, I got the best paint I could find (at about $100 a gallon). I put it on, and there were big black streaks in the paint. I was just sick. I went back to the store where I'd gotten the paint, and they said they'd remix it. So I painted it again, and there were still streaks."
The paint company representative offered no help, but a friend did.
"He recommended an increase in the air pressure in the paint gun," he says, "and when I did that, it worked great."
Detail is important to Norm when restoring tractors.
"I like to get them as original as possible," he says. That's where the national Silver King club came in handy.
"They meet the first weekend in August in Plymouth, Ohio," he says. "There was a guy there with original sales literature from 1934 showing the Plymouth's colors. I got all the appearance and detail information from that."
Detailing, though, came late in the game.
"The Plymouth's fenders were missing, so I had new ones made," he says. "I was able to save the hood, but I had to sandblast it. That's almost the only thing I ever sandblasted. I'm opposed to sandblasting: it will permeate any seal. My method is to use paint remover, oxyacetylene torch with a lazy flame, and go at it with a wire brush."
Today, the Plymouth is in fine shape.
"When you start in on this old junk, you don't know how it's going to turn out," Norm says. "But it runs great."
The finished product is a treasure.
"It's a piece of iron, but a Plymouth is a fairly valuable tractor," he notes. "Recently, an unrestored Plymouth was sold for $14,500. And it's very, very difficult to get one. I have an off-the-cuff appraisal of $23,000 on mine. The value of the whole Silver King line has increased a lot in the last six years. If you want to make money, get a Silver King, and hold on to it."
Norm's tractor collection started with a 1946 Ford 9N that he bought in 1972, and later restored.
"I was living in upstate New York, and I needed a tractor to maintain the acreage," he says. "So, I got the Ford. It's a great utility tractor."
His collection has since evolved. In addition to tractors, he also has a collection of spark plugs, corn grinding equipment- including a sheller made by Fate-Root-Heath - and other farm-related antiques. Some of it he collects just for the pure pleasure of collecting ("People think spark plugs aren't pretty," he says, "but these are ..."). But other pieces - like a wooden chain pump - he uses to hook a new generation into farm antiques.
"When you get into the business of showing tractors, you get involved with kids," he says. "And I love to educate them, if I can." FC
For more information: Norman C. Westervelt, 313 Smith Creek Road, Nichols, NY 13812; (607) 687-2616.