George Heinrich was all of 6 years old when he fell in love with tractors. “Driving a Ford 2N tractor in the hay field, I always had my older brother with me as he and Dad did the hay using a hay loader,” he recalls. “It was my job to make sure the tractor straddled the windrow. I was so small I couldn’t shift, so I’d stand on the clutch to stop the tractor. When they were ready to go again, I’d step off the clutch and sit on the seat and drive it. It was so much fun. I really enjoyed it. I was a little kid doing a big person’s job.”
Years later, George’s older brother, Melvin, started farming with a Ford 9N, and George worked with him, using that tractor. George was attracted to Ford tractors early on. He used them as he farmed and enjoyed working on them.
When George and his wife, Evey, drove to visit her sister near New Vienna, Iowa, George spied an unusual-looking 600 series Ford tractor. “Every time we went by, it had never moved,” he says. “A few years later, I stopped and talked to the owner and asked if he wanted to sell it. But he wanted quite a bit of money, so I said I was going to pass.”
The unusual tractor was a 1959 Ford 641-L Workmaster propane tractor. The Heinrichs continued to pass the tractor on their trips to New Vienna. George stopped in one more time to ask if the owner would consider selling the tractor. “He said he would, but he’d raised his price,” George says. “I told him I’d give him the original price, and he settled for that.”
Once George had the tractor back on his farm near Hastings, Minnesota, he realized the amount of work he would have to do to get it in running shape. “It was rusty and had been sitting outside for years, and had water in the crankcase,” he says. “The propane system was in pretty bad shape, although the engine was free and would run. So I cleaned up the engine on the outside and took care of a lot of the rust, as well as some bodywork.” Starting in 2015, it took him about two years to get it completely restored.
Having grown up on a farm and farming with his brother all his life, George figured he’d be able to get the tractor back into good shape. He had plenty of experience from previous projects, including Ford tractors. Time was the bigger issue: He was still working full time as a lab technician at 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“I worked on various things there, including glass bubbles to be used in body fillers, as well as paint, cosmetics and explosives,” he says. “Glass bubbles are hollow, strong but lightweight spheres. They range from about 2 microns to 10 microns in diameter. A strand of human hair is about 10 microns in diameter.”
So he chipped away at the tractor restoration. First, he split the 641 to change the starter ring gear on the flywheel and inspect the clutch. The clutch worked well and was in good condition. “The front oil seal on the crankshaft was leaking, so I replaced that,” he says, “and because the engine had a little bit of water in it, I drained the oil and put new oil in. Then I cleaned the outside of the engine.”
He wasn’t worried about water in the propane, as that fuel in the tank is always under pressure, with no chance of water or anything else getting into the system. But the propane regulator was worn and needed a lot of work, so he consulted a propane distributor, who suggested replacement of the regulator with a modern unit from a forklift truck. “I put that in, and it works really nice. That’s the only item on the tractor that isn’t stock,” he says. “But you can’t notice that unless you’re really looking for it. People will never notice the difference.”
Next was the body. “The front of the hood had a big hole in it where it had run into something,” he says, “so I had to pound that out as good as I could to get it to match what it would look like when it was new.” That required heating the metal, pounding it out and welding in some sheet metal. Then he made it as smooth as he could, using auto body filler. He sandblasted the remaining rust and finished with primer and paint.
“I did a little bit at a time, and basically used a rattle can and it turned out pretty good,” he says. “With a little practice, a person can get pretty good with a rattle can. But it’s the kind of work that if it has to be done, I’ll do it. I’m almost 80 years old now, and have lived through quite a bit of experiences with sheet metal and painting, engine and transmission work, so now that stuff basically comes quite naturally. Just dive in and do it.”
The sheet metal work was the most difficult part of the two-year project, George says. “I wanted to get all the rust out, down to bare metal, so it won’t rust again,” he says. “I did it so it will last many years.”
The challenge of tackling something different made it all worthwhile. “Getting to know how the propane works, and just setting it up so that the engine ran well, along with the engine work, too,” he says. “Those were my favorite parts of the job.”
His 1959 Ford 641-L Workmaster propane tractor is a rare one, George says, especially up in the colder northland. “Down south, they probably sold a lot more of them,” he says, “but up here, I’ve never seen another one, though I’ve seen pictures of them on the Internet.”
Fuel transfer was the big problem, he says. “In order to get propane into the tractor’s tank, you had to have a pump on the farm and get the propane from a bigger tank,” he says, “or go to town with the tractor, or wherever someone had a pump to get the fuel into the tractor.”
Further complicating the matter, the pumps were expensive. Few farmers had one, especially in the early 1960s, when on-farm crop driers (complete with a large propane tank) were uncommon.
Another way to fill the fuel tank on the tractor is by using basic physics. Under the law of gasses, additional pressure is created by raising the temperature of the gas (or liquefied propane).
The opposite occurs by lowering the temperature, so the pressure is decreased. “I cool the tank on the tractor by running cold water on it,” George says. “By lowering the temperature of the tank on the tractor, fuel will flow into it.” That method works but it is slow – creating yet another obstacle for farmers whose time is limited, especially during certain seasons of the year.
“The temperature of the propane in the large tank isn’t a problem in the summer,” George says. “The large tank has two ports, for liquid or for gas, and I always use the liquid one, which takes the propane from the bottom of the large tank. With the temperature differential, the liquid propane will flow smoothly into the tractor tank. During warmer months this method will work, but imagine trying to do that during the winter up here. How can you get the large tank warmer than the small tank? In winter it would be impossible. So you couldn’t use the temperature differential method to fill it, although you could use the pump, which would be slow.”
A unit of propane does not contain as much energy as the same amount of gasoline, although propane is less expensive than gasoline, George says. He’s also found that starting a propane tractor is less of a problem than starting some gasoline tractors.
“When you start the propane tractor, you choke it and as soon as it starts, it keeps running and never misfires,” he says. “It acts like a diesel, no hesitation at all. Power-wise the propane might be just a little less, but it‘s not much. I put the 641 on the dynamometer and found it had 32 hp, while with a gasoline tractor it‘s 33 or 34 hp, so not much difference.” Propane is a very clean fuel, so the oil in the crankcase stays clean.
After acquiring the 641 in 2015, George took the unrestored tractor to the Rice County Steam & Gas Engine Show in Minnesota, and got a few comments from show visitors. Since then, after a complete restoration, he gets a lot more.
“Most people aren’t too aware of the differences between the 641 and other tractors, even though the propane tank on top is quite obvious,” he says. “Most people don’t realize how rare a tractor this is. Minneapolis-Moline was a proponent of propane tractors, and John Deere and International had a few, but Ford had very, very few. More than anything, it was that rarity that caught my eye. I just have it for show and to run it in parades.“
Besides the 641, George’s collection includes a 640, two 961s, an 881, two Majors (one restored and one not), a 4000 SU utility that he still uses on the farm, a 4200 row crop tricycle and a 7710 – his newest tractor – that he uses on the farm.
For now, that’s enough. George says he isn’t actively looking for any other Ford tractors. “I have enough to do right now until I’m 100 years old plus,” he says with a laugh. “The only possibility would be if some really scarce Ford tractor becomes available that would catch my attention. But that would be the only possibility.” FC
For more information: George Heinrich, 525 E. 17th St., Hastings, MN 55033.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.