Bob Beltz of Ceresco, Mich., enjoys the challenge of restoring vintage tractors to prime condition, and although his restored tractors may be 'keepers,' he's not into personally keeping any of them.
He's restored three tractors, a 1943 Farmall B, a 1937 Oliver row crop 70, and most recently, a 1957 Minneapolis-Moline 445 -the featured tractor (and on the T-shirts) at the 2001 Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Association Show in Portland, Ind.
Every one has gone back to the auction block. 'Once they're done,' Bob says matter-of-factly, 'unless you show 'em (and Bob doesn't show), you can't really use them. They're too nice.'
Of the three, he says, the Minneapolis-Moline was the toughest to part with - and to restore, in particular because of the difficulty of finding parts. The tractor looked and ran 'pretty rough' when he bought it from a nearby farmer friend, Johnny Edmonds. The men had worked together at the General Motors Corp. plant in nearby Kalamazoo, Mich. For a time, they carpooled together, Bob explains, and Johnny talked about how he wanted to sell the tractor when he retired to Alabama. That stirred up Bob's interest.
'He'd put two new back tires on it for $500,' Bob says, 'and that's what he sold it to me for.'
The year was 1991, and Bob actually drove the tractor home, a distance of eight miles. 'It ran but it smoked,' he recalled, 'and the front end was all wobbly.'
The tractor sat at Bob's place for three years before he decided to get going on it. 'My father-in-law helped me with it,' he says. 'He's really helpful, and he's handy. He kept me motivated and when I got stuck, he got me unstuck.'
Bob's father-in-law is Dick Slayton, a John Deere fan who has completely restored three of the green machines: an H, a B and an A, and who regularly helps another neighbor do restorations. He and Bob also have previously worked together on such projects.
Together, the two men tackled the MM, searching out parts in several states. Bob says their time on the road together and the nice folks they met along the way were very enjoyable aspects of the undertaking.
In the end, most of the parts they needed came from the Everett Brothers in Gnadenhutten, Ohio, in the southeast corner of the state. Bob also sent away to Duer Implement in Cadillac, Mich., to Minnesota and to Indiana for some things. 'It got easier over time,' he says, noting he used all sorts of resources, from the Internet and magazines to older farmers 'who knew where the old dealerships were.'
He and Dick rebuilt the tractor's gasoline engine. They had the block and head bored out to .185 of an inch, which Bob described as 'an awful big bore' but one needed to accommodate the engine's pistons. They redid the hydraulics and steering too, to cure the wobbling.
'I needed a new steering wheel because mine was in real bad shape,' he noted. A call to Steiner's in Holly, Mich., which sells steering wheels, seat cushions and other parts, didn't seem too hopeful; they told Bob they didn't yet carry the MM line. But then Bob got the idea of buying a John Deere steering wheel of the same size and welding the MM logo onto it, so he ordered one of those. When it came, he had a revelation. 'I got to looking at it and it was the exact same fit. There was no welding to it; it just fit right on.'
His tractor's transmission was the only thing on it that still worked right, and after he studied the subject a bit, Bob realized that was a very lucky thing. It is called a 'high and low,' he explains, which is almost like a torque amplifier on an International, and would have been very expensive to repair. Electrically, the tractor had a lot of splices in its wiring, so Bob rewired it, making his own wiring harness.
Bob says they were able to use the same wheels, but the rims were too rusted from the chloride solution used to add weight to the tires, so Bob ground off the old rims and welded new ones in place.
He also did the repair work on the dents and creases in the sheet metal fenders, hood and rack, and on the cast-iron grille on the tractor's front, which had a broken part. 'Johnny had the piece, so I just welded it back on, and now you can't tell it was ever broken.' Replacing the emblem on the front of that grille cost a pricey $150, though.
Bob also did all his own painting - 46 parts - in a paint booth he built just for this job and in his father-in-law's paint booth, too. They used one for the sheet metal and one for the smaller parts, which they hung. He did take the manifold into a man in Marshall who powder coated it so it now has the look of new cast iron.
The most nerve-wracking part of the whole restoration, Bob says, was putting all those parts back together again, especially the hood and the side panels. 'That's a tight fit, kind of a toughie.'
In the end, the only parts he couldn't find were replacement fuel and amp gauges. 'They're a square gauge with a square glass disk,' he says, noting he was able to find replacement water temperature and oil pressure gauges from an old MM dealer at Nashville, Mich.
The last part he needed turned out to be a battery cover, which is a very scarce item. 'I talked to an old dealer named Dave Hayward in Scotts, Mich., and it turned out he had some.' It was new old stock, and when Bob asked how much he wanted for one, Hayward said '5.'
'I didn't know if he meant $5 or $500,' Bob says. Hayward clarified that he meant $5 and explained, 'I like to see the Molines fixed up. They're pretty.' But when Bob inquired about buying a second cover, Hayward politely refused.
Once reassembled, the restored tractor ran really well, Bob says: 'Just hit the key and it would start right up. The man who bought it got a real good-running tractor.'
Bob says it took him almost a year to the day to finish it, 'and we worked on it pretty steady. That's a lot of labor.'
He notes he has been a Minneapolis-Moline man at heart for years, having caught the fever as a youth while helping out another farmer who also loved the brand.
The next time around, though, he says, he's thinking he'd like to redo a truck for a change. He has a particular 1947 Chevy pickup in mind, but he' still in the talking stages. FC
-Contact Bob about his restorations at 9885 B Drive So. St., Ceresco, MI 49033; (616) 979-1950.