Good as Prairie Gold
Kansan collector gives old iron Midas touch
Some people claim to bleed red or green when it comes to their favorite tractors, while others see the beauty in all brands. That’s the case with Louis Gast of Linwood, Kan., who owns a small fleet of four brands: a Cockshutt 540, a Massey-Ferguson TD35, an Allis-Chalmers D17, and his newest project, a 1950 Minneapolis-Moline ZAU.
While looking for a tractor project, Louis eyeballed two old, orange cast-aways that his neighbor, Sam Thrift, had rusting away on his property. Louis says he was interested in the tractors after he realized that there weren’t many Minneapolis-Molines at tractor shows. ‘The owner said he’d sell it for $100 if I couldn’t fix it up,’ Louis remembers. ‘I told him that’s what I intended to do, so he said he’d rather give it to me and watch me restore it than sell it.’ The neighbors agreed, and Louis hauled off two model ZAUs -one for parts, the other for restoration.
With the help of his brother-in-law, Kenny Thompson, both tractors were moved to Louis’s garage with a skid loader. That was the easy part. With two rusted hulks taking up space, it was time for Louis to get down to business. Louis started the project by dismantling the tractor one piece at a time in August 2001. With hundreds of parts to keep track of, surprisingly, he never mixed up any of the parts he removed, even though this was his first true restoration. ‘I didn’t really keep anything separated,’ he says. ‘I already knew what had to go where, so I pulled it off and then put them aside.’ Every single component was either replaced or reconditioned, including the clutch, pistons, rings, wheels and cylinders. An easy job? No way. Yet Louis seemed unaffected by the formidable project. To him, the transformation was just a matter of patience and perseverance. Prompting him to discuss the restoration’s specific problems is like removing a rusty bolt from old iron.
‘O.K., it wasn’t quite that easy,’ he reluctantly admits. Louis shuffled between two salvage yards looking for parts and ‘spent more money than the darn thing is worth.’ The entire tractor was rusted inside and out, so Louis blasted away at the rusty, pitted components one at a time. ‘I won’t be doing that again,’ he says with a chuckle. The sandblasting took too much time for each part. Also, he built a radiator for the old tractor, which turned into another excursion. Louis searched junkyards and selected two broken radiators before he found one worthy for the restoration. Those old radiators won’t go to waste, though. He plans to build a mailbox from the scrap, if he ever finds time.
Louis, a very capable mechanic, had more problems working around the tractor’s dilapidated condition than he did rebuilding the ZAU. ‘Tearing apart the tractor was the hardest part for me,’ he remembers. ‘Bolts were always breaking off before I could get them out of the tractor.’ The nuts and bolts were rusted all the way through. In fact, the rust-covered tractor provided home to a few local animals. To Louis’s surprise, a large cache of walnuts poured out when he removed the cover to the crankcase. He removed about 25 winters’ worth of squirrel nuts, which completely filled two 5-gallon buckets.
The two pitted cylinders of the ZAU’s engine also posed a challenge. Louis took them to a local machine shop to have them bored out, but the bore wasn’t deep enough, so he returned and had them hand ground even further, which proved too deep. The bore went through the bottom of the cylinders into the water jacket. Rather than try more repairs to the cylinders -this was his third attempt – he just replaced them.
‘Everyone I talk to seems to have a home restoration remedy,’ he says. ‘Someone told me to use vinegar to unstick the pistons. I tried it and it didn’t work. Then I tried penetrating oil, and that didn’t work. Then I boiled it, and that still didn’t work. Finally, I used a hammer and chisel to get the pistons out.’
After the tractor was cleaned and the engine parts reworked, Louis started the tractor to see if the engine ran. ‘That was the best part,’ he says with a grin. ‘To finally see it running for the first time is a good feeling because it means you’re doing the right things.’ Louis took the tractor out for a little drive in the yard to test the motor, and then it was back in the garage for more tune-up. That first ride, Louis hadn’t installed the gas tank, so he improvised and attached a small, temporary gas can to the fuel line with a rubber hose. To quiet the belching beast, Louis also attached an old truck muffler, and away he drove.
The year-long restoration took every spare moment of Louis’s time. His wife, Fran, says the restoration wasn’t the best recipe for a happy wife, but they survived. Fran says she and brother-in-law Kenny supported Louis during the whole project to keep him motivated. Unfortunately, Sam, the tractor’s original owner, passed away a month into the restoration, and he never saw the finished project. ‘I felt bad for him, especially since he never made it over to see the work,’ Louis says.
Once the tractor was back in pristine condition, Louis applied red primer over the whole thing, which in hind-sight wasn’t the best color to cover a gold paint. ‘The Minneapolis-Moline gold didn’t cover up the red primer,’ Louis remembers. ‘I had to use seven to eight coats of the gold to make it look good.’ Next time, he’ll use gray because it’s easier to mask.
The paint process was no easy undertaking. Parts were hung all over his garage, including wheel covers, fenders and fans. The tires and wheels were taped and painted, and Louis left a little IH red on the rims, but painted the hubs gold. Louis says that using the exact color in the exact place isn’t critical to the restoration because – unlike John Deere and other makers – the Minneapolis-Moline Co. always used whatever paint was on hand at the time. To finish the project, Louis added decals purchased through an Iowa company.
The restoration was finally finished on Louis’s birthday, Oct. 13, 2002. All the painted parts were fitted onto the tractor, and every element was checked one last time before the first official ride of the tractor’s new life. Louis’s son, Mike, and his two grandchildren were the first aboard. Louis didn’t wait to put the tractor to work, either. On Nov. 9, 2002, he hooked the ZAU to a John Deere plow and broke sod just to see if the old girl still had it in her … and he was pleased.
Louis’s next project is his Allis-Chalmers D17. He’s not sure when that will be, but it won’t be a complete restoration because it’s going to be used around the farm. For now, though, the rejuvenated ZAU’s still the center of his attention, and as all old-iron lovers know, there’s plenty more rusty relics where that came from. FC
– Louis Gast can be reached at 20989 Loring Road, Linwood, KS 66052; (913) 301-3278.
1950 Minneapolis-Moline Model ZAU
Minneapolis-Moline unveiled the ‘New Z Tractors,’ now also known as the Model ZA series in 1949. The tractors were different from earlier models in a variety of areas, most noticeably the Prairie Gold-colored, flat-iron grille. Gone too were the louvered engine side panels, replaced with a hood that neither hinged nor covered as much of the engine as on the earlier Z Model tractors.
The ZA also incorporated much-improved features. The series sported a big 206-c.i. Model 206B-4 engine with a 3.65- by 5-inch bore and stroke, which replaced the ZT’s Model RE engine, which only provided 185.8 cubic inches of displacement.
The ZAU – Louis’s model – featured dual narrow-set front wheels that can be reversed to give up to 12.5 inches of spacing between the front tires. The ZAU’s rear wheel tread was adjustable from 54 to 88 inches, which made it a very popular tractor for most any job. It’s popularity is evident in the production figures: Minneapolis-Moline produced more than 1 7,500 units, averaging more than 4,000 ZAUs each year of its production run, 1949 to 1952.