Avoid costly missteps when collecting tractors by understanding rarity, usefulness, styling and markets.
Most hobbies are expensive, and it often seems that those that are the most fun are the most expensive! But if you have storage space, reasonable mechanical ability, a decent set of tools and an understanding wife, you can actually make money buying and selling collectible tractors.
While I don’t qualify for one or more of the previous stipulations, I have been a student of the “collecting for profit” scene for many years. Dan Mecum of Mecum’s “Gone Farmin’” tractor auctions also knows a thing or two about selling tractors. If you’re thinking about blending a hobby with actual profit, consider the observations we’ve made:
First, can you buy a piece to restore, or do you need to target restored pieces? You must have multiple talents and good estimating skills to take on a “basketcase” restoration. On the other hand, just freshening up an older restoration is much less risky. But if you buy a completely restored tractor for resale at a profit, you have to get it at a bargain price or you’ll be lucky to break even. Plus, there are times when auction buyers just don’t respond, and a quality restoration sells for less than expected.
But we’re just getting started. When you’re choosing a project, it’s important to consider rarity, usefulness, styling and market interest.
When it comes to low production numbers, tractors that are the most rare are the most desirable, but some are so rare that the few in existence are already locked in collectors’ sheds. Look for tractors that are common in general, but which have unique, uncommon features, like high clearance versions (high-crops).
Also, keep an eye open for things like gold-and-white dealer advertising specials. Some of those tractors were sold wearing their promotional colors, but others were repainted before they were put on the market. A jackknife scrape in an inconspicuous spot can reveal a real rarity. Collector clubs can provide models and sometimes serial numbers to look for.
Some manufacturers, in a rush to get to market, made shortcuts in the early going that appear on only a few examples (for example, the low-radiator John Deere Model G). Likewise, tractors from the end of production – those with the final serial number – are desirable because all updates have been incorporated (for example, a 1952 Ford 8N).
Prototypes are rarely found on the market, but occasionally a manufacturer will sell a factory prototype. To find one, you’ll need some RPRT (Right Place, Right Time) magic, or have some reliable inside information.
Tractors that signal industry turning points – such as early diesels, or the first to use a turbocharger or a torque converter – are viewed as trendsetters and hold a special appeal for some collectors. Tractors with multi-speed transmissions, power-shifts, rice or high-altitude specials are considered collectible by many.
Some tractors are naturally suited for front-end loader work because of their low-stance stability. Also, look for straight-line shifting from a good forward gear to a fairly fast reverse. Better still: a shuttle shift.
When it comes to mowing, a tractor that’s configured for a belly mower is best for lawn work. A rear mower is fine for rougher work like brush hogging. If you’re a hobby farmer, you’ll need a variety of appropriate implements to complement the tractor.
For tractor cruising, you’ll need a good seat. But don’t underestimate the importance of working brakes, lights and a top speed of at least 12 mph. For tractor pulling, balance and traction (and the right gear ratio for the class) are the keys to success.
Tractors with hydraulic 3-point hitches bring a premium over those with just a hydraulic cultivator lift. For parades, tractor pulling or cruising, hydraulics add nothing. An electrical system, with starter and lights, is always appreciated.
Tractors painted in bright colors generally sell better than those that have been dipped in battleship gray. Most manufacturers figured that out by the end of World War II. Farm tractors sold for use by highway departments were factory-painted a distinctive shade of yellow. This made them stand out on the job and in the crowd. Restorers, though, can’t just paint a tractor yellow and expect to profit: It must have been painted that way originally.
Louvered side panels and fancy grilles are a big selling feature if they’re in good condition, as replacements are very hard to find or replicate. Orchard and industrial tractors offer a unique appearance.
Special seats and fenders must be appropriate for the model. Special hood ornaments such as the Oliver “plow” radiator cap will generate interest. But beware: Unique radiator caps often “grow legs” at tractor shows and walk away.
When it comes to size, smaller is better. Smaller tractors are less expensive to restore, lighter to haul and easier to load – but current buyer interest is in the larger, more powerful tractors sometimes known as muscle tractors. Recognize that crawlers and tractors with steel wheels come with an increased level of inconvenience over the rubber-tired variety.
Beware of complexity. Replacement parts for obscure foreign tractors can be a problem. LPG fuels require specialized knowledge. Power-shift multi-speed transmissions are like 10-speed bikes: It can be hard to get all those ratios working.
As a general rule, tractors built before 1940 are generally considered to be “antiques.” Those built from 1940 to the 1970s are termed “classics.” Tractors built after 1970 are generally labeled as “modern.” In that era, kerosene and LPG burners and those with tricycle fronts begin to disappear and diesels become common.
Safety is a key factor. A crank start puts off most buyers. The brakes on many older tractors – if they had brakes at all – were marginal at best. Offset tractors can be “tippy” and may require wheel weights to keep their center of gravity low.
Be sure to build a solid paper trail. A good bill of sale is essential. Also, make sure you understand where and how the seller acquired the tractor. Look for dependable serial numbers, and remember that serial numbers on early Fords and others are on the engine block. If the engine has been changed out, the tractor’s serial number is gone. Don’t buy a stolen tractor regardless of the price. And when you’re dealing with rare or high-end tractors, six-figure prices are not unusual and five figure prices are common. Get to know your insurance agent!
Don’t overlook the so-called “muscle tractors” of the 1960s and ’70s. The youngest generation of buyers has a greater affinity with a John Deere 4020 than with a hand-start Model A. For restorers, working tractors off the farm are an attractive opportunity for profit, Daniel Mecum says, but a quality restoration is essential. Nearly all buyers still love row-crop tractors, he adds, but look for low-production specials, such as “all-fuel” or LPG models.
Hobby farmers and small organic producers present yet another opportunity for the moderate restorer. These two prospective buyers like useful, common tractors, but they like to get them already restored and with appropriate implements. Restorers can often find these in their work clothes and buy them quite reasonably.
Finally, a growing market has developed in recent years for working half-scale versions of popular tractors, including steam engines. Most include a full-size seat and steering wheel for parade use and for garden tilling with scale implements. Quality small-scale models and toys are also collectible. Some are commissioned by manufacturers and collector clubs; others were sold by model makers such as Ertl, Hamilton Mint and Franklin Mint. Some of the most remarkable are the so-called scratch-built (hand-made) models. I’ve heard of some so detailed that the little engines actually run. FC
After 36 years in the aircraft industry, Bob Pripps returned to his first love and began writing about tractors. He has authored some 30 books on the subject and several magazine articles. Pripps has a maple syrup farm near Park Falls, Wisconsin. In harvesting the maple sap, he relies on a Ford Jubilee and a Massey Ferguson 85.