A 21st-century odyssey: Restoring an IH Cub Cadet garden tractor
Yet, fear not! Hope isn't lost. Rather than succumb to the Sirens' call and give up on restoring that Cub Cadet parked in the garage, here are a few good suggestions to help get that little yellow-and-white tractor back into the garden.
International Harvester first introduced the Cub Cadet line in 1961. During the 21 years of IH Cub Cadet production, nearly 700,000 were sold. Because of the line's diversity, the "built to last" quality of their design and affordability, Cub Cadet tractors are now highly collectable — and very useful. Even a 40-year-old Cub Cadet in original condition often will be capable of plowing the garden and cutting the grass. But many folks like to refurbish, or restore, their Cub Cadets for harder and longer use, or just for the sheer pleasure of making them like new.
Refurbishing a Cub Cadet is relatively easy for someone with basic mechanical skills. Unlike a vintage steam traction engine or gas tractor, Cub Cadets have relatively few parts and don't take up much room in the shop. Couple that with their simplicity and sturdy construction, the easy availability of replacement and used parts — as well as numerous online and print resources — and there are plenty of reasons to make that vintage Cub Cadet shine again. The finished tractor will be useful, beautiful and a great source of pride. Most of all, Cub Cadet restorers will enjoy an engaging project and learn much throughout the journey.
The entire project will be easier and more enjoyable if you learn as much about Cub Cadets as possible. For research, make use of Cub Cadet-related websites, books, vintage brochures and even the McCormick/IH archives (see “The Tough International Harvester Cub Cadet Compact Garden Tractor” for more information and resources).
You should be familiar with the machines before restoring a Cub Cadet. Attend tractor shows where Cub Cadets are likely to be displayed. Take pictures of the tractors and ask questions of enthusiasts — be sure to take notes. In no time, you will know whether restoring a Cub Cadet is a burning passion or a passing fancy. For those who haven't secured a project tractor, the research process will help focus the search for a suitable candidate among the many models that exist.
Cub Cadets can be found virtually anywhere. Look for a flash of yellow and white — or even red — while driving through the countryside. Check local newspaper listings, trader publications or the Internet. Ideally, a would-be restorer should locate a complete, running tractor that doesn't need major body or mechanical work. If the basic components are sound such as the front axle, transmission and differential, if the engine doesn't have any holes in it and if the sheet metal and frame haven't rusted through, it’s a good candidate for restoration.
If the tractor runs, so much the better. Give it a spin to determine the condition of the drive train. If the Cub Cadet is a hydrostatic model, check the operation in forward and reverse. Some whining noise from the hydro is normal. If the tractor is a gear-driven model, check for noise in all three forward gears and reverse. Some gear whine is normal, but clicking or bearing growl indicates major transmission or differential work ahead.
If the tractor doesn't run, you'll have to take the seller's word for its condition. Obviously, some of the best finds will be tractors that aren't running — but determine if the price is worth the risk. Generally, parts are easy to find, and engines are easy to fix. Used hydros and transaxles are also easily obtained, although such parts add cost to a restoration project, especially if they must be shipped.
Watch ads and eBay auctions on the Internet to get a feel for the cash value of specific models in particular conditions. Prices will vary. A rusted-out, broken-down mess isn't worth more than $100 unless there's something rare about it, or if it sports valuable options. Prices for a complete, running narrow-frame tractor without many options range from $250 to $400. Wide-frame tractors often bring higher prices, with newer models priced from $500 to more than $2,000 for a decent Model 982. A nice, complete early wide-frame model, such as a Model 128, might cost between $350 to $700, depending on features offered.
Expect the restoration project to cost from $500 to more than $1,000, depending on the Cub Cadet's initial condition. Prices will vary if the engine needs a complete overhaul and also on the quality of paint selected. Remember, by the end of the project the garden tractor will be better-built than most brands sold today — and it'll have historical and personal significance as a restoration project.
Once you choose a model, obtain the appropriate engine and chassis Blue Ribbon Service manuals (IH-made Cub Cadets only), along with a parts manual. Original manuals are often available on eBay or at farm shows, although many sources for licensed reproductions exist. If the project involves rebuilding a hydrostatic transmission, obtain the manual specific to that unit, as well. Time spent looking over the manuals — or better yet, reading them cover-to-cover — is time well spent.
After the Cub Cadet is in the shop, the desire to pick up a wrench will be overwhelming — and like the Sirens' song, must be resisted at all costs because there's preparation work to do. First, apply penetrating fluid to any and all fasteners on the tractor, but leave the wrenches in the tool chest for now. Collect marking pens, a notebook, masking tape, a box of plastic sandwich bags and an empty cardboard box — keep them handy.
Then take pictures of the tractor from all angles to document the progress and record assembly details. Make notes and sketches of complicated procedures to ensure proper reassembly. Nuts, bolts and small parts removed from the tractor should go into labeled plastic bags, which in turn go into the cardboard box. Use the tape and marker to label wire ends before disconnecting. These seemingly tedious steps will make reassembly go much more smoothly, will keep the shop organized and safer, will make the project more enjoyable and successful — and help maintain sanity.
Now that the tiresome but necessary preparation work is completed, the fun begins!
There’s no "right" way to disassemble a Cub Cadet, so relax. Following the general outline in the service manual provides a good framework. The first step should be to disconnect and remove the battery. Next, drain the engine and transaxle oils. If the tractor has a hydrostatic transmission, leave its oil filter in place for now. The third step should be to apply penetrating fluid to the steering wheel hub after removing the retaining nut Apply penetrating fluid liberally until the wheel is finally removed.
Next, remove the implement mounts, hood, grille, grille casting, seat, fenders and footrests. Disconnect the fuel tank from the carburetor, drain and remove it. Disconnect the front PTO rod if it isn't an electrically-actuated unit. Next, disconnect the choke and throttle cables, and all wires — now labeled — from the engine.
Remove the four engine mounting-cap screws from beneath the Cub Cadet and slide the engine forward to free it from the driveshaft. Two of the engine mounting-cap screws are above the front axle on many models — jack up and block the front of the tractor, and pivot the axle to the sides for better access to the bolts. Lift the engine from the tractor as a unit — a hoist makes this operation safer — and set the engine aside until plans have been made to inspect and overhaul it. If the engine is a single-cylinder Kohler model, attach the lift to a single-head stud using a short piece of angle iron drilled for both the stud and a clevis for the chain fall.
If the steering wheel isn't rusted to the steering shaft and the fit isn't exceptionally tight, moderate pressure on the wheel may break it loose. Patience and penetrating fluid are allies in unseating a difficult steering wheel. On most Cub Cadets, a puller will severely damage the steering wheel. One trick that works well: Thread a nut onto the steering shaft about half way. Then thread a bolt into the top half of that nut, and turn it down tightly against the steering shaft.
There should be space between the bottom of the nut and the hub on the steering wheel. Next, apply upward pressure on the steering wheel while rapping sharply on the bolt head with a hammer. Exercise care to avoid mashing the threads on the end of the steering shaft. Other helpful approaches to steering wheel removal are available on websites and in publications devoted to Cub Cadets.
Now that the steering wheel is off, free the operator's pedestal and remove it from the frame by lifting it up and over the steering column. There may be clutch or hydro linkages that must be disconnected first, depending on the model. The steering gear can now be disconnected from the front axle and removed from the bottom of the tractor (on all but original models). With the driveshaft fully exposed, disconnect it from the transmission. On some models, tip the tractor on its side to remove the driveshaft and the steering gear.
Next, support the transaxle with blocks or a floor jack and remove the bolts attaching it to the frame. Disconnect any remaining brake or hydro linkages and slide the frame off the supported rear end. Remove the front-axle pivot pin and the front axle from the frame along with the pedals and implement lift, if the tractor is so equipped. On some narrow-frame models, there was no grease fitting in the axle for lubricating the pivot. If the pivot pin is frozen, use a hacksaw or reciprocating saw to cut the two ends of the pin between the axle and the frame, and carefully drill the pin out later.
Remove the rear axles and carrier tubes from the differential housing. In all but the original Cub Cadet models, the rear cover must be removed from the transaxle case to expose the differential and inner axle ends. The axles are retained in the differential by C-clips, which must be removed before the axle shafts can slide out of the differential. The procedure becomes obvious once the rear cover is removed from the transaxle housing. On original Cub Cadets, the axle shafts are retained by a C-clip in the rear axle carrier, so they will slide out of the differential with the carrier tube.
If the steering wheel and most bolts cooperate, many Cub Cadets can be readily dismantled (not including engine and transmission) in less than three hours using a combination of pneumatic and hand tools. Recalcitrant fasteners can be ground, cut or even burned away with a torch. Bolts that break in threaded holes must be coaxed more gently with penetrating fluid — and lots of patience.
One example of numerous, effective techniques for removing broken bolts or studs is to center-punch the bolt remnant after grinding it flat. With a set of reverse-twist drill bits, carefully begin to drill the bolt out. The combination of penetrating fluid, heat from friction and the counterclockwise rotation of the bit will often cause the bolt to back right out. Alternatively, a bolt of smaller diameter can be welded carefully to the broken bolt. Once the weld cools to below red hot, the whole thing will usually back out easily with a wrench.
The next phase of any Cub Cadet restoration project involves cleaning, inspecting, repairing and replacing parts. Parts may be cleaned with a combination of solvents, soap and water. If the restoration plan calls for stripping parts to bare metal, sand blast, scrub with a power wire brush or soak the parts in a lye solution. When using lye, be sure not to place any aluminum or pot metal castings in the solution, because the strong alkali will dissolve the parts. If the metal is particularly rusty, sand blast or treat it with a rust converter before painting, but only after all welding and machine work is completed.
Using the service manual as a guide, inspect and replace any severely worn bushings, bearings, pins, seals and shafts. New bushings and shafts can be fabricated with most metal-turning lathes. Bearings and seals may be purchased at a local bearing supply house. More specialized parts, such as rear-axle bushings, may be purchased from a Cub Cadet dealer. Parts no longer available new or that are quite expensive to purchase new — such as transaxle castings or axle carrier tubes — may be obtained from used parts dealers. Look to publications and websites devoted to Cub Cadets for leads.
Cleaning and inspecting each disassembled part provides an excellent opportunity to intimately know the tractor. Most people have a tendency to rush this part of the process, but be patient. Meticulously cleaning and inspecting each piece is part of the fun, and the finished product will be high quality. Besides, even the most arduous task is an important part of the restoration journey.
To weld cracks in the sheet metal or frame, drill a small hole at the growth end of the crack to stop it from growing. Avoid welding through the hole and fill it with body putty later. Badly worn bolt holes can often be renewed by welding a flat washer to the piece. Lift shafts and pedal shafts that are worn where they pass through a bore can be renewed by carefully adding metal with the welder and grinding round. For those who don't weld, it’s a good time to learn. Welding isn’t difficult and doing the work at home will more than likely pay for the welder. Be sure to practice welding on scrap metal before working on the tractor!
Once parts are cleaned and in good repair, prime them to protect from rust. If old paint remains on the parts, spray them with a sealer or a primer-sealer to stabilize the steel. Bare metal may be directly primed, although many paint systems suggest an etching step, as well. Believe it or not, a good paint job can be done (with care) using spray cans. Remember that many more options and finish qualities are possible using a compressor and spray gun. It’s prudent to mask off any bores for bearings, seals or shafts before priming and painting. Otherwise, the thickness of the paint will interfere with reassembly.
There are at least two ways to approach the painting process: Paint a finish coat on each part or apply the final coat once the Cub Cadet is fully assembled. Plan for at least a partial coat of paint after the major components are bolted together because the finish is likely to be scratched during the assembly process, and some of the bolt heads will need paint.
In January 2001, I was in the midst of restoring a 1942 IH Farmall Model H in Whittier, Calif. My younger brother Dan Will lived in Hopkinton, N.H., and sent an e-mail to my wife, Kate, asking if she could put us in contact. Dan was working on his 1967 Cub Cadet Model 124 and asked me to consider helping with the project. Odd as it sounds, we restored that tractor and really got to know one another during the next several months using the telephone, e-mail, U.S. mail and United Parcel Service. I visited Dan and his family in July 2001, and we finished the tractor assembly together.
My first Cub Cadet was a Model 123 with an engine knock. I bought it in the fall of 2001 to use as a model for fabricating a snow blade for Dan’s Model 124. Yet, before the engine was back in that first tractor, Kate and I owned an additional pair of Cub Cadets. Today, our collection of about 20 Cub Cadets ranges from an early 1961 original to a Model 149 built in January 1974. Not all of the tractors are beauties, but most run. We've refurbished several that we use at various garden tractor events and on our New Hampshire farm. In an average year, Kate and I refurbish two Cub Cadets in addition to any large tractors in the shop.
For us, that first Cub Cadet led to a hunger for more information — and additional Cub Cadet tractors. I currently write two regular columns on Cub Cadets and serve as a moderator at the IH registry website. Cub Cadet enthusiasts refer to the phenomenon of collecting and messing with vintage Cub Cadets as "Yellow Fever." Obviously, I've got it bad. FC
Read the second installment of "Cub Cadet Restoration."
Crazy about garden tractors? Check out Oscar H. Will III's book Garden Tractors: Deere, Cub Cadet, and All the Rest or Kenneth Updike's Original Farmall Cub and Cub Cadet at the Farm Collector book store!Oscar “Hank” Will III is an old-iron collector and restorer who retired from farming in 1999 and from academia in 1996, and author of several books about International Harvester tractors. He is now the editor of Grit magazine.