Double-takes are a dime a dozen when people view a unique tractor pair put together by Mark Aschenbrenner, Courtland, Minnesota. The two tractors look identical, but in fact they’re different: a 1956 Ferguson 40 Utility and a 1956 Massey-Harris 50 Utility. Mark has no trouble keeping them straight: He grew up with the Ferguson.
“I didn’t grow up on a farm,” he explains, “but I did help on two farms in the New Ulm, Minnesota, area, baling, pulling hay wagons back and forth. In those days, there weren’t as many big tractors around as there are now. My family had smaller tractors, including a pair of Fords.”
After a few years, the Aschenbrenner family needed something a little bigger than those Ford 8Ns – something with a little more power, and a live PTO. A friend put them on to the 1956 Ferguson 40 Utility. “We ran a few head of cattle and had 15 acres that was mainly pasture,” Mark says, “so we used the Ferguson for baling and cleaning out the barn. We also loaned it out to others who wanted to use it to bale hay. It really never did any field work other than cutting hay.”
When the Aschenbrenners bought the Model 40 in 1971, it still had its original paint and a loader. People who saw the beige tractor referred to it as a Massey Ferguson, and said it should be red. So Mark painted it DuPont red.
After Mark bought his own place and got married, his dad got interested in collecting what Mark candidly refers to as junk. “The Ferguson was used for a lot of loading and unloading,” he says, “and Dad was not the greatest at stepping on brakes, so the front end got banged in and it had a little bit of rust growing on it.”
Then Mark’s brother took over, using the Ferguson to move snow – until the bearing retainer bolts on one rear axle broke and the axle began to move out on him. “He almost lost that back wheel,” Mark says. “He got it back in and parked it in the shed. There were only six bolts holding that bearing retainer in the end of the axle. In a subsequent upgrade they increased the number of bolts, using 10 or 12 to keep it on.”
Keeping it original
Years later, Mark added the Ferguson to his own collection. For two years, it sat in a shed. Then, during a vacation from his job as an over-the-road truck driver, Mark got to work. The Ferguson took over a space in Mark’s brain. “I had a mental picture of what it looked like just after it was first bought,” he says, “when it was still beige, and the cast iron frame, rear ends and axle were all flint gray metallic.”
He replaced the battered fenders and had a new grille made. Then, naturally, he found an original grille in a salvage yard. Opting to keep the tractor original, he started from scratch with the salvaged grille. “I bought everything it needed, did some screen work, sandblasted it and repainted it,” he says. “The one I had made is still in the box. I spent more to get an original grille than I did to have one made. That’s what happens when you want to go original.”
As Mark got deeper into the restoration, he discovered that the Ferguson Model 40 was manufactured for only two years: 1956-’57. That placed a new imperative on the project. “There weren’t that many made,” he says, “and with this one having been in the family, I thought it was worth restoring.” The short production run meant parts were harder to find, but Mark enjoyed the challenge. The payoff? A classic tractor designed by Harry Ferguson, the first person to develop the 3-point system.
“The Ferguson 40 Utility is a real nice little utility tractor with fairly decent power,” Mark says. “In this tractor you can begin to see the changeover from the older 8N Fords, with a progression of the development of smaller tractors like that.”
Different but the same
After Massey-Harris bought out Harry Ferguson Inc. in 1953, the new entity sold tractors under the Massey-Harris-Ferguson trademark until 1958. During that time, dual lines were produced, preserving Ferguson and Massey-Harris identities for a few more years. But there was a certain overlap. The 1956 Massey-Harris 50 Utility tractor, for instance, is exactly the same tractor as the Ferguson 40 Utility of that year.
“A buddy of mine showed me pictures of a Massey-Harris 50 Utility tractor on consignment,” Mark says. “He bought it to use in the woods to cut lumber. I asked him how long he was going to use it before he painted it, because that’s what he always did with his tractors, but he claimed he wasn’t going to fix this one up. When I talked to him later, he had it in the body shop, getting it painted. I told him if he ever decided to sell it, I was interested.”
And that is exactly what happened. But when Mark brought the tractor home, he started having some problems with it. First he replaced the water pump. Then the steering gear leaked, so he resealed it. Then power-washed it. “Paint came off in chunks,” he said. “That’s when I discovered it had not been degreased or sandblasted before it was repainted.”
Nor, he discovered, had the tractor been painted the correct color. “I remembered seeing a Massey-Harris 50 Utility at a show that wasn’t gold like this one,” he says, “so I called a guy who owns one, took a look at it and found that one had also been repainted.”
Inside the hood, by the air intake, he saw what the color was supposed to be: bronze. Back home, he split his 50 to fix an oil leak. “That battery box was the nicest bronze color you could imagine,” he says. “That’s what I matched my paint code to when I repainted the tractor.”
Mark sandblasted the Massey and painted it the correct shade of bronze. “I guess it shows you have to be in the right place at the right time, and see the right things at the right time,” he says. “After that, I started paying attention and looked for books, parts books and owner’s manuals on these tractors.”
Identical parts numbers
Information Mark found in parts books for the 1956 Ferguson 40 and the 1956 Massey-Harris 50 tractors confirmed the tractors’ common bloodlines. The two are essentially the same tractor with different names. “The only differences are in the hood, with a short, stumpy hood on the Ferguson 40 Utility in front, and an open section that comes up between the nose cone and the dash panel,” he says, “while the hood on the Massey-Harris 50 Utility was right in front of the dash panel to the nose.” Other minor differences are found on the hood, grille, chin piece and air cleaner.
Parts shown for the two tractors in the parts manual are identical, as are parts numbers on the castings. Both tractors have Z-134 Continental engines. “They’re the same tractor, except for some metal changes and the different air cleaner,” Mark says. “I didn’t know any of that at first, but if I had, it would have made finding parts and restoring the Ferguson 40 Utility a lot easier.”
Continued research turned up triplets. Mark discovered that the very early Massey Ferguson 50 tractor is also almost identical to the Ferguson 40 Utility and Massey-Harris 50 Utility. “During the first years of production of all three, they had the same engine,” he says, “with a sheet metal marriage among them.”
Consisting of one piece reaching from the instrument panel to the front end, the long hood on the Massey Ferguson 50 is like the hood on the Massey-Harris 50 Utility. The Massey Ferguson 50 has a rounded hood like the Ferguson 40 Utility, but instead of a separate nose cone like the one on the Ferguson 40 Utility, the Massey Ferguson 50’s is all one piece. “It’s pretty interesting to see three tractors from the same era that are practically identical,” Mark says. “I don’t yet have a Massey Ferguson 50, but I hope to someday, and then I’d have all three.”
Problems with fuel
In general, Mark says, his biggest challenge today is gasoline. “All of my tractors have carburetor problems,” he says. “It’s not uncommon to take the tractors out a month ahead of a show and drive them around to see how they work. But you have to make sure the gas valve is turned off afterward, or you’ll have the carburetor running over, with gas running down. But the biggest issue is the gas. Years ago I took apart tractor carburetors and the floats were a darker shade of brass, but when you take them apart now, you see that they’re green. The floats never used to be green, but now they are. I suspect it’s the ethanol.
“I see that the augers in my corn stove are green too, while the oil furnace in the basement isn’t,” he adds. “Guys who know small engines say the same thing. They suggest that you buy non-oxygenated gas, but it’s spendy, about a dollar more per gallon. If you take two or three tractors to a show, with 5 to 10 gallons in each one, it wouldn’t take long to use up a $100 bill.”
Passing on a tradition
Mark is proud of his hobby. “And now my kids are getting into it,” he says. “They go to threshing shows all the time. It’s kind of like passing something onto the next generation. That’s what restoration is all about.”
His trio makes a popular display. “I’ve had a very positive response,” Mark says. “When the Ferguson 40 Utility and Massey-Harris 50 Utility are driven in parades, people give me the thumbs up. Others want to buy the tractors, but I have to tell them that they’re not for sale. Some of the funniest ones are people who ask if the Ferguson 40 Utility is the right color, because you don’t see too many beige tractors, but that was the factory color.”
Tractors like these are rarely seen in the upper Midwest. “You hardly see any of these at a show up here,” Mark says. “I don’t know if it is a regional thing, or there just aren’t that many left, or people don’t show them or what. If we go to a regular show, you rarely see any of these three. If the feature is Ferguson or Massey Ferguson or Massey-Harris, you might see one or two. There aren’t many around here.”
For Mark, collecting and restoring old tractors is a fun pastime. “It’s one way to preserve the history,” he says. “Just think what it would be like if nobody did this. All that old stuff would be gone; people wouldn’t know about it. You’d have to read about these tractors in books. By fixing these up, we’re keeping these machines alive and useable, and that helps us understand how things have changed over time. It’s a kind of living history.” FC
For more information:
— Mark Aschenbrenner, 51232 448th Ln., Courtland, MN 56021; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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: email@example.com.