Tales from Wales: Josephine Roberts and her love of old tractors, especially her little Massey-Ferguson 35.
Jo Roberts on her 1960 Massey Ferguson 35, which she uses on her smallholding in Snowdonia in North Wales. “The MF 35 is the best little vintage all-‘rounder that money can buy,” she says. “It manages to be both practical and collectible, and the 4-cylinder engine makes it smooth and quiet to drive. Some 4-cylinder models have the reputation of being hard to start, but for some reason mine has always been a good starter.”
Growing up with parents fond of quirky machines, such as noisy outdated trucks and big old American cars (yes, even here in Wales!), I was never going to be a "normal" child. Although the lorries were slow and deafening to travel in, and the big old chrome-clad cars gulped fuel and had to be shunted back and forth to get around the tight bends here in this hilly corner of North Wales, I always felt there was something exciting and special about these vehicles. The neighbors might have thought we were nuts, but we didn't care: We were having fun.
The first time I remember thinking old tractors were cool was when I heard the sound my dad's Nuffield Universal Three made as it opened out on the long hill where I grew up. I knew then I wasn't normal, because sensible vehicles (like everyone else had), or even flashy vehicles (like everyone else seemed to want), didn't do anything for me. My first love was probably the lorry in the 1960s Spielberg film Duel: It was rough, smoky, loud and mean, and since then I've always liked my tractors the same way, too.
My dad used to be a hill farmer, and I grew up having driven a few old workhorses, but it wasn't until I was about 28 that I got a tractor of my very own. To be honest it wasn't quite the tractor I initially wanted, but when I saw how much the ones I really lusted after were going to cost, I had to come down to earth with a bump. I suppose I had fancied myself the driver of a Field Marshall, and if I'm honest it was really just the deep bass single-cylinder "thump, thump" noise that made me want one so much.
I finally came around to the idea that I'd be much better off with a Massey Ferguson 35: a user-friendly, reliable little tractor, capable of performing any of the tasks required on a 7-acre holding like mine. Plus, back in 1998 the prices hadn't gone too mad, and you could still pick up a good one for under 500 pounds (about $1,000).
Choosing a tractor, I think, can be a bit like choosing a partner in that, tempting as it is, it is best not to go on looks alone. Whilst a Field Marshall or a Lanz Bulldog might look gorgeous, it could well be a pig of a thing to get going of a morning, and it might well prove completely useless come hay-making time. So, in a rare act of compromise, I bought the 1960 Massey Ferguson 35 that I still own and use today.
I soon realized that a tractor without any implements is about as useful as a kitchen without any utensils, and that buying the tractor was just the beginning. For the rest of my life, it seems, I am doomed to be on a one-woman mission to collect all the falling-apart and outdated implements that the "proper farmers" are throwing away.
Within a month, I bought a Massey Ferguson baler for 50 pounds (about $100) and a chain harrow with rather a lot missing for two pints of beer. I'd been given a Vicon Acrobat (don't ask!) by a farm laborer I was dating at the time, plus I had the finger-bar mower that had come with the tractor when I bought it. In other words I was armed and dangerous, and my father (who lived 60 miles away) was distinctly worried.
Over the phone he kept telling me stories about people who had "come to a sticky end" because of "fooling around with tractors." I had to reassure him that, no, honestly, I wouldn't leave my tractor going along in low ratio whilst running backwards kicking hay into the working baler (and especially not whilst wearing flared trousers), and no, I wasn't going to put my hands into the mower to unclog it while it was still going, and no, I wasn't going to race in top gear down the very steep hill near my house whilst towing a heavy trailer. "Blimey dad," I said, "give me a chance. I haven't even got a trailer yet!"
Just when I was starting to think it was rather sexist of him to assume I was so incompetent (I'm sure he'd never made assumptions like that about my five older brothers), I went and did something really incompetent. He came to visit me and have a look at my new tractor, and was duly impressed (and probably surprised) that I'd managed to secure such a bargain. The tractor sat in the yard, gleaming, with the finger-bar mower attached and neatly folded.
In my excitement, I started the tractor, just to show him what a good little runner it was, and lo and behold there was an almighty clatter of mangling metal. I pulled the stop button and put my hands to my head: no, no! I'd started it with the PTO in gear, and done untold damage to my neatly folded finger-bar mower. I could have cried, not only because I'd broken my new toy, but also because I'd made a complete and utter fool of myself in front of my dad. Pride comes before a fall, eh.
I think my dad felt genuinely sorry for me, because after calling me an idiot for several minutes, he did go on to say that everyone does something like this at some time, and proceeded to help me weld the bits together. I couldn't help cursing that PTO lever, because in my mind a lever that appears to be in the same position "off" as it does when it is "on" is a pretty poor design. Still, I'm aware of the adage that "a bad workman blames his tools."
I could go on for hours about the adventures I've had with my little red tractor. It has baled thousands of bales of hay for me, paying for itself twice over in just the first few months. It has spread fertilizer, chopped logs, winched trees, trimmed hedges, spread muck and even taken me on a camping holiday around Wales. It also almost killed me once, teaching me a valuable lesson that I'll never forget about how powerful and unforgiving cute little tractors can be.
From time to time, I still lust after the old Field Marshall tractors, but deep down I'm happy with what I've got. It's true that pre-1950s tractors have a certain charm, but I think the Sixties was a great era too, and I'm glad to own a tractor that dates from then. If you ask me, 1960 was the moment where engineering had reached a great peak (with live drive and the like) and yet tractors still had the simple grace today's machines lack. But maybe that's just me; maybe I'm just a funny old-fashioned girl! FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at email@example.com