Back when I was in my late 20s, I lived on the beautiful Lleyn Peninsula, a stretch of land in northwest Wales that reaches like an arm out into the Irish Sea. I had not long bought a Massey Ferguson 35 that I used for harrowing, rolling, hay making and for popping to the shop with, and it really was my pride and joy.
Many was the time when I was working with the MF in the fields, I would see a little face pop up over the hedge – and there would be young Robat Thomas from the farm next door watching me. About 9 years old then, Robat was a quiet and serious dark-haired boy.
Although Robat’s family had plenty of tractors, they were all big modern machines, and young Robat was quite smitten with my little red tractor. He used to tell his parents how wonderful it was, to the point that they were all getting quite tired of hearing about the little red tractor.
Robat also became quite obsessed with tractor magazines, always looking for pictures and information on MF 35s and dreaming about owning one. Although Robat claims that it was my MF 35 that started his fascination with little red tractors, his mum, Lowri, recalls that the obsession began when he was really small, after watching a Welsh children’s TV program called Tecwyn y Tractor, which is about the adventures of, yes, you’ve guessed it, a little red tractor called Tecwyn. In the end, Robat’s parents gave in and agreed to buy him a little red tractor to restore slowly, so that when he was old enough, he would be able to use it on the farm.
The Rolls-Royce of the 35 line
By the time Robat had managed to persuade his father to start shopping for an MF 35, I had long since left the area, but I heard that he had finally acquired his dream machine. He went one better than me and bought a 35X, whereas my own tractor, the one he used to gaze at over the hedge, is a 35 4-cylinder model.
The 4-cylinder MF 35s have a reputation for being poor starters, which makes them worth considerably less than the 35X models, which are fitted with the much-admired Perkins engine and also features the much sought-after “diff-lock” (correctly known as differential lock). All in all, the 35X is the Rolls-Royce of the 35 line. They are not only useful little tractors for the smallholding or hobby farm, but they are also highly collectable and have risen considerably in value over the last decade.
Ask any UK tractor enthusiast which is their favourite old tractor and they will usually mention the Ferguson, the Massey Ferguson 35X, the Massey Ferguson 135 and the Fordson Major. These were all hugely successful tractors in their day, but many feel that, amongst this little list, the MF 35X was the best tractor of all.
The much-loved little grey Ferguson is without doubt Britain’s most famous tractor, but the 35X follows neatly on from the grey Fergie in that the shape is almost identical to the Fergie. It is, for many, seen as a more useful or upgraded version of the iconic grey Fergie.
Nearly everybody’s dream tractor
With the advent of the MF 135, Massey Ferguson changed the simple curved Fergie shape and embraced a boxy, modern shape and the tractor no longer looked like a red version of the earlier grey Ferguson. Park an MF 35 alongside a Ferguson and it is obvious that the two are closely related, whereas the 135 looks completely different in design.
For many nostalgic farmers and tractor enthusiasts, the MF 35X is the perfect tractor. It has enough modern features to allow a person to perform all of the necessary tasks on a small farm – excellent hydraulics, PTO, live drive, diff lock – yet it retained the simplicity of the earlier Ferguson, which meant that it was reliable, easy to use and not so complicated that it couldn’t be mended at home without the need for laptops and main dealers.
For many farmers, the era of the 35X – the 1960s – was the best of times. Farming life, indeed life as a whole, was certainly simpler in the 1960s, there was less paperwork, fewer rules and regulations, and machines were relatively more affordable and easier to fix at home. It’s no wonder that so many farmers regard these tractors as firm favourites.
MF 35X no easy find
Robat’s family have farmed in the same idyllic spot on the Lleyn Peninsula for five generations, so the farming roots go back a long way, and Robat’s father, Huw, can easily recall what a popular tractor the MF 35X was back in its heyday. Such was the reliability of the 35X that many have continued to be used right through the last five decades and huge numbers are still in regular use today as useful tractors for the small holder or hobby farmers (though some not-so-lucky examples have ended up becoming muck scraper tractors on larger cattle farms).
This means that many of these little red tractors have been worked extremely hard for over half a century and, in some cases, the years will have well and truly taken their toll. While Huw wanted a less-than-perfect tractor for his son to restore, he also wanted one that was mechanically sound with a good strong engine, so that it would last a lifetime and perhaps more, and be worthy of the time and expense of a full restoration. Eventually the family found a decent example with an engine that was neither tired nor worn, but with tin work that was ripe for restoration.
The family had looked for a tractor in their local area, but they failed to find one that was decent enough. The trouble with living on a narrow peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the sea, is that the salty air rots your machinery. Every Brit knows that, if possible, it’s best not to buy a tractor that’s spent its life too close to the seaside. Many, especially those that have been stored outdoors, will be total rust-buckets.
It would have been nice to have found a local tractor which had some connection to the area, but the family found Robat a tractor from Denbighshire, so still in North Wales, but far enough from the sea air to have been relatively well preserved. Once they had agreed to view the tractor, so excited was Robat that his parents didn’t hear talk of anything else but the dream tractor for days and days. On the day the 35X finally arrived in the farmyard, Robat had an ear-to-ear grin and was almost speechless with excitement.
The tractor was solid but a little bit tatty and Huw and Robat decided to completely strip it down and build it back up, servicing and painting each part as they went along. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the tractor, but they both decided that for peace of mind, it was worth doing properly, once and for all.
As a child, Robat was extremely wise and he spent all of his pocket money on tractor parts, instead of computer games, saving cash from every little job, every Christmas, and every birthday, all of which paid for another part for his beloved 35X.
A healthy interest in “how things work,” a fascination with old tractors, plus a keen eye for an investment, are what drove Robat to invest his cash in the 35X. Whilst Huw and Robat worked on the tractor themselves, they did employ help when it came to some aspects of the restoration, in particular the all-important paint job.
Since the MF35 is such a popular classic, parts are easy to come by and there are plenty of places where new replacement tin panels can be bought, but like many restorers, Huw and Robat found that the replacements weren’t of as good quality as the originals, and they had a fair bit of trouble getting the panels to fit properly. In the end, patience paid off and the resulting tractor looked like it had just rolled off the production line at Banner Lane, Coventry, England, where it was built back in the early 1960s.
After the restoration was complete, Robat, by then a teenager, began competing in local ploughing competitions with his beloved machine, and it was at one of these competitions that I saw him as a 13-year-old looking impossibly small and young to be ploughing, but still doing extremely well. Robat went on to win a cup for his ploughing that day; he had, it seems, had the benefit of a very good teacher, not his father (who of course can plough, but modestly claims not to be of competition standard) but a family friend who was himself an excellent match ploughman.
Valuable lessons learned
Thirteen years passed and then, quite recently, I saw Robat and his tractor again. The quiet little boy who used to peek over the hedge at my tractor is now a 26-year-old man and running the family farm along with his dad. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to see that Robat had kept the 35X all those years and that it was being extremely well cared for and kept out of the sea air in a comfortable farm building surrounded by modern machinery.
“I’m never going to sell it,” he says. Well, after all, the tractor has been a part of his upbringing, and it holds many special memories as the tractor that he and his father restored together. The fact that Robat saved up for and restored his first tractor whilst so young means that now, as a young adult, he owns a nice machine that just so happens to be worth a few quid too.
Not only that, but he also gained so many useful skills in the process; valuable lessons in how machines work, how to access parts and what they cost, as well as lessons in patience, and the art of saving up. Most importantly, I think a project like this, early on in life, teaches a person the greatest skill of all, which is how to stick to your goals, and not to give up.
Bronze colour sets FE35 apart
The first of the British 35s, launched in 1956, was known here as the FE35. The FE35 was the successor to the grey Ferguson tractor, and it retained the same shape and colour as the Ferguson but was a slightly larger tractor. Most notably, it had a bronze-coloured engine, which led to it being given various nicknames such as the “Grey ’n Gold” and the “Gold Belly.” It was available with a petrol or diesel 4-cylinder. 2.3-litre Standard Motor Co. 34hp engine.
A year later, the colour of the tinwork changed to red, and the engine area and wheels were painted grey, but the 4-cylinder engine was still being used, and while these 4-cylinder diesel engines ran smoothly and quietly, they gained a terrible reputation for failing to start, especially when cold or if the battery was in the least bit compromised.
In answer to that problem, in 1959, Massey Ferguson began using 3-cylinder Perkins engines, which were considered more reliable. Of course, U.S. versions tended to feature the continental petrol (gasoline) engines, so they didn’t suffer from the same firing-up issues as the early 35 models here in the U.K.
Finally, in 1962, the company upgraded the 35 again, this time producing the 35X. The 35X with its uprated engine (still supplied by Perkins) offered greater power as well as differential lock as standard, making it a firm favourite with farmers.
Might just be as good as it gets
I recall a dairy farmer who retired some 15 years ago. Right up until he retired, he never used anything more modern than Massey Ferguson 35X tractors on his farm. He had several examples of the MF 35 range and with these he ploughed, cultivated and harvested all the hay required for his cattle using Ferguson implements. He also cut the hedges, loaded fodder, sprayed crops and did all the work on his farm using these machines.
When asked why he never moved on to larger, more modern tractors, he told me that he decided in 1980 to stay with the older machinery as it simply seemed more cost-effective and he understood how to maintain machinery of that era. He worked out that to buy modern equipment would probably bankrupt him and by choosing not to buy new machinery, he was able to employ a farm labourer instead.
He also claimed that, at that time, when the smaller tractors and implements were considered outdated, he was able to buy the older tractors and implements incredibly cheaply. Today, after many decades of work, most of these machines are still in good order. The elderly gentleman has restored many of them and now has an extensive collection of highly sought-after Ferguson and early Massey Ferguson tractors and implements. Perhaps, as he says, we really didn’t need anything more than the MF 35. FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.