The Massey-Harris General Purpose was among the first successful four-wheel drive tractors
In 1955, Arlen Salmela and his brother-in-law, Robert Johnson, were driving back from working in Cokato, Minn., when they saw a wrecker truck on the side of the road with a flat tire. “On the back was this odd tractor with four wheels all the same size. I’d never seen one like it,” Arlen says. “We asked him what he’d take for it. He said he’d bought it for junk for $14, and if we paid him $20 we could have it.”
So they bought it. “Dad never had a tractor. He was a horse guy and always had to have a horse to do his work,” Arlen says. “So this was our first tractor. It was in running order at the time, so we used it for plowing. It would out-pull the McCormick-Deering F-20 we had later. Eventually we found out it was a 1931 Massey-Harris General Purpose.”
The GP is rated at 15 hp on the drawbar and 22 hp on the belt, which meant it was underpowered for anything but plowing. “In those days, most tractors were 20-22 hp at the drawbar to run the threshers of the time,” Arlen says, “but this one was just too small and too light to do that.”
Arlen ran the GP for a couple of summers. After he bought larger tractors, keeping one for just one job didn’t make sense. So he parked the GP behind the house – and there it sat for 50 years. “Other than kids playing on it, nobody touched it,” he says. “Trees grew up on each side of it, and by the time I looked at it again, it was a real shabby-looking outfit.”
The tractor might be sitting there still, but for one thing. When Arlen attended tractor shows, he never saw another tractor like the GP. Four years ago, he decided to restore it. “Some of the Massey dealers around the country had never seen one,” he says. “It’s a really odd piece.”
Arlen spent the winter of 2006-’07 working on the tractor. “The engine was stuck solid, but the crankshaft and all inner parts were good other than needing new valves,” he says. But the gas tank, which had rusted through, was a wreck. “It had rained in and rotted through,” Arlen says. “When you leave gasoline in it for several years, it will start leaking like a sieve.” A friend who owns a metal shop came to the rescue, fabricating a new tank. “You can’t tell it from the original,” he says. “It looks the same and has the same design.” It is the only part of the tractor that isn’t original.
He opted for a gray paint job like that used on Massey-Harris tractors sold in the U.S. (Those manufactured in Racine, Wis., were sold in Canada and painted green.) “I saw one of those at a big Massey show in Florida two years ago, where they had three GPs. I figure there might be a hundred GPs in the whole country.”
A few teeth were broken out of the bull gears in the GP’s rear end, and those had to be welded. “When this one was built in 1931, it had a place for a starter and generator as optional equipment,” Arlen says. “I found a starter for it and hooked a battery to it, so that eliminated cranking the thing. I’ve become old and weak, and those old motors had a tendency to kick back. If you didn’t hold it just right it could break your wrist or thumb. They were a little touchy that way.”
Arlen says the most difficult part of restoring the GP was getting a puller big enough to remove the wheel bearings, allowing access to the rear end and drive seals, which he wanted to replace. “Other than that, it’s a simple tractor,” Arlen says. “Whoever designed it really put some time into it and figured out the way they wanted it to go; it’s fairly easy to work with.”
In its day, this 1931 Massey-Harris GP was one of only a few four-wheel drive tractors being produced. “For many years Massey-Harris used components from other tractor companies to make tractors they called Massey-Harris,” Arlen explains. “They set the parts together and put their company name on the machine. From what I’ve heard, this GP was the first tractor that Massey-Harris actually designed. It was only built for six years before the new row-crop tractors put it out of business. With the row-crop tractors you could adjust the front wheels to work around different crops, but the GP wheels can’t be adjusted that way at all.”
Arlen’s best guess is that his GP was built in 1931. “The serial number is stamped on the engine,” he says, “but it’s so rusted over you can’t read it.” Other collectors agree with his assessment. But the precise year is of little importance to those seeing the tractor for the first time.
“The reactions are fantastic,” Arlen says. “At first people think it’s something that I came up with and threw together. But after they look at it and study it a little, they realize it’s authentic. I bet there’s not one out of every thousand farmers who’ve seen or heard of one. Even some of the younger Massey dealers didn’t know the company ever made one.”
Because the tractor has no planetary gear, its wheels are the same size. “If you wanted different-sized wheels you had to have a different gear ratio on the front and on the back,” he explains. “This approach had its advantages, one of which is that it was level, which helped you see in the field. The wheels are set close together front to back, which allows sharp turns, an 8-foot-wide machine turning in a 6-foot radius.” Easy steering is a bonus. “You can’t steer it when it’s sitting still, because it has a braking system like a skid-steer Bobcat,” he says, “but when it’s moving, it turns easy.”
The GP has a 226-cubic-inch Hercules engine with 4- by 4-1/2-inch bore and stroke and a 3-speed transmission (with one reverse), and weighs 3,861 pounds.
The GP pulled implements including a cultivator, grass mower and plow. A unique feature allowed one man to do the work of two. “If you were pulling a grain binder or corn binder and didn’t have a hired man, you could sit on the implement and operate it while you drove the tractor with ropes or reins on the clutch,” Arlen says, “and steer it with an extension on the steering shaft. Then it became a one-man operation.”
Shortly after Arlen finished restoring the GP, his brother-in-law and best friend, Bob Johnson, died at age 72. “I’m 75,” Arlen says, “and we bought the tractor together more than 50 years ago with the understanding that if one of us passed away, the other one would get it. We were such dear friends that I decided I would dedicate the machine to him, because I know that’s what he would have done for me.” FC
For more information: Contact Arlen Salmela at 5290 Co. Rd. 44, South Haven, MN 55382-9220; phone (320) 236-2414.
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; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.