Massey-Harris General Purpose

The Massey-Harris General Purpose was among the first successful four-wheel drive tractors

| September 2010


Arlen Salmela’s 1931 Massey-Harris GP tractor. The GP was an early leader in four-wheel drive technology.

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.”

If you fix it, they will come

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.”