A collector’s quest for a remarkable farm tractor can be almost limitless. In Steve Watts’ case, the hunt spanned the Atlantic Ocean. Steve, who lives in Abergele, Wales, U.K., coveted a Massey-Harris General Purpose four-wheel drive tractor primarily because of its groundbreaking technology. And it was rare. When Steve’s friend, John Farnworth, stumbled across a newspaper ad for a GP in Millersburg, Pa., in 2005, it seemed too good to be true. But the two-line description of the Massey-Harris tractor along with a phone number resulted in the lead Steve had dreamed about.
“I made contact immediately, not thinking for one moment the tractor would still be available,” Steve recalls. “To my utmost surprise, it was. I chatted with the owner, Mrs. Joyce Reinfield, about the tractor. The old Massey belonged to her father who had passed away two years earlier. It had been stored in an old farm shed partially covered with loose straw. Our conversation ended with a promise that Mrs. Reinfield would keep the tractor until I could see pictures. Within two weeks I received a letter containing two photos.”
Steve was anxious to move the process along, but a five-hour time difference required patience. “When I finally made the trans-Atlantic call, I learned that Mrs. Reinfield was true to her word. She had turned away several inquiries from the U.S., South America and Australia,” he says. “I next wondered if the tractor was a runner. She remembered her dad running the tractor a short time before his passing. We reached an agreeable price, but then came the bombshell. Mrs. Reinfield wanted cash as she did not trust banks and would not accept any normal money transactions. My heart was in my mouth for the next two weeks until I learned that she had received her money in the post so the deal was completed.”
Roots in agriculture
Steve’s family’s roots in agriculture and forestry span more than a century. The challenges of supporting two families off 200 acres of hill farming required Steve’s dad to diversify into sand and gravel quarrying in the early 1960s.
The Watts family’s new home just outside Llangollen in North Wales is set alongside Plas-yn-Pentre (mansion in the village) Farm. The farm was built in the early 1500s and modernized in 1645 to an Elizabethan manor house. Its colorful history includes false walls, tunnels to neighboring fields and “priest holes” dating to a period of religious persecution in the late 1500s.
Steve began working on that farm at age 10. “Plas-yn-Pentre was my savior,” he says. “The bachelor owner, Roy Bailey, was a true gentleman with excellent community values. We milked about 120 cows, mostly Holsteins with a few Jerseys. When I carried the milk churns to the end of the drive Roy would say, ‘Be careful lad, you know that’s liquid gold.’ We also had about 400 Welsh ewes, about 20 pigs and a few hens for our breakfast eggs. I would ask, ‘Why so many hens? We don’t need all those eggs.’ Roy would remind me that the extra eggs would go to the local ladies in our village. ‘In return I get cakes to feed you.’”
Soon after he started working at the farm, Steve was allowed to operate the Ferguson TE 20. At age 16, he left school to work for a local timber company just outside Llangollen, making oak coffins. Soon after, he began working for Wales Gas as an apprentice doing gas fitting. Today he is a regional manager for Wales & West Utilities.
Purchasing a rare tractor overseas and making shipping arrangements is no small undertaking. Antrac Services of Ontario, Canada, handled the transaction. In April 2005, the tractor was transported to Antrac’s facility in Ontario, where it was prepared for shipping. Steve eventually took possession of the tractor at a Massey Ferguson dealership in Denbigh, Wales.
It is very unusual to find a tractor built in 1932 in such good condition, but there was still work to be done. “The tractor was very good indeed mechanically,” Steve notes, “but the radiator was leaking, the water pump had frost damage with a cast iron fracture, the air filter was missing and the bonnet (or hood), along with the securing clasps, was incorrect.” The fuel tank and fuel line were full of rust and the carb was not fully operational. At some point, a seat from a Cletrac crawler had been pressed into service. The Hercules engine identification plate, initially thought to be missing, was located “in terrible condition under dried mud in the toolbox.”
Steve found a new starter engine but has not yet installed it. “The engine starts on the fourth crank pull every time,” he says, “so for the moment the starter is lying idle on my bench. I also installed four new 24- by 9-inch tires and tubes, so the tractor is in great shape.”
The rare tractor is in high demand at parades and shows. “I receive invitations to a whole host of shows throughout the U.K., which I do my best to honor and attend,” Steve says. “Without letting the old girl break into a sweat I use her at some working events, cultivating and harrowing. But mostly, the GP is posed or pulling Massey-Harris mowing machines, a Road Master No. 5 wagon or my latest addition, a very nice Massey-Harris No. 8 muck spreader. She looks the part and gets all the attention she deserves.”
Well ahead of its time
The technology behind the Massey-Harris GP four-wheel drive, with power delivered to all four wheels, was ahead of its time. The tractor’s four wheels were the same size and weight distribution was equal on each, providing more efficient pulling. In addition, the back axle pivoted vertically, but all steering was by king pins on the front wheels.
Produced in Racine, Wis., early GPs utilized a 25 hp 4-cylinder L-head Hercules engine. Just 1,100 were sold in the first three years, followed by fewer than 2,000 more prior to arrival of a restyled version in 1936. Later models were equipped with a Massey-Harris 4-cylinder overhead valve type engine. This model was readily distinguished from the earlier Hercules engine types by its sloping hood.
The GP was produced in four versions. The major difference was the operating row crop width of the tractor. The narrowest was 48 inches, followed by 60-, 66- and 76-inch models. The original General Purpose tractors built in 1931 were sold with steel wheels with removable lugs for $1,020 (the equivalent of $14,650 today). By 1935, as rubber became more readily available, many farmers had their GPs retrofitted for rubber tires.
Looking to the future
In 1985, Steve purchased a small farm near Holywell, North Wales. With ample space and suitable storage, he began collecting and restoring old iron relics, starting with a 1950 Ferguson TE 20 TVO. The tractor was in very good mechanical condition; coupled with a cosmetic restoration (including a paint job in battleship gray) the tractor is now nearly good as new. That tractor served as a springboard for others.
“My restoration caught the attention of my neighboring farmer, Harold Hughs,” Steve says. “He gave me his father’s 1952 David Brown Crop Master diesel. He was hopeful I would bring the old soldier back to life. It had been in terrible hedgerow state; both the engine and gearbox were seized. I completed mechanical and cosmetic restorations. The David Brown was saved and restored to its former show room condition.”
After completing restoration of his first two tractors inside 12 months, Steve was hooked on collecting and restoring. Since then, he’s acquired more than 50 models covering most of the tractors manufactured during the vintage and classic years up to 1960. Someday, the collection will pass to his son. “Luke will ensure this collection improves as time passes and hopefully he will have a son to pass it along to,” Steve says. “We are only guardians; keepers, if you will.” FC
For more information: e-mail Steve Watts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Freelance writer Fred Hendricks owns SunShower Acres, Ltd. of Bucyrus, Ohio, a dairy cattle consulting business, and is an avid farm toy collector. E-mail him at email@example.com.