For those of you who are only fond of sweet little vintage tractors I apologize for bringing you Muriel (aka the Muir Hill). But I shall endeavour to convert you. By the end of this article you might begin to admire these slightly ugly but wonderfully unique British workhorses.
Muir Hill began making tractors in 1966 in Manchester, England. Before that, in the 1920s, the company produced rail locomotives. These were mainly narrow gauge locomotives that were simple in design and based on a Fordson skid unit mounted on a rail chassis. The slate quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog in Wales and the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway, England, both used Muir Hill locomotives (it is thought that the latter still owns a pair). After the 1930s the company ceased locomotive production and began building construction equipment. In the years following World War II, Muir Hill built forklift trucks and the dumpers; these too were based on Fordson tractor skid units.
Then, in 1966, the company started to make the heavy-duty tractors it would become famous for. Muir Hill had previously made a few shunting tractors based on Fordson units. The first truly agricultural tractor made by the company was the 101. It came out in 1969 and was fitted with a Ford engine.
The 110 came out in 1969 with a 6-cylinder Perkins engine. Perkins already had an excellent international reputation and distribution network and that helped make these tractors popular all over the world. The 161 was also produced in 1969. With its Perkins V8.510 engine, the 161 was Britain’s most powerful tractor in its day. In 1972 the 101 was replaced by the 121 Series II, featuring a walk-through flat floor and fully glazed cab (oddly, it seems there never was a Series I).
By 1978 the demand for increased operator comfort led to the introduction of the 121 Series III with larger cab, improved soundproofing, air conditioning and a radio. Muir Hill tractors soon gained the reputation of being solid, powerful workhorses. This has been proved true; many examples have stood the test of time and are still at work today. During its lifetime the Muir Hill company changed hands several times. Today the name and rights belong to Lloyd Loaders (MH) of Hipperholme, West Yorkshire.
The first “Muriel” I ever really took any notice of was a rusty old thing parked in a lay-by near the sea, close to where I used to live in West Wales. She was used for the sole purpose of launching boats from the beach. She was huge compared to the usual Fordson Major boat-launching tractors commonly seen in the area. On the top of the cab, where it once had said “Muir Hill,” someone had painted Muriel in big letters. The name stuck and these heavy-duty old tractors will always be Muriels to me.
The Muir Hill company definitely didn’t concern itself with shapely tinwork and fancy details when it designed these 4-wheel drive, equal-wheeled, heavy-duty tractors. Instead it went straight for a simple, no-nonsense, utilitarian look, which — judging by bright yellow livery and boxy styling — was a look that came directly from the plant that Muir Hill had been making long before tractor production began.
Career and a hobby
For Jim Ormerod, who lives on the Isle of Anglesey, North Wales, Muir Hill tractors provide both a living and a hobby. As well as selling Muir Hill parts and servicing and restoring Muir Hill tractors and loaders for customers, Jim also has his own little fleet of Muir Hills. His first real encounter with a Muir Hill tractor took place when he worked on a large farm in Cambridge. One of the farm tractors was a Muir Hill 121 Series 3 and to Jim it was brilliant to have the opportunity to drive this beast of a machine. “It was the biggest thing around at the time,” he says, “and I felt very lucky being able to drive it.”
By then an agricultural engineer, Jim waited many years before he had a Muir Hill tractor to call his own. His company, Smallholder Services, started as a contracting business offering all manner of services to the smaller landowner. However, Jim found he was spending more and more time mending tractors, so he has concentrated more on that side of the work and has become a reliable tractor mechanic serving the Anglesey and North Wales area.
Living on an island, especially one popular with vacationers, means that a certain amount of Jim’s work centers on repairing and servicing boat-launching tractors, several of which are Muir Hills, just like the “Muriel” I met all those years back.
I have always assumed that a tractor gets used as a boat launch when it has reached the end of its active life. I suppose I have viewed the seaside as a place where old tractors go to die. But perhaps I was looking at the picture from the viewpoint of a tractor enthusiast and not a boating enthusiast. As Jim points out, some boats cost a lot of money and if someone has invested thousands of pounds into their boating hobby, then they are going to need a decent, reliable tractor with which to launch their boat.
What’s more, some boats are huge, heavy things and a clapped-out old yard scraper is never going to be up to the job of hauling a big boat, especially on sand or mud. So, sometimes, a boat launcher needs to be a big, powerful, dependable tractor. The thought of a good classic tractor being used in the sea might seem like a crying shame, but if the tractor is well-maintained there is no real reason why a few dips in the sea should completely finish it off. After all, the Muir Hill is a tall tractor. Much of the time it is the wheels and axles that are in the sea; the rest of the tractor is usually well above the watermark.
Muir Hill tractors exist all over the world. Jim has customers in the U.S. who buy parts for their Muir Hill tractors from him. An Ohio man recently discovered a Muir Hill tractor lurking behind farm buildings he’d bought. Although the tractor wasn’t in working order, it only had 300 hours on the clock. The new owner ordered brake and axle parts, seals and other parts. With a bit of advice from Jim, he managed to get the tractor up and running. Jim is pleased to have a satisfied customer, but he also delights in the thought that far away in the U.S., another Muir Hill has been saved from the scrap and is now earning its keep.
Many of the Muir Hill tractors that were fitted with Perkins engines ended up on sugar cane plantations in Guyana and the Caribbean. Bookers Sugar Estates in Guyana had a fleet of 50 such tractors. Jim still sends parts to Jamaica for two tractors that remain in regular work there.
These big yellow beasts aren’t everyone’s idea of the perfect classic tractor. Many collectors favor smaller tractors that are easily transported. The utilitarian looking Muir Hills may not be quaint and quirky enough for those who are after a bit of gentle nostalgia.
Despite many years as a Muir Hill fan, Jim didn’t buy one of his own until 2006. He still has that Series 3 tractor. “It still hasn’t been restored,” he says with a laugh. “The problem is, my stuff always comes last.” When I called to see Jim, he had removed the cab from a Series 2 Muir Hill for restoration. “I’ve given the rest of the tractor a complete rebuild,” he says, “so I’m just sorting out the cab now.” Whilst the tinwork on a Muir Hill is made of sturdy stuff, the cab is typically one of the first things to rust away. Jim is able to restore cabs by fabricating doors and windows and by replacing damaged metalwork, glass and the all-important sliding mechanisms.
Jim also owns a 1971 101. This tractor, which he has only recently bought, came from Caernarfon, North Wales, where it was used on a caravan (camper) park for shunting. The tractor itself is in good order, except for the fact that the differential in the back has seized: At the moment it will only go in a straight line. Jim lives up a long twisty drive. When the low loader dropped the tractor off on the main road, Jim took a good while to drive it home. “It took about 60 goes to get around some of the corners on my drive,” he says with a laugh. This tractor has clearly done a bit of allsorts. Although it now has a towing hitch frame on the front for moving caravans, it looks as though it was equipped with a dozer blade at one point. “Once I’ve restored it I will probably put a snow-plough blade on it,” Jim says.
A Muir Hill collection really wouldn’t be complete without a Muir Hill loader, and Jim is a big fan of the workmanship and sheer power of those. He has two, one of which will be a parts donor. He’s hoping to restore the A5000, which he bought from Stockport. The unit was sold new to the army in 1975; it still has traces of military paint on it. The “5000” in the name comes from the fact that the loader will lift 5,000 pounds in its bucket some 12 feet in the air. These machines were also popular with quarries and construction businesses. On the rear it is possible to fit either a Massey 50 back actor (backhoe) or a Boughton winch, making this quite a versatile tool.
Jim likes the sturdiness of Muir Hill tractors and the feeling that no corners were cut in production. “I like working on them,” he says. “For one thing, the engine area is nice and high up so you don’t have to stoop over.” The basic shape has remained the same and many parts on the older models are identical to those on the newer models. The power steering and brakes on all four wheels give the Muir Hill driver a safe and comfortable ride.
They do have a tendency to “buckaroo” and nose-dive if they don’t have any weight on the back, but they work in perfect balance with a large plough on the rear, and the roomy cab affords the driver excellent visibility. Some people feel the Muir Hill is a top-heavy tractor, but that has more to do with appearance than anything else. In reality only the cab is high; the real weight is low down. Muir Hill fans like the flat-floor cab as it means that the driver doesn’t have to sit astride the tractor, and the cab floor is uncluttered. There is really no reason why a Muir Hill can’t perform perfectly well on the modern farm. After all, later models were even available with air conditioning, tinted windows and a pickup hitch.
So, is anyone converted? Or am I barking up the wrong tree?!? FC
For more information:
— Contact Jim Ormerod, phone: 01248 410102; online at Smallholder Services.
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.