Minnesota man finds talent in fixing up vintage pedal tractors
The pedal tractor everyone wants: the Oliver 1800.
You could call George Molus the pedal tractor doctor, because he likes to fix up pedal tractors.
"I'd rather buy one that's damaged, and has been used by a kid so the wheel is missing, and the pedal crank is out of place, the steering wheel is broken and the chain is gone," he says. "Those are the type that I really look for, the really challenging ones."
George, of St. Joseph, Minn., got started in pedal tractors because a buddy of his had collected for a number of years, "and I looked at it and thought it might be something I'd like to do," he says. "I was a retired machinist, so I had the capabilities and some of the machinery." He had worked for a large valve manufacturing company, and then had a shop of his own for a few years.
He bought his first pedal tractor in 1995 for $5 at an auction.
"It was in two pieces, so I went home and put it together," he says. "Then I found another one in four pieces, and put that one together." Those were John Deere 4440 and 4450 tractors.
Others weren't so easy to come by, as George discovered. Some four years ago, "I went to a friend's place for some lawn mower parts, and saw this pedal tractor sitting under the workbench," he says. "His son was grown and gone, so I asked if that pedal tractor was for sale, by any chance?"
It wasn't. George kept after him and after him, but still he wouldn't sell it.
"It just kept sitting there under the bench," he says. "I knew what it was a 1962 'Checkerboard' (so-named because of the decal design) Oliver 1800." He died, and the tractor went back to the son, but when George asked the son to sell the tractor, he kept getting turned down. "I said, 'I know it's your tractor, and someday if you plan on selling it, let me know.' That went on for years."
One Christmas George asked him again, "and he practically chased me out of the yard. He said, 'I told you when I'm ready to sell, I'll let you know.'" That summer, unfazed, George asked him again, and was turned down again. So he let it go for one more year.
This last June, George tried again.
"I was driving past his place, and he was outside reading the morning paper without a shirt on. I just drove in there, and he said, 'I suppose you came to buy that tractor.' I made him an offer, and he said, 'I think you just bought yourself a tractor.' Maybe he was hurting for money, but whatever the reason, I owned a tractor. I was lucky because it was only two miles from my home." All George needed to replace were tires and the pedal crank.
"The rest was salvageable." That tractor, the Oliver 1800 with the checkerboard grille, is one of the most-desired of all pedal tractors, George says.
"One in much worse condition than mine sold for $5,100 last year at Dyersville (at the National Farm Toy Show)."
The king of all the pedal tractors, however, is the John Deere Red A coffin-block pedal tractor.
"I've never seen one, but I've read stories about it," he says. "Supposedly it was a sample built to show the people at John Deere what the finished product would look like. But it was painted red, and it didn't suit the people at John Deere, so they asked to have the design redone."
By then, eight of the red coffin blocks had been made.
"They're out there somewhere," George says. 'Somebody's got them, and they're worth a lot of money."
One sold in the past year for $26,000. A second story says they were painted red and sold as generic models after John Deere turned them down.
Another of George's favorites: his Case Case-O-Matic 800.
"I worked for a Case dealer here in town part time back in the 1960s when my nephew was growing up, and he wanted a pedal tractor, so I ordered a 1958 Case 800 for $38.95," George recalls. "He outgrew it, then my three boys and a girl rode it all over town until the tires wore off, after which it ended up on a farm with my brother-in-law's two kids. Then it disappeared. A few years ago I ran into a guy at a show, and I was wearing my cap that says 'I buy pedal tractors'. He approached me and asked if I had a John Deere small 60, and I said I had two of them. He said he wanted one. I asked what he had to trade, and he said he had a Case 800, and I said that's what I'm looking for too, and so we traded. He was happy and I was happy." Today, he says, that Case will bring more than a thousand dollars.
Another of George's "pedals," the Allis-Chalmers D-17, has an unusual story. Another guy noticed George's hat, and said he had two halves of a pedal tractor.
"He said he had worked in a foundry that furnished the castings for pedal tractors, and when it closed down, the halves were hanging on the wall, and his boss told him to get rid of them as they were cleaning out the building. 'Either take them home or throw them away,' the boss said, so he took them home."
Those were the two halves that George eventually bought.
"So it's a very, very original D-17 that's never been ridden," he says. "I sandblasted it again, primed it, painted it, and put all new parts on it, and now it's better than new."
It would take about $1,500 to get that one nowadays.
Another favorite is his International Harvester Farmall 400 from the 1950s, "About 1956, I'd say. It came from Mississippi, and I bought it at the National Farm Toy Show in Dyersville, Iowa," he says. "It was in rough condition, but the body was intact in two pieces."
George gets his toys at flea markets and auctions. "If you're buying one at an auction, you have to be careful it's not one that's been reproduced," he says. "You have to know which ones are being reproduced, and you've got to watch for them."
One way to tell is to measure the tractors, he says, because reproductions are generally a quarter-inch shorter in length and width. Real original pedal tractors are used to make sandcast molds. "When you pour molten aluminum into those sandcasts, and the hot aluminum cools, you've got shrinkage," he says. "I guess if you know your measurements, you can detect it pretty easy."
Generally, George prefers those with body pieces intact. "But if a casting isn't intact, or is cracked, I'll salvage it," he says. "I'll weld it up and grind it off, and you won't know it when I'm done with it. It will look as good as new, or better than new. It's like doing body work on a dented car."
But George won't simply fix a pedal tractor up; for him, it's got to be perfect.
"Any holes in the casting that's used for a pivot and is loose, like for the steering shaft, I grind it out, weld it, and put it back to the size it should be," he says. "There's no loose anything in mine." He also replaces worn and broken parts with the correct parts. "If it's got a bearing in it, I'll replace it with a bearing. If it's got a bushing, it will get a bushing. All the old Eska-built pedal tractors had ball bearings in them, and you don't put a plastic bushing in something like that if you want to make it back to the original.'
Another reason George believes pedal tractors should be returned to "better than new" condition is because all the parts for the aluminum tractors he especially prizes are available. "Dakotah Toys in South Dakota, Samuelson's in Iowa, and other people have catalogs, so the parts aren't hard to get. In fact, I just called Samuelson this morning for parts for the Farmall H out in the shed."
For the sheet metal pedal tractors, complete repair isn't always possible.
"They are older and not quite as collectible as the aluminum," he says. "That's how I think, anyway. Parts aren't as readily available, either. You can buy tires, but if you need replacement parts for the sheet metal ones, you'll find they're very hard to get."
George prefers aluminum over sheet metal pedal tractors because of the detail in the engine compartment that aluminum allows, as well as more detail on the castings. "The sheet metal is mostly decaled," he says, and though the decals are available, George isn't as fond of them.
George says it can be expensive to restore the tractors, with new star-type rims for old pedal tractors at $25 each, tear-drop pedals $35 a pair, and front rims at $20 each.
"But if you want to do it right, if it was an Eska tractor, you buy the tires that say 'Eska' on the side," he says. "You can put on a cheap tire for five or six bucks, but it's not going to be original. You can take all kinds of shortcuts if you want to take them, but it's not right. I don't believe in doing that. Producing the finished product is the most satisfaction, and if I'm going to restore it, I'm going to restore it until it's better than new." FC
Bill Vossler is a regular contributor to Farm Collector.