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Quirky tractors and larger-than-life characters

Author Photo
By Josephine Roberts

There’s never a dull moment when it comes to writing about old tractors, and sometimes it is hard to know which are more fascinating, the tractors or their owners!

tractor
Josephine Roberts
One of the perks of the job is having a drive on some quirky tractors, like this Fordson Major with a Roadless halftrack conversion.

People often ask me how I ended up writing about old tractors. Like most things in life, it came about largely by accident. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I didn’t receive payment for any of my scribblings until I bought my first tractor in about 1997.

During a search for an old tractor to use on my 7-acre holding, I started buying tractor magazines. I wanted to see what was out there, and what prices the tractors of the 1950s and ’60s were fetching. I noticed that these publications weren’t very inviting for the beginner, and there were no women to be seen anywhere in their pages.

I had hoped for chatty, friendly articles to read, some helpful articles that would tell me how to change the oil in my MF 35, and a sort of glossary that would explain what were to me, at the time, mysterious terms like “live drive” and “synchromesh.”

dog bed tractor

photo by: Josephine Roberts

Anyone who makes a seat for his dog so that it can come to ploughing competitions with him has to be a good person in my book.

Frustrated, I took it upon myself to write the editor of one of these magazines to share my opinion. To my horror, said editor actually ‘phoned me up, and said that they would, as a magazine, like to have more female involvement, but that there just didn’t seem to be much female interest in this hobby.

He asked if I would like to share my story, as this would make an interesting story for other beginners. I had no choice but to put my money where my mouth was, so I did. I told my story in glorious technicolour, and I found that I really enjoyed telling the tale. I progressed from there to finding fascinating people to write about, and it became a joy to relate all of the amazing human and tractor stories that they shared with me.

man and dog

photo by: Josephine Roberts

Anyone who makes a seat for his dog so that it can come to ploughing competitions with him has to be a good person in my book.

I realised that you don’t need to be a tractor expert to write about old tractors, but you do need to know how to listen to the people who are experts, and let them tell the tale. The more I write about old machinery, the more I think that these stories are as much about people as they are about machines.

The pressure of a command performance

It would be a dull world if we were all the same. I have met a wide variety of characters whilst writing my tractor-related articles. I’ve met some real comedians, some hilarious raconteurs and some extremely quiet people who I’ve had to prise stories out of, and who have made me feel slightly guilty about the fact that I’m prying into their hobby, even though I was invited to do so.

woman and tractor

photo by: Josephine Roberts

The author, getting to grips with the brake on a Nuffield
tractor.

I’ve met some of the messiest folk imaginable, and then others who have outbuildings and workshops that are cleaner, tidier and better organised than my own kitchen. I’ve met countless farmers, truck drivers and mechanics of course, but I’ve also met vicars, doctors and accountants, all of whom have been tractor enthusiasts too.

I’ve met people who have plenty of money to throw at this hobby, and others who don’t have two pennies to rub together, and I have had equally good welcomes from both. Sometimes I’m fed roast dinners, plied with cake, and am given a go on all manner of machines that I have to fathom out on the spot.

people and tractor

photo by: Josephine Roberts

A scene from the day I had a go on a Fowler crawler that wouldn’t turn right. With a grand total of 10 seconds of training under my wing, I lurched off in the hope of negotiating my way around a busy showground. This is not something I would recommend.

This can be a little unnerving, because as you’ll all know, old tractors aren’t exactly standard. Some have a hand brake,  some a foot brake with a clip to secure it, some have, erm, no real brakes at all … and the pressure is really on to not make a fool of oneself. Failing to find the right gear on an unfamiliar tractor might confirm to those watching that women really are awful drivers, and it can feel like one is letting down all of womankind if one makes a mess of it.

“Oh, and you can’t turn right …”

There’s also the worry of damaging someone’s pride and joy or a much-loved family heirloom. It is possible that, in a freak accident, you could completely mangle an irreplaceable antique. It has never happened to me of course, because I am a very cautious driver,  but I have had a few memorable moments, most of which have come about because of my innate inability to just say no.

On one occasion, a lovely elderly gentleman at a show insisted that I have a drive on his Fowler crawler. At that time, I had never driven a tracked machine, and although this looked like a beautiful machine, with a huge bulldozer blade on the front, I had no real inclination to drive it, especially in a busy place. However, the gentleman was most insistent that it would make a great photograph.

mules

photo by: Josephine Roberts

One of the characters of the ploughing scene is Ethel Worthington, pictured here with her two mules.

He fired the single-cylinder crawler up by means of a cartridge, gave me a few basic instructions and told me to set off, assuring me that he would walk alongside. I had just got going when he pointed out that it was impossible to turn right, as he hadn’t fixed the clutch on that side, so I would have to go around in a circle to the left. I looked wildly around at what might be my route, through the parked vehicles on display, past the horse lorry and the tea van, and my heart began to race a bit.

Then the gentleman stopped to talk to a passerby. Given that people were separating to make room for me, I had to continue my jerky voyage alone, negotiating my way between rare and expensive vehicles, making sure I didn’t slew the blade into anything. You’d be amazed how many times one feels the need to turn to the right when making a circle to the left, but with sweaty palms I managed to get back roughly to the spot we had started from. The laid-back elderly gent was now talking to someone else. “Oh, there you are,” he said with a smile. “I thought you’d gone on your holidays.”

“… holding my red handbag on his shoulder …”

Another time I was taking pictures of another elderly gent who was ploughing in the working section of a large vintage vehicle event. He stopped and said that I really should have a try at ploughing with his Standard Fordson Model N and trailer plough, and that he would hold my bags and my camera.

“I’ve never ploughed before,” I protested, but he wasn’t having any of it. Thankfully, I had driven a Fordson tractor before, but ploughing – well, that was the kind of thing I wanted to try for the first time in a quiet meadow, with a kind and patient teacher, on a tractor I felt familiar with, not in a busy showground.

man in tractor

photo by: Josephine Roberts

On my travels I’ve learned that people have just as much (if not more) fun playing around with their tatty old tractors as they do with expensive collectables.

But somehow it seemed easier to agree, so I found myself on board, confirming that the best thing to do was to keep the front wheel of the tractor in the furrow and go straight to the end. He also confirmed that yes, I needed to pull the string to lift and lower the plough.

Off I went, planning to stop at the end of the field and hand the tractor back. I stopped at one point to see if the owner was following, and noted that he was still there, holding my red handbag on his shoulder, talking to someone. Alongside me was a man ploughing with a County tractor, and to my right was someone using a trailed cultivator behind a David Brown tractor.

I reached the end of the field, lifted the plough triumphantly out of the ground, put the tractor in neutral and looked around at my “work” and noted to my dismay that the owner of the tractor was still talking at the other end of the field. I waved, and he waved back and gestured, obviously expecting me to return to the spot I had started from.

“How old is that tractor?”

I began the task of shunting the tractor and plough around at the headland, when the man with the David Brown and cultivator stopped and shouted, “Plough back up the field now, so I can cultivate here.” I nodded and gave a shrug to show that I didn’t have very high expectations, and he said, “Just drop the plough and go! You’ll be fine!”

man

photo by: Josephine Roberts

One sees some funny sights at ploughing matches, like John Davies (shown here) recovering from a particularly demanding bout of ploughing.

As I headed to the other end of the field, I saw that the man with my bag had now gone to one side of the field and was chatting to people there. We waved at each other and he made a “T” sign with his two hands and I tried to beckon him over, but I think he took my gesture to be a thumbs up. Another two runs of ploughing and I could see the tractor owner at a large queue by a tea van, still with my red handbag on his shoulder.

Meanwhile, the man with the David Brown tractor and cultivator was breathing down my neck again, gesticulating at me to continue ploughing. There was a chap with a power harrow breathing down his neck and it seemed I had to get a move on. This, I thought, was like some kind of bad dream, but in a bid not to make a scene, I carried on, with everyone giving smiles of encouragement and thumbs up, and a few people taking photographs.

man on tractor

photo by: Josephine Roberts

Some old tractors are scarier than others. This menacing-looking Allis-Chalmers belongs to North Wales tractor and truck collector Steve Richards.

“How has this happened?” I remember thinking to myself. “I’m meant to be here taking pictures, acting like a proper journalist, and here I am on an old tractor, ploughing, seemingly unable to stop, and some random man has gone off with my camera and handbag.” I decided that the tractor and plough was worth far more than my handbag and camera, so I might as well just get on with it and hope that this stranger would soon re-appear.

In the meantime, someone started filming me, asking me how old the tractor was, “It’s not mine!” I shouted over the noise, “I don’t actually know who it belongs to.” Finally, after about 45 minutes, the chap with my red handbag over his shoulder appeared on the horizon with two paper cups of tea in his hands, but not before the local paper had taken a photograph of me doing some pretty awful ploughing. I was relieved to see in the following week’s edition of the newspaper that they had not used my photograph.

woman

photo by: Josephine Roberts

More my size was this tiny French-built Societe Francaise Vierzon vineyard tractor belonging to Tony Jones of Corwen, North Wales. With a single-cylinder, 2-stroke hot bulb engine, the SFV 202 Super is an unusual sight in the U.K.

Old memories help preserve the past

Some of the older characters I’ve met over the years have now sadly passed away, but they are immortalised by the memories that they have passed on to others, myself included. I’ve been told tales of times before widespread mechanisation when lines of men mowed hay meadows with scythes, and when you had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to feed work horses, and when virtually nobody around owned a car, and you had to thresh corn by hand in a dusty shed, lit by the dim glow of a paraffin lamp. It has been an honour to hear these recollections, as the number of those who can remember such times is rapidly shrinking.

I never ceased to be amazed at how some collectors and enthusiasts can recall so many details about not just their own tractors, but other people’s too – production dates and numbers, for instance. Retention of so many facts surely demands a photographic memory.

tractor closeup

photo by: Josephine Roberts

Sometimes you can tell by just looking at a tractor that it is owned by a comedian.

Sometimes I wonder how anyone, especially a person in their 80s, could possibly remember so much. Wives will often pipe up, “but he can’t remember my birthday!” or some such quip, because stereotypically this remains a hobby where men, especially men of a certain age, make up the majority.

The banter between husband and wife can be very amusing. I remember one lady referring to her husband’s pride and joy as “that hideous tractor.” Quite frequently, the owner of the tractor will tell me in a whisper, when his wife is out of earshot, exactly how much he has spent on the restoration. Often the sum spent is staggeringly large, and I will be sworn to secrecy.

woman

photo by: Josephine Roberts

Never having ploughed in my life, I was given a John Deere with a hand clutch and a trailer plough, and was pretty much left to get on with it. I also had to drive the whole outfit to the event, which (like pretty much all British ploughing matches) was held in a cold, muddy, windswept field. You can see from the look on my face that I don’t have much of a clue about match ploughing.

This is a hobby that is more about skill and dedication than anything, and I love the way that people restore and preserve an old machine, not for financial gain, but just for the pleasure of knowing that this beautiful vintage artifact will be here for another generation to enjoy. That is a truly selfless act. FC


Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at josiewales2021@aol.com.

Published on May 7, 2021
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