Most tractor collectors pick new treasures based on good looks. But when Tom Mariska fell in love with a 1918 18-36 Gray, it was a case of reverse appeal.
"I liked it because of it's odd appearance," he says. "It's a very awkward looking tractor."
The Gray, manufactured in Minneapolis, Minn. (about an hour from Tom's home in Montgomery, Minn.), features just one drive wheel, five feet wide, with lugs all around. It's long, it's heavy (weighing in at some 6,000 pounds), and it's awkward to work with. And it's Tom's pride and joy.
"When I take it out to shows or parades, it gets an awful lot of lookers," he says. "It's just so odd; it's so different from any other old tractor."
Much of the tractor's problem, he says, is fundamentals.
"It was very poorly designed," he says. "It's real long ... it wouldn't have been a very handy tractor to have around the farm. The steering is very rough, very awkward, and it rides very rough on the road.
"If you worked in the field with that unit for one day," he says, "you'd probably need a couple of days' rest afterwards."
Tom, a retired farmer, is the third generation of his family to live on what is now a Century Farm. He found the Gray close to home.
"I got it from a couple of neighbors," he says. "They were bachelor brothers who played with it in the fields. I didn't get it until after they passed away, though, so I don't know where they got it, and I don't have any history on it. They went to a lot of swap meets; they may have gotten it at one of those."
Tom is capable of doing all the restoration work himself. But he got help on the Gray.
"It was just so huge," he says.
The tractor had seen better days.
"When I got it, it wasn't in running order," he says. "It had been left outdoors, and it was really weathered. The intake and exhaust valves were all rusted in, and we had to use a torch to loosen them up."
The Gray was complete when he got it, but many parts were worn or broken.
"Major parts of the engine had to be restored," he says. "We had to replace the valves, and we made up some gaskets. And we had some delicate work done on the carburetor; it was really worn out."
Replacement parts, of course, were not available.
"We just used parts from other tractors, revamped them to make them work," he says, "or had parts made."
The original paint color could still be seen in the corners, so Tom was able to match that.
"I had it sandblasted, and repainted as close to the original as possible," he says.
Part of the original lettering remained, so he took photographs, measured and diagrammed, and had new decals produced.
After a year's work, the restoration was complete. Tom was satisfied with the results.
"It isn't like new," he says, "but I didn't expect it to be. When you're restoring old equipment like that, you have to expect some problems. You have to hunt up things, make some things. Some things are going to break, and you have to make new ones. I expected challenges.
"I always liked mechanical work, and I always liked a challenge," he said. "This gave me one. It was quite a job; quite time consuming."
Twelve years later, the tractor still "runs pretty well," he says. That wasn't always the case.
"The first time I paraded the Gray, it stalled on me," he says. "That was before I had the carburetor work done. People around here gave me an awful bad time about it."
Tom's found few Gray owners to commiserate with.
"Most of these tractors were exported to Europe," he says. "They're very scarce here. I believe there's only two in Minnesota."
Other tractors in Tom's collection include his father's 1936 WC Allis Chalmers, an Oliver Hart-Parr 18-28 and a Massey Harris 22.
"The Allis is my latest restoration," he says. "I used that tractor as a boy. It's something that just feels good to have on the place. It looks and works pretty good."
He also collect vintage vehicles. He has a '27 Model T Ford truck, a 48 Kaiser and is currently working on a '29 Studebaker.
"I call it Al Capone's car," he says. Whether it's a car or a truck or a tractor, though, Tom's found that restoration work moves slowly.
"I work at restoration a little bit at a time," he says. "It takes a long time to restore something, and there's always a lot of upkeep on the farm. I'd like to finish the Studebaker, and then maybe fish more." FC
For more information: Tom Mariska, Route 1, Box 22, Montgomery, Minn. 56069; (507) 364-7605.