Doug Gantvoort struck up a conversation with a group of Dutch tractor collectors at a California show in the 1980s; it proved a turning point in his life. Today, Doug and his wife, Mary Ann, have become major importers of vintage European tractors for the U.S. collecting market.
The Dutchmen were searching for vintage U.S. tractors when they first met, and Doug had some for sale. He invited them to visit him at home in Clear Lake, S.D., and two months later, they actually showed up.
'I think I sold them nine tractors that day,' he recalls, 'and two years later, I got interested in their stuff.'
Their 'stuff' included Porsche, Allgaiar, Vierzon, Lanz and John Deere Lanz tractors; all are German except Vierzon, which is French. Doug and Mary Ann began regularly importing various ones for resale.
Today, the Dutchmen are retired and the Gantvoorts work with Hubert Mawet of Belgium. Doug says he knows of only about a dozen others in the United States who import vintage European tractors, and no one but he and Mary Ann do it regularly.
Although not as famous as their sports car namesakes, Porsche tractors were designed by the same man, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, who also designed the Volkswagen car. Doug describes him as 'the Henry Ford of Europe.'
According to Nick Baldwin in the book Classic Tractors of the World, Porsche developed large, four wheel-drive tractors as well as a lightweight farm tractor prototype during World War I. By 1937, he had returned to work on his farm tractor, called a Volksschlepper or 'People's Tractor,' a small number of which reportedly were built from 1938 to the early years of World War II. They featured gasoline-fueled, air-cooled engines mounted in the rear, with load space up front.
After World War II, Porsche's 'People's Tractor' idea was revived by the forerunner of his sports car firm, but this time, the machine featured a front-mounted, twin-cylinder, air-cooled diesel engine. Another German tractor maker, Allgaiar, adopted the Porsche tractor in 1949 and made 25,000 of them by 1957. The earliest ones, called Allgaiars, were green; later, the tractors were painted red.
After 1957, an organization called Mannesmann acquired the Porsche tractor license, and the following year an associated engineering conglomerate took charge. By then, Porsches were offered in four sizes from 14 to 50 hp: 1-cylinder Juniors, 2-cylinder Standards, 3-cylinder Supers and 4-cylinder Masters. Ninety percent of the parts fitted all the models. In 1964, Renault of France took over Mannesmann's tractor interests and the production of Porsche tractors stopped.
Doug says the German firms tried to market the new Porsches back in the 1950s in this country but met with little success.
'The tractors were too expensive,' he says. 'A Ford 8N (made from 1947 to 1952) was a lot cheaper.' List price of a 8N back then was about $1,425; Porsches would have been an additional $300 - 'quite a bit in the '50s,' Doug says.
Even though all the variations were offered, including orchards and hi-crops, no more than 1,000 new Porsches were ever sold in the United States, and in time, Doug says, 'most of those went to junkyards.' Perhaps a couple of hundred have survived.
The Porsches Doug and Mary Ann import are mostly not restored. Either they're sold 'as is' or the couple restore them. He says they've bought about 25 from their European contacts over the past 20 years. On balance, the Europeans have bought about 700 vintage American-made tractors from the Gantvoorts.
Among the characteristics that attracted U.S. buyers to Porsches back in the 1950s, Doug says, were the excellent vision the driver had from the seat, the tractor's six-speed transmission with two reverse gears - 'unheard of in the late 1950s in the United States' - and its front and rear PTO(s).
Their durability also was appealing to farmers. 'They were built like tanks,' Doug says, noting a conversation with a man whose grandfather had bought one of the new Porsches. He reported the tractor ran 18,000 hours with no overhaul; the grandson still had it.
Another unusual characteristic of the Porsche tractor is its ignition key. 'It's not like our keys,' Doug says, showing the oddly shaped item. 'There's no turning; you just push in.'
Porsche tractors also had optional horns, and mounted belly mowers and plows, both of which Doug owns. He says he thinks the mowers were imported in the 1950s too, but he doesn't think the plows were.
The earliest Porsche Doug's been able to track down in this country is a 1948 model, reportedly imported by Deere & Company for study purposes; the first new ones sold here started coming over in 1956.
Those Doug brings in for resale date from 1955 onward; the Juniors first were manufactured in 1957. Mostly, these tractors go to collectors with more than one brand in their barns; rarely do they join Porsche collections.
Doug and Mary Ann attend two to three tractor shows a year to better acquaint collectors on this side of the Atlantic with their European-made products. He says among upcoming outings, they hope to attend the Le Sueur County Pioneer Power Show, Aug. 23-25 in Le Sueur, Minn. FC - For more information on Porsche tractors, contact Doug and Mary Ann Gantvoort, Classic Tractor International, P.O. Box 228, Highway 15 South, Clear Lake, SD 57226; (605) 874-2412 or (605) 874-2803.