UK tractor enthusiast’s collection of American tractors is an exotic sight across the ocean.
Ben Hughes of Cheshire, England, works as a quantity surveyor for oil cargoes. In his free time, he tinkers with old tractors and attends vintage shows.
Ben has been a fan of old tractors since an early age. As a young lad, he and his father used to tinker with a Fordson E27N that they named Trevor. However, Trevor was highly unreliable and in dire need of restoration, so the father and son sold him. Since then, Ben’s eye has been caught by slightly more exotic tractors, namely those hailing from the U.S. and Canada. They might be commonplace to you folks, but to us, they are exotic!
These days there is a definite theme to Ben’s tractor collection. He has a real passion for old American tractors, particularly those dating to the 1940s and ’50s. As he is always on the lookout for something different to add, his collection is constantly evolving.
“When it comes to tractors, I like the thrill of the chase,” Ben admits. He enjoys researching and sourcing various tractor makes and models, and then he tries to source what he’s looking for. Being based in the U.K., he sometimes finds that the range of old American tractors available locally can be a little limited.
However, Ben has a really good contact, namely Lyn Jones, also known as L&L Vintage Tractors of West Wales. Lyn has a vast array of American tractors and an ever-changing lineup of recently imported machines for sale. Lyn’s place is a paradise for any local fan of American tractors. Ben is frequently in contact with Lyn, and just as often tempted by many of the exciting finds Lyn has tracked down and imported.
Ben’s tractor collection is a work in progress. If he’s owned a certain tractor for a time and feels he’s had his fun with it, he will look for something to replace it with. Recently he sold a couple of Farmall tractors in order to make space for a couple of Cockshutt tractors, as they are a bit more unusual here in the U.K.
There are plenty of American tractors over here, but whilst certain makes are relatively commonplace, others are virtually unheard of. It’s the relatively unheard-of-examples that whet Ben’s appetite the most. Many American tractors dating to the early 1940s were sent here as part of the World War II lend-lease program. Others have since been imported by collectors, but if you want a particularly unusual model, you will have to consider importing it yourself.
At times (when the exchange rate is favorable to us) it doesn’t work out to be too ridiculously expensive to bring a small tractor over from Canada or the U.S. In fact, it can even be less costly than buying a British rarity. Many British tractors have become increasingly expensive and barn finds, bargains and hedge tractors are ever harder to track down. In some ways, it is no wonder that the avid collector, looking for something different to take to shows, has begun to look overseas for inspiration.
For Ben, the American tractor passion began when he bought a 1940 Case V. After enjoying this tractor for a spell, he decided to sell it, as his eye had been caught by other rare imports. The obsession had started to take hold and Ben couldn’t stop searching for his dream tractor. Finally it came along in the shape of a McCormick W-4, which Ben still owns today – along with five other tractors.
Built by International Harvester at their Farmall Works in Rock Island, Illinois, towards the end of the model’s production run, Ben’s tractor is one of 2,385 tractors built in 1952. Based on the serial number, he reckons the tractor was built in September.
The W-4 is the regular or standard-tread version of the Farmall H. Some 24,377 W-4 tractors were built from 1940 to 1953. The W-4 is powered by International’s own C-152, 2.5 litre, 4-cylinder, overhead valve, straight petrol engine of approximately 24 hp and is fitted with a 5-speed transmission, drawbar, PTO, lights, electric starter and belt pulley.
“The belt pulley on this tractor is not standard and is some 11.5 inches in diameter,” Ben says. “Plus, it also has an unusual petrol tank sight gauge, fitted to the cap on the petrol tank.”
During World War II, various types of American tractors were sent to Britain via the lend-lease agreement, and many of these tractors were fitted with a petrol/TVO engine, due to the higher price of petrol in the U.K. Tractor Vapourising Oil (TVO) was a popular (and less costly) alternative in the U.K. In 1940, for instance, a gallon of petrol cost the equivalent of £0.11p in America; that same gallon cost £0.24p in the U.K., more than double the price. Since Ben only uses his tractors for shows and the occasional working day or jaunt, the extra cost of running a straight petrol tractor is not an issue.
Built at International’s Milwaukee Works, Ben’s WD-9 was one of 5,425 tractors built at the factory in 1946. The WD-9 – the diesel version of the W-9 – was built from 1940 to 1953 with some 67,397 machines built in total (including the W-9, WD-9, WR-9, WDR-9, I-9 and ID-9 models). The WD-9 is powered by International’s D-335, 5.5 litre, 4-cylinder, overhead-valve engine offering approximately 50 hp.
The engine starts on petrol and switches to diesel once it is warm. “It’s a clever system involving valves in the head that close and alter the compression ratio, shut off the sparking side of the engine and open the diesel pump,” Ben explains. “It was a pioneering system, developed by IH in the 1930s, and it meant that there was no need for a separate ‘donkey’ engine. The tractor could be started on a low-voltage (6- or 12-volt) battery.”
The tractor is fitted with a 5-speed transmission, swinging drawbar, PTO and belt pulley, but no lights or electric starter, although those options were available at the time.
The price of the basic tractor in 1941 was $1,945 (about $32,350 in today’s terms), which Ben tells me was slightly more than the average yearly wage in America at the time, and about half the price of a house.
Ben doesn’t know how long the tractor has been in the U.K. According to his research, few WD-9 tractors actually arrived in the U.K. as part of the lend-lease agreement, because the vessel carrying most of them was torpedoed by German U-boats. “That is the rumour anyway,” he says. If the rumour is true, then no doubt there are several WD-9 tractors resting on the sea floor. The WD-9 is Ben’s current favourite tractor. “It’s a real beast of a machine,” he says, “and quite fast on the road!”
Ben has only fairly recently moved into the realm of Cockshutt tractors, being drawn in by the fact that they are an unusual sight here in the U.K. Built by Oliver at a factory in Charles City, Iowa, the Cockshutt is an uncommon sight on British soil. His 1941 Cockshutt 70 gets its name (70) from the octane rating of the gasoline it was designed to burn, Ben says. “Today in the U.K., we typically have an octane rating of 95.”
The tractor is powered by a high-compression, 3.3 litre, 6-cylinder, overhead valve petrol engine made for Oliver by Continental, giving approximately 28 hp at the drawbar. It is fitted with a 6-speed transmission, drawbar, PTO, electric starter, lights and belt pulley.
Ben recently spotted a 1947 Cockshutt 30 on eBay, and he felt it was just too interesting and affordable to turn down. It’s a beautifully shaped tractor, with a lovely weathered patina. Built in Brantford, Ontario, this was Canada’s first production tractor, with some 37,328 examples built between 1946 and 1957.
Powered by a 4-cylinder 2.5-litre petrol engine offering approximately 30 hp, the Cockshutt 30 was also available with a diesel engine. The tractor comes with a 4-speed gearbox, drawbar, PTO, electric starter, lights and a belt pulley, and was the first production tractor to feature an independent PTO. It was available with both a wide front and as a row crop tractor.
Ben frequently uses his only British-built tractor – a 1969 Massey Ferguson 165 – to tow his other tractors to shows and events. Built in Banner Lane, Coventry, England, the 165 was launched in 1964 as part of Massey Ferguson’s 100 Series, which included the models 130, 135, 145, 148, 150, 165, 168, 175, 178, 180, 185 and 188. The tractor is powered by a Perkins A4.212, 3.5-litre, 4-cylinder diesel engine of approximately 48 hp.
The price of a tractor like this new in 1975 was £2,800 (the average yearly wage in Britain at the time) or approximately £21,500 in today’s money (about $28,000). One suspects that, at some stage, Ben will get seduced by yet another American tractor, and the Massey Ferguson will be off down the road. I’m only thinking this because Ben has already hinted at the fact that he’s got his eye on a Minneapolis Moline …
For Ben there is just something special about American tractors. They make a refreshing change from the commonplace British tractors we see at shows here, but Ben also really likes their workmanship and styling. “To me, American tractors are a lot more pleasing to the eye than their British counterparts,” he says, “especially those that are in original condition.”
Ben tends to cap his collection at about six tractors, but he occasionally spots something unusual (by U.K. standards) that he can’t resist. If that happens, he usually sells a tractor to make room for the newbie. “It’s pretty much on a ‘one in, one out’ basis now,” he says with a laugh. He and his wife, Stephanie, have a growing young family, but so far, he’s managing to juggle fatherhood with a fairly demanding tractor obsession! FC
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.