Bryan Ellevold can trace his love of old iron to a story about an old-time threshing crew in the 1930s. His father, Cliff, then a young member of the crew, was deliberately trying to plug the thresher. “He was shoveling straw from the bundles with a fork into the thresher,” Bryan recalls. “He said he tried to feed it so fast that he would plug it. But the governor was set and wouldn’t allow him to get it plugged.”
Cliff talked about working with a “WK-40” — a kerosene model — in those days and that stuck in Bryan’s mind. Later, father and son connected with a seller in southern Minnesota who had a 1938 McCormick-Deering WK-40 for sale. “I didn’t even know that model existed,” Bryan says. “But that’s what got me interested in the old tractors.”
Bryan, who lives in Osceola, Wisconsin, isn’t partial to any particular brand. “In the 1980s, I bought a 1954 Farmall MTA for $900 and fixed it up to use on my hobby farm,” he says. “My dad had a Massey-Harris 44 on the farm. We have an old picture of my mom and older sister on it. So there was some background on Massey-Harris. I followed the Massey-Harris line because I wanted something different and more of a challenge.”
He found his first one — a green 1936 Massey-Harris Row-Crop Challenger — at Biewer’s Tractor Salvage in Barnesville, Minnesota, in 2007. When the salvage operator found it, a tree was growing through the tractor’s back rim and housing. It was in such rough condition that people seeing it on the flatbed asked what it was: not what kind of tractor, but what kind of machine. “That’s how bad it was,” Bryan says.
All of the tractor’s sheet metal was missing. The Challenger needed new rims, manifold, radiator, gas tank, belt pulley and steering wheel — almost everything. “I tore it down to just the rear housing,” Bryan says, “but I didn’t pull the engine, which was stuck.”
He rolled up his sleeves, pulled the spark plugs and began spurting penetrants down into the cylinders. “In the portholes in the bottom you could see which cylinders were loose,” he says. “If something ran down after you’d squirted it in, you knew.”
Bryan soaked the engine for six days. When the pistons came loose, he removed the tappet cover to make sure the valves were loose. “By cranking it over I could tell it had good compression,” he says, “so the engine couldn’t have been stuck that bad. I had to get a new manifold, had the carburetor and magneto rebuilt, cleaned out the crankcase good, changed the filter and put in fresh oil.”
Using a parts list, repair manual and magnifying glass, Bryan studied the photos and restored the tractor. If he needed a part he could make himself, he made it. After pulling the tractor, the Challenger started right up, ran without smoking and has run well ever since. It’s even become a regular on the parade circuit. Bryan notes that his partner, Barbara Murphy, now “pretty well owns that machine,” and operates it in many parades.
Bryan got help from professionals with sheet metal, magneto, carburetor and painting. “I used to do my own painting, but not anymore,” he says. “But I did everything else. It probably looked worse than it really was, but it took a lot of time to get it right.”
Bryan’s green Challenger has three “gas” tanks. “People are always curious about that,” he says. Two small tanks held gasoline and water; a large tank held kerosene or another distillate. “Because gasoline fired easier, you could start it that way and then turn to kerosene, which was cheaper.”
Kerosene was preheated by rerouted exhaust gases through butterfly valves in the manifold. Water was added automatically by the carburetor; for a hard pull, horsepower could be increased by opening the water valve beneath the fuel tank more. “That’s what it said in one of the books,” Bryan says. “When you opened the water valve, it increased the horsepower by raising compression.”
The kerosene tractor can be run on gasoline. “That’s what I’m running it on right now,” he says. “I just fill the main tank with gasoline.”
The 1936 Challenger was Massey-Harris’ entry into row-crop tractors. As noted by C.H. Wendel in Standard Catalog of Farm Tractors 1890-1980, 2nd Edition, the model “continued to use the boilerplate unit frame design that had been pioneered on the Wallis Cub of 1913. The engine was built by Massey-Harris; its 4-cylinder design carried a 3-7/8-by-5-1/4-inch bore and stroke.” Built from 1936 to 1938, it was capable of 20 drawbar hp.
From a collector’s perspective, it takes four of these Massey-Harris tractors to make a set. You need a red Challenger, a green Challenger, a red Pacemaker and a green Pacemaker.
The second Massey in Bryan’s set is a red 1938 Twin Power Challenger found in rough shape in central Wisconsin. “It had been redone by the time I got it,” Bryan says. “I put on larger rear tires to fill in some of the void between the tire and fenders.”
For Bryan, the early technology is a big part of the appeal of antique tractors. “Earlier tractors like the Challengers and Pacemakers had the wet clutch in them as opposed to the dry clutch,” he says. “Oil from the engine splashes back on the clutch and lubricates it. That way it will never wear out because it’s always lubricated. With a dry clutch you often had to take it out and replace it.”
The third piece in Bryan’s four-tractor Massey-Harris set turned up at an auction in Bloomington, Wisconsin. Although the 1936 Twin Power Pacemaker’s engine wasn’t frozen, the green tractor was in pretty rough shape. “It needed all new sheet metal, the tires and rims were shot, as was the manifold, and the magneto was gone,” Bryan says. “Basically everything needed to be redone.”
The valves were in poor shape; a couple needed to be replaced. But the major problem was in the oil pump. “I had been warned that a little key in the oil pump twisted off in these models,” Bryan says. “When I was ready to run it, I noticed a lack of oil pressure right away. I knew right where to go to find out what was wrong.”
The key had twisted off, maybe before Bryan got the tractor or maybe when he started it. He made a replacement key from a piece of flat bar, installed it and got the engine running. “I should have torn the pump apart right away and cleaned it off and I would probably have found it,” he says. “I think it was worn enough to get twisted off just running it, and I could see it needed to be replaced. The oil pump was not easy to get out, so it’s a good thing I have small arms and hands!”
The most difficult part of the project, he says, was removing the rusty rear wheels from the axles. “They were difficult because of the tapered shaft,” he says. “The process took a lot longer than anything I could imagine. I kept squirting them down with an oil can filled with diesel fuel. I soaked them for three weeks before I tried to get them off and I didn’t succeed the first time.
“I finally had to make up a puller to get the hubs off the axle,” he says. “It took me a long time to get everything loose so I could weld new rims on it.” The project took two years to complete.
Custom sheet metal added the finishing touch. “All you have to do is make sure everything is straight, drop the bolts into the holes and put it together,” he says. “It’s just sweet. You couldn’t find nicer stuff.”
Of his trio of MH tractors, the Pacemaker is Bryan’s favorite, perhaps because he had the most trouble getting it back together. “I don’t know if its smaller size meant there was more stuff to knock your head on,” he says, “but it is my favorite of the three I have.”
And the final piece of the puzzle? The red Twin Power Pacemaker is the hardest of the four tractors to find. After years of searching, Bryan finally tracked down a red 1937 Twin Power Pacemaker that he is in the process of buying. That will complete his set.
Bryan has spent more than a little time thinking about why these tractors didn’t seem to keep running. “The manifolds usually burned up because they had to run them so hot to burn that fuel [kerosene],” he muses. “They couldn’t get them to work with the manifold like that, so they must have figured they’d run them enough and parked them.”
Though the Challenger and Pacemaker are essentially the same tractor, Bryan says, several differences set them apart. Whether green or red, the Challenger is a row-crop tractor with a narrow front end, adjustable rear wheels, (52 to 80 inches apart) and 25 inches of crop clearance. The Pacemaker has a wide front end, non-adjustable rear wheels and is a low-profile tractor sitting closer to the ground.
These early Massey-Harris tractors also had PTOs, unlike many tractors of the same era. “They were an easy tractor to move around with, considering the amount of horsepower that they had at that time,” Bryan says, “especially compared to other tractors of that era.”
Bryan traces his restoration skills back to his work as a teenager in a welding shop. “We did pretty much everything: semi trailers, tractors, farm machinery, bulldozers and turn-a-pulls,” he says. “That was good learning experience for a young kid in high school. What I learned has kind of stuck with me through all the years.”
He also credits a network of dedicated enthusiasts. “I made a few phone calls, and one person would pass you onto another person, and I’d end up with the parts I needed,” he says. “Everybody was really helpful.”
Though few of the running tractors turn up at shows — Bryan found only one other green Pacemaker, as well as a few red and green Challengers at a 2013 Massey-Harris show in Baraboo, Wisconsin — parts are plentiful for those who want to rebuild.
The early Massey-Harris tractors are not well-known. “People will ask what they are. Others question whether the color is correct,” Bryan says. “But I know it’s right, because I try to match the color pretty close to what I find under the tank or hood.”
Bryan enjoys working on antique tractors. “I need a hobby,” he says. “I’m not one to sit in a chair. I’m an antsy person who has to be doing something and I like to do these tractors. When I’m done and they’re running, it gives me the self-satisfaction that I’ve accomplished something.”
He relishes the challenge of rebuilding the relics of another era. “Now people are calling and asking me questions,” he says. “They’re kind of impressed with my work and that’s rewarding.”
The dirty work — tearing the tractor down and cleaning out all the grease and grime — just goes with the territory. “These tractors turned out better than I thought they would. Maybe I didn’t waste my money after all. I’d hate to get that far and have that much money stuck in something, only to find out that I’d have to tear it down again. If it runs pretty nice, that’s rewarding; it makes your day. Once I’m done, I’m pretty happy with these tractors. I wouldn’t give them up for anything.” FC
For more information:
— Bryan Ellevold, 2474 20th Ave., Osceola, WI 54020.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: email@example.com.