Denny May bought his 1976 Versatile 700 Series 2 tractor with a very specific purpose in mind. “I was digging some ponds on my property,” he explains, “and you can’t pile the dirt in the wetlands, so I had to buy 4-wheel-drive tractors to haul it away.”
First he bought a 1977 International Harvester 3588 2+2 to pull a haybine on wet ground. “When I started to dig my ponds I took an old dump truck, removed the cab and front axle, and made a dump box,” he says. “I cut off the hitch and put another hitch on so it hooks in the tractor drawbar. But the 3588 wasn’t powerful enough and the hitch wasn’t strong enough.”
Tracking down a Versatile
Denny – who lives in Anoka, Minn. – needed a more powerful tractor for the pond work. He had heard about the abilities of Canadian-built Versatile tractors, so when he learned of one for sale at auction in Princeton, Minn., he jumped at the chance to look at it. “I had heard how easy they were to work on if you had any mechanical problems with them,” he says. “This one seemed like it was almost new, but when I hopped up into the cab, I found out I couldn’t get it started. Needless to say, it didn’t sell.”
A friend of Denny’s knew the Versatile 700 tractor’s owner, so they traveled to North Branch, Minn., to examine the machine again. “This 90-year-old bachelor had bought three brand-new Versatiles,” Denny says, “but he decided to sell them because he couldn’t get up on the tractors any more at 90 years of age.”
The Versatile 700 was as pristine as Denny remembered it. “This 1976 700 Versatile Series 2 had only 1,600 hours on it,” he says. “All it had done was run a planter and sprayer in the fields simultaneously. The sprayer tank sat on a set of tubing iron bolted on the tractor.”
The tractor’s refusal to start remained a problem – but not for long. “I didn’t realize the Versatile had a Murphy switch on it, because it wasn’t in its usual location where you’d find one,” Denny says. “You had to reach down under the dash to find it.”
Murphy switch a lifesaver
The Murphy switch was used on the Versatile to monitor sensors for temperature, oil and transmission pressures, and determine presence of leaks. If a leak is detected, the switch automatically shuts down the engine.
“Murphy switches aren’t common on many machines, probably because of their cost,” Denny explains. “I ordered a Gehl skid loader that is oil cooled with a Murphy switch to shut it down. The switch cost me an extra $500, so my guess is adding an option like that after purchase of the machine would cost twice as much, or about $1,000, which prevents a lot of people from adding them. But most irrigation water pumps that run unattended have Murphy switches.”
The Murphy switch saved Denny and his wife, Tami, a huge repair bill, he says. The couple run D & T and Son Excavating. On one occasion when Tami was driving a business dump truck, the engine quit. “She called me and said it just stopped,” Denny says. “I told her to wait half a minute, start the truck up again and get it off to the side of the road. I discovered that an idler pulley bearing had gone out. The Murphy switch shut the engine down and saved the motor. For what they cost, everyone should have a Murphy switch today.”
To start the Versatile, the Murphy switch has to be held down for 30-45 seconds while it tests sensors before the engine will start.
Farming in his blood
Although Denny runs an excavation business, Tami says he’s still a farm boy at heart. “You’ll never take the farm out of him,” she says. Born in 1956, Denny was raised on a dairy farm where his family used tractors like the Oliver Super 88. “When I was making some hay on a few pieces of property, I knew how easy Olivers were to work on because I had grown up with them,” he says, “so that was the first piece of iron I bought, in 1978.” But the Oliver did not come equipped with a three-point hitch, so he traded it for a Case 870.
When Denny bought the Versatile, he wasn’t worried about his ability to conduct mechanical repairs on the tractor. “I can do all the mechanical work that’s needed,” he says. “I learned that growing up on the farm. My dad’s theory was, ‘If you broke it, I’ll help you one time, but after that, you’re going to have to fix it.’ The Versatile was in such good condition that all I had to do was put a new throw-out bearing in and that was very simple. The tractor is amazing: Every component on it has about 18 inches of clearance so you can get in there and get to it easily.”
In the case of the engine, Denny removed a little jackshaft, then a couple of U-joints and the drive shaft. He pulled the cover off the back of the bell housing on the motor to expose the throw-out bearing. “From start to finish it took me less than an hour to replace a throw-out bearing,” he marvels. “On other tractors it would take a couple of days.”
Denny uses the Versatile to dig black dirt in the summer. Since the dirt has clay in it, it stays wet until he runs a disc across it on sunny mornings. When he comes home in the evening he uses a dozer to push about a foot of dirt off the pile, exposing wet clay that he discs the next morning.
‘She’s a monster’
Denny says the Versatile 700 would compare favorably with International Harvester 4366 or 4566 tractors, or perhaps a Steiger Cougar or Bearcat of the same era. The Versatile 700 has so much power, he says, that it can take on anything, even idling. “It’s a straight stick transmission with a 4-speed auxiliary, three forward speed and one reverse, with four speeds in each, for 16 different speeds,” Denny says.
While the IH 3588 wasn’t heavy-duty enough to do all the dirt work Denny wanted to tackle, the Versatile was up for the job and the 3588 was relegated to pulling a pup trailer.
The Versatile has a 1-inch drawbar that the dump box hitches to, which would never work with the IH drawbar. “That drawbar on the Versatile is far stronger than other drawbars,” Denny says. “I run hydraulic hoses up to the hydraulics and when I hit a lever, it dumps the dirt.” To the dump box he added a dummy arm that stands straight up when the dump box is up at its maximum. He also added another remote to open and close the dump box tailgate.
Denny says his 700 is a rare tractor, at least in his area. “I’ve seen a lot of 800s across the Dakotas, but I’ve never seen another 700 Series 2 before. When other people see the machine, their initial reaction is ‘Wow!’ They also can’t believe how clean and tight it is, and not worn out. I keep it in a shed because you don’t want to see it age if you don’t need to.
“When you’re driving the Versatile, she’s a big monster. You feel like you’re sitting on top of the world. She rides real well and has lots of power,” Denny adds. “With that 25-foot disc, you can take off in whatever gear you want to and go up the hill of dirt, throttling up and picking up the pace as you go.”
Looking down the road
Denny is in the process of restoring a 1935 John Deere Unstyled B tractor. He also has a 1973 Oliver 1365. “I worked for an Oliver dealer in Nowthen, Minn., and they had an Oliver 1365 that was new when I was a kid,” he says. “Years later I drove one on a farm near Anoka and just loved the tractor. I could hardly wait until I found one.”
He turned one up in Iowa, finding a 1973 Oliver 1365 that a farmer had bought brand new and used only to pick up rock and run an auger on a 160-acre farm. “When I brought it back and hooked it on the brush mower, I had to take the paint out of the three-point hitch,” Denny says, “because it had never been used.”
In the future, he’d like to find an Oliver Cletrac dozer in halfway decent shape. “I’ve played around with those and I thought they were pretty neat for their time,” he says. “I think I’d enjoy it even more because I’m in the excavating business.”
But the Versatile 700 is still Denny’s pride and joy. “I was very fortunate to find a Versatile in such good condition that I will basically never have to work on it,” he says. FC
For more information: Denny May, (763) 434-4741; email@example.com.
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; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.