Jason Johnson was 9 years old when he restored his first tractor - and it wasn't a toy tractor. 'My dad bought a 1946 Ford 2N and started restoring it,' the Chaska, Minn., native explains. 'I did most of the stuff a young kid could do, sandblasting, sanding, testing the wires and piddly stuff like that.'
Little did Jason know that now, at the age of 17, he would have dozens of tractor restorations under his belt - both for himself and others. In fact, the list of tractors Jason has restored almost covers the whole color spectrum: a Fordson Model F, Ferguson models 20, 35 and 40, two Ford Model 8Ns, Farmall models H, M and 300, a John Deere Model A and Allis-Chalmers tractors, just to name a few.
The restoration bug bit eight years ago. Jason liked the way the restoration looked after he and his father, Bob Radoush, finished that first 2N. After that, he wanted a tractor of his own. By the time he was a senior in high school, Jason owned 10 tractors and 45 implements, mostly for Ferguson-made tractors.
'Once we started, we just never stopped,' Jason says with a grin.
Jason will restore just about any type of tractor, but he and his father narrowed down their collectible list to Ford, Dearborn and Ferguson brands. Then, they pared the list down even further to solely focus on Ferguson for their personal collection. One reason for their decision, Jason says, is because most people don't know much about Ferguson tractors. He also likes the tractor design's three-point hitch, which makes for simple implement attachment.
The roots of Jason and Bob's tractor interest grew serendipitously from a neighbor. An older fellow named Louie got Jason and Bob into tractor restoration when he bought land near Bob's body shop business. Louie stored some of his antique tractor collection on the land, and one day he showed the tractors to Bob and Jason. The father-and-son duo liked what they saw and soon bought the 1946 Ford Model 2N to restore.
'I don't think Louie ever knew that he started us on these old tractors,' Jason reflects.
Most collectors can't believe Jason's quality restorations at first glance. 'They usually think I'm going to try to do the painting with an old paint brush until they see what I can do,' Jason says. But, folks are convinced once they see his finished work displayed at threshing bees or farm shows, or when a satisfied customer picks up a finished tractor.
Frank 'Shorty' Skluzacek is a classic example of a converted skeptic. Shorty owns a plant nursery business in Chaska and uses restored tractors in his work. Shorty restored a Ford Model 640 tractor but wasn't satisfied with the paint job. He was hesitant to pay Jason for his painting expertise, so he experimented with some of the high-quality paint Jason recommended. Shorty painted only the center cone of the Model 640, and a year later he saw the difference between the good paint and the low-quality paint: The cone was still shiny, the rest dull and chipped.
'After that, he decided he wanted his tractor to look like our Ford 2N, so he had us paint it the right way using the right paint,' Jason says. Shorty also contracted Jason to paint a second nursery tractor.
Jason's reputation goes well beyond his hometown. In fact, Ford 'super-collector' Palmer Fossum of rural Northfield, Minn. (September 2004 Farm Collector) - who calls Jason the 'Ferguson Kid' - trusted Jason to repaint one of his rarest tractors: a 1950 Ford 8N Hi-Crop. In payment, Palmer gave Jason a Ferguson Model 30 tractor.
Jason likes Ferguson tractors, but he doesn't discriminate. His first solo restoration was a 1952 Co-op E3. 'That one came out pretty good compared to what it was when I started on it,' Jason affectionately recalls. 'I did that one because I wanted to do a tractor that I especially liked, and that Co-op was the one. It was in the right place at the right time for me.'
His favorite tractor is a Ferguson Model 40 bought in Nebraska. 'It's about the rarest one Ferguson made, and was only produced for two years. I own half of it. It's their biggest one, and really neat-looking.'
Getting it right has become Jason's modus operandi picking up pointers from the work done on TV shows about old cars. 'I watched them rip everything down to the bare frames, and decided that was what I wanted to do to tractors.'
Four years ago, Louie's grandson Mark - owner of the landfill behind Bob's body shop - bought Louie's Pontiac GTO automobile to restore. The obvious place to conduct the mechanical work was at Bob's shop, and in the spirit of friendly neighbors both Jason and Bob helped Mark, allowing Louie's grandson to work evenings free of charge if he swept up at night.
Mark swept up for three years as he rebuilt the car. In repayment - and a complete surprise to Bob and Jason -Louie willed six Allis-Chalmers tractors to Bob and Jason for helping his grandson. 'We started restoring one of the Allis-Chalmers Gs but haven't finished yet,' Jason says. 'Then we'll do one of the Bs - the oldest - and the others.'
Besides tractors in his collection, Jason also owns implements. Some are rare, like a Ferguson sub-soiler made in England. 'They're pretty rare, because a lot of them went into the scrap pile,' Jason comments. 'I've only seen three other ones.' The sub-soiler usually has a coulter disc on the front to cut the ground before the sub-soiler digs. It's used to dig out rocks and break up packed soil beneath the surface, which forms after plowing a field for a few years.
Success is here for Jason. Little did he know as a 9-year-old child that a little fooling around with one tractor restoration would lead to such a passionate business and hobby. But everyone has to start somewhere. Most antique farm equipment restorers start restoring out of a love for the machinery they used as a young boy or man when the machinery was new. Jason has approached the situation in quite the opposite way, which makes for interesting conversations when he exhibits his handiwork at antique shows.
It pleases him to see older people come up to the tractors he's restored at shows, and look them over and remember their days on the farm, Jason says. He's also learned how much simpler the old tractors are in design and how easy they are to work on compared to today's machines. That doesn't mean the work he does is easy. It provides him with a great challenge.
'It will probably always be a hobby for me, and good practice for working on cars and stuff,' he says with pride. 'What I enjoy most is that I have something to show for my efforts after I'm done.'
- Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact Bill at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369; (320)253-5414; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
When Jason Johnson and his dad, Bob Radoush, buy a tractor to restore, they put it through its paces. First, they test the engine to see if it runs well, and if so, they use the tractor for a year, plowing, hauling and keeping it going so they can spot oil leaks. Then the tractor is brought into his dad's auto body shop business, Body By Bob, where oil leaks are fixed, gaskets and main seals changed.
Next, the tractor is torn down. Parts are replaced, and if the engine or parts need major work, they're outsourced to a shop. While the engine or other parts are repaired, Jason and Bob take apart the sheet metal to see if it needs welding, and dents are pounded out. They prepare and prime the fenders and paint them twice over.
Under the hood, everything is power washed to get rid of any grease, then everything is sandblasted, primed and painted. Once outsourced parts start trickling back in, the duo paints them and starts reassembling the tractor. Finally, they make the wiring harness, add the gas tank and sheet metal, stand back and fire it up.
'The most difficult part on any of these tractors is the sheet metal,' Jason says. 'The tractors are old, so the sheet metal is junk - really beat up - and you can't get any more, except for the fenders, because they're the same as the ones on the Ford tractors.'
To fix the old sheet metal, 'You just have to sit there and hammer it out, weld it, bond it and sand it,' he says about the painstaking effort. 'You have to feel it with your fingers. It takes years to know what to feel for when you're doing a hood, what's high and low, what needs to be worked on, where to sand and where not to sand, until you make all the big and little dings go away, until it turns out like glass.'
'Then it's pretty much done,' Jason says. 'It takes between three months and a year, working basically every weekend, evenings and during our spare time. It's a nice bonding time with my dad. It's something both of us enjoy doing.'