Buying Your First Tractor: Choosing the Right One

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Buying your first tractor: Choosing the right one

I presume if you are at our website you have at least a mild interest in old tractors. For the first-time buyer the old tractors are very tempting. They cost less than the tax on a new tractor (at least where we live). They have the weight to do the job. They are simple and understandable. They even have a history and can be restored to become a major source of pride and enjoyment. But how do you know what to buy and how do you make the right purchase?

There is a surprising number of machines available in every shape and size imaginable. Like most things in life, your needs have a lot to do with what you should look for. You know your needs but you will have to translate them into something tangible that will allow you to make a clear headed decision.

Depending on whether you need a tractor for your acreage or you are planning to begin restoring for pleasure you will decidedly select different machines. Certainly some of the most collectable tractors make poor work tractors and on the flip-side painstaking restoration of an extremely common machine may not be worth the many hours (not to mention the cost of that perfect original paint mix and handmade decals). Whichever emphasis you have should begin not by writing a check but rather with up-front research. Research books are available that contain this information providing nearly a century of specifications and pricing on tractors.

While collectability, horsepower, hitch system, etc make up the evaluation criteria for determining what type, size, brand, or model of tractor you want, a more basic set of factors must be used for determining the specific tractor you will purchase. As always, restoring versus working with tractors will have a completely different checklist.

Tractors Bought for Working

Those that need a machine for working their acreage are in a better position to get what they need quickly but it is amazing how many folks buy the wrong type of tractor and become disillusioned with old machines. The first thing to look at is not the tractor but rather the lay of your land and the implements you will need. If you have visions of cultivating corn after it is "knee high in July" but buy a Ford N-series or Case VAO, you will learn just how far corn stalks bend because these machines may be too low to the ground for your expectations (and your corn). On the other hand if you have side-hills to traverse, like we do in the Northwest, you may be slightly displeased with your nifty hi-crop Farmall or AC (did I mention terrified every time you have to use it because of the deadly possibly of a hillside rollover). On your implements, if you look at the implement first, you can calculate your horsepower requirements and make sure the tractor model you select has the weight and power to do the job. If you see the need for a 10 foot disk harrow, you will be unhappy with a Farmall Cub (or should I say immobile, these don't have the power to pull that large of disk). Thorough research is good insurance in avoiding the wrong purchase.

Once the model is selected, your preview of the available machines is almost entirely an exercise in mechanics, the cosmetics should probably be placed low on the list. Many good working tractors haven't seen paint in years (though I am not an advocate of this practice) and have some of the ugliest welds in the oddest places. Your machine must be mechanically sound from the onset and have few problems in the near future (at least till winter when you have time to work on it). Even if you are willing to work on it right away, you probably won't be interested in a complete restoration for sometime and need to minimize the number of upfront jobs. It has to start easily, run well when hot, charge the electrical system, pick up implements, brake well, steer well, and get good traction. This conjures up the image of going out for a preview armed with a toolbox containing a compression tester, expensive Fluke digital multimeter, hydrometer, and other specialty tools. Unfortunately most of us don't own them and wouldn't even know what to do with them. We have to rely on our eyes, ears, and common sense. Anyway the tools would end up costing more than the tractor.

Even though you are probably going to use your basic senses and common sense to evaluate the machine, you should be armed with the critical knowledge on the operation of the tractor you are previewing. Borrow or purchase the owners manual prior to going out for the preview so you are familiar with its operation and basic specs.

Here is a partial checklist for a simplistic preview of a working tractor:

  • Does it start easily? - A tractor that starts easily may eliminate several items in one shot. Good Battery, compression, ignition wiring / magneto, tune up, fuel flow, carb are implied (not guaranteed) by this. If it doesn't start easily, it still may be a good machine but you won't escape some work on it. If the tractor is out and warmed up prior to your arrival, you lose an important checklist item, namely the cold start.
  • Does it run well when hot - Getting it hot is a must if you want to find out how it will work after you plowed the first row. There are simple and complex problems that can cause the tractor to run poorly after it warms up. Plan on spending a half-hour running it. After running look for leaks, both oil and antifreeze. Lastly after warm up, shut it down and see if it will start.
  • Do the brakes work well - Although the brakes are inexpensive to replace, they are inaccessible on many tractors and will require extensive teardown to get the new ones in. You can test the brakes by locking one wheel and cranking the steering to that side. The tractor should spin and the wheel should not rotate.
  • Does it smoke - Blue smoke indicates many potentially difficult problems like rings, pistons, or valve guides. White or black smoke can frequently be corrected with carburetion or ignition changes but still represent work.
  • Does it make clunking noises from inside the engine - A simple ticking from the top of the engine may be a simple valve adjustment but a deep thunk from the bottom or middle of the engine would indicate very serious and expensive repairs. The clunk should be more pronounced under load. This may be an indication of problems with the crankshaft, bearings, or piston rods.
  • How does the oil look - After you have run it for awhile, stop the engine and check the oil for foaming or presence of water. This is a show stopper.
  • Is there head seepage - look for signs that fluids are seeping out the head gasket. If the tractor is encrusted with grease and dirt, it may cover obvious signs of seepage.
  • Is the clutch good - the clutch is not that expensive to replace but splitting the tractor in half is beyond what most folks want to do.
  • Check the Charging system - There should be a slight charge shown on the ammeter when the engine is running and a change in the charging level when the lights are turned on (this indicates that the regulator or resistor switch and cutout is operating). At running speed, no discharge should be shown.
  • Work the hydraulics - Check the full range of the rams by extending them with a load. Let the load sit in the hold position for a period of time to be sure that there is no leakdown. Chattering noises from the pump while lifting indicate the pump is getting insufficient flow of hydraulic fluid. The pump will have experienced excessive wear when run this way for long periods of time and may be ready to fail.
  • Look for structural cracks - It takes a bit of time but it is well spent. Go over the cast and steel components and look for hairline cracks. Again this is not expensive to correct but extremely time consuming and it would be unwise to work a tractor until such problems are corrected.

If your preview fails in some of these areas, you may still find that the seller is willing to come way down on price (since you found all the problems). At this point you must determine if you have the time to correct what you found... and pocket the savings. If your tractor needs are time-critical, pass this one up.

A word of caution. If the tractor is not running the day you preview, you cannot evaluate it. The seller may say, in all honesty, that everything checked out fine the day it was parked, but when a tractor sits, serious problems can develop. In such cases, you must start your bidding from nearly scrap level prices since you have no idea what you're getting into. If you buy many tractors, you will find that this scenario is common.

Tractors Bought for Restoring and Collecting

The restorer will often be basing the evaluation simply on what is left of the prospective tractor and how much to pay. Working with rarities almost always rules out looking for the basics of perfect mechanical and cosmetic condition. I have seen a tractor purchased that consisted of just the engine block, rear end, rims, and frame assembly. This happens when you are looking for extremely rare machines. It often will take several purchases of components to build up a single machine. Indeed many purchases of rare tractors and components take place without a preview simply to ensure it isn't sold by the time they can get there.

On occasion, there are some factors that go beyond the mere collectability of the machine and motivate people to do ground-up restorations on common machines. Many people we talk with, start out their conversation with "My Dad had a ... and I want to restore it to look just like his" or "I spent my whole childhood on the seat of a ... and I couldn't believe it when this one was sitting there with a For Sale sign". If you are restoring for this reason, incorporate the evaluation criteria for the working tractor. Since your intended project is likely not rare, you can have the best of all worlds, good mechanics, good cosmetics and good price.

In many cases, the cosmetics of the rare machine can be critical because though the components may be beyond repair, what's left will serve as prototypes for fabrication. Additionally cosmetic components may be the only thing that makes a specific machine rare. A common example of this is some orchard models. Frequently there no remnants of the orchard add-ons or anything but a model designation to distinguish the machine from it's common utility version brother. Finding orchard models may be relatively easy while finding the orchard components are the only thing that will make your project collectable. If the incomplete model is sold as a rarity (price wise), it may be wise to pass.

Determining collectability by specification books or age is not easy. The Fordson is a good example. When I first started gathering tractors, I was so excited to come upon a pair of Fordsons on steel. Fortunately prior to getting too serious, I received an Email from a fellow on the Antique Tractor forum that put things in their prospective. Basically, the machine is still so common, that the effort to pick them up would not justify their value. Had I researched production figures, I would have known this in advance. Nowadays, I chuckle at myself when passing by all those Fordsons serving as mailbox holders. The flip side of this story is that if I were to spend time with the experts, such as club members and restorers, there are many Fordsons out there that are rare but still available cheaply and to the uninitiated look nearly identical.


Know your needs, pocketbook, and what's on the market. Be as knowledgeable on the prospective machine as you can be through research and conversation and physically check it out to the best of your ability. Remember, your new tractor will become a part of the family for sometime to come.

Copyright 1996, Yesterday's Tractors
No reproduction beyond non-commercial personal use is permitted without the express and written permission. Non-profit Clubs are exempted providing this copyright is retained and use is limited to incorporation in free literature with limited distribution.

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