There was a time, back in my early driving years, when I longed for a shiny sports car. My dreams alternated between a 1966 Jaguar Series E or a 1964 Maserati Mistral Spyder. Either one in British Racing Green.
Financial considerations aside, the likelihood of my actually owning one of those classics was pretty darn slim at best. But the dream persisted, and I would imagine I was driving one or the other as I cruised the streets of Portland, Oregon. And trust me, it took a great deal of imagination to transform my parent’s early 1970s Ford LTD station wagon — complete with the fake wood paneling on the sides — into a sports car. At least it was green.
The years went by and I, along with my driving passions, evolved. These days I’m still all about vintage engines and vehicles, but with a bit more bulk and a heck of a lot less horsepower than the aforementioned sports cars.
At some point, roughly in my late 20s, I became a full-on farm-tractor gal. And, not unlike my love affair with the sports cars, my tractor loves are specific and well-defined.
I am what you would call a “red tractor” woman. No John Deeres, Fords, Olivers or Allis-Chalmers for this girl. Nope, I am all about the tried and true red International Harvester Farmall machines.
I can trace this love affair on a straight line back to my late husband and his 1950s-era Massey Harris 44 farm tractor. It had a hard, cast iron metal seat, no power steering, a somewhat glitchy transmission, brakes that worked when they felt like it and an exhaust pipe that puffed diesel fumes directly in your face while you operated it.
It was a noisy, smelly, cantankerous beast, and I loved it. You could say Mr. Harris — as Patrick called the tractor — was my gateway tractor.
Long before we built our house on Rusty Metal Farm, Mr. Harris lived in an old shed on the property. Patrick would use him to harvest firewood, haul things and — though I don’t think he would ever have admitted it — just to drive around the back roads for fun.
And I totally got that. In spite of its many mechanical quirks, that tractor was a blast to drive. My favorite thing about it was our start-up ritual. This involved my clambering aboard and pressing the glow plug button. On older diesel vehicles, the glow plug heats the engine so it will turn over. After 30 seconds or so of “holding the plug,” I’d turn hit the start button and wait for the best part — the blast of exhaust that shot the old soup can placed over the vertical exhaust pipe to prevent rain from getting into it, to shoot straight into the air. The novelty to that never wore off. Nor did Patrick’s patience in indulging that particular whim over the years.
Every late fall, he’d back that tractor into the shed for the final time of that year. He’d then busy himself prepping it for winter by removing the battery, pouring fuel additives into the diesel tank and other — to me — mysterious mechanical things.
Once the tractor was tucked in for its winter hibernation, Patrick would slide shut the old wooden shed doors along it’s old, rusty runners and use a section of chain and padlock to secure it shut.
Come spring, the whole ritual was repeated in reverse.
Eventually, the needs of the farm outgrew Mr. Harris’ capabilities — or so Patrick said — and he (the tractor, not Patrick) was traded in for a slightly newer but much larger IH Farmall 656, circa 1967.
The difference between driving the IH versus the Massey Harris was like going from a jalopy with no shocks to a luxury sedan. Or that’s how it felt to me. This newer machine had a padded seat, power steering, a clean exhaust and brakes that actually worked. It still had a glow plug I needed to hold but the vertical exhaust had its own, attached cap so the soup can days were gone. And, like Mr. Harris, it had a dizzying array of levers, pedals and buttons to control acceleration, shifting, operating attached implements and steering.
I grew to love that tractor as much as the Massey Harris. It got me through some tough years following the death of Patrick when I was left to figure out snow removal, firewood harvesting, field mowing and trail maintenance on what had become a solo farm operation.
But like a lot of old tractors, the IH needed regular maintenance to run smoothly and safely. While I may be many things, an accomplished diesel engine mechanic is not one of them, so the day came when I made the decision to sell that tractor to a farmer who would use it and care for it properly. Tractor assisted living, as I called it.
Now I have a shiny 2009 Mahindra compact farm tractor. Enclosed heated cab, automatic transmission and far fewer levers and pedals to operate the implements. It’s a great machine and does exactly what I need it to do. Best of all, it’s red and not overly complicated.
I’m not alone in this love affair with vintage rolling iron. I know many farmers in northern Maine who eschew the modern, computer-operated tractors that require specialized and — at times — proprietary software to complete repairs. In recent years, farmers in the Midwest have taken to using pirated software out of Ukraine to bypass or hack into software owned by companies like John Deere. Others have figured out what the Maine farmers have known all along and gone back to the older models.
As for me, there are days when I really miss Mr. Harris and that trusty IH 656 and my hands and fingers dancing from lever to lever as my feet operated one or more of four pedals to maneuver those old machines. Not to mention the start-up soup can ritual, which I’d take over a vintage Jag or Spyder any day of the week.