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Restoring Old Tractors & Antique Farm Equipment: Is It Worth It?

Most farms have one. An old piece of machinery, long past its heyday, overlooking the fields it once worked in, as it slowly gives way to the ravages of rust, time and vines. Many people leave these beasts to their gradual decline. But some, like Barry Hickson, choose to take the challenging but rewarding path of restoration.

Why restore antique farm equipment?

Barry is a founding member and Secretary of the Moruya Antique Tractor &  Machinery Association (MATAMA). He’s been restoring machinery for more than 20 years and says it’s the connection to history and uniqueness of the old machines that keep him interested.

“Each one has its own personality. It’s fascinating that they’re built for the same purpose, yet they’ve all got their own little quirks.”

Barry Hickson on tractor

Image credit: Barry Hickson

Barry is also a firm believer in putting your restored machines to work. That’s him on the tractor, happily ploughing his way into the Guinness Book of Records as part of ‘Plough and be Counted’, Australia’s successful bid to have the most tractors plough a paddock at once. And he uses his most recent project—a 1964 Australian-built International—for contract slashing.

Vintage restoration checklist

No matter how much passion you have, preparation is vital if you want to sidestep the common obstacles to a successful restoration project.

Start with a working machine

If you start with a machine that’s in good working order, restoration can be quick and rewarding. From undoing the first bolt to putting on the last decal, Barry’s first restoration, a 1936 Farmall F12, took just 6 weeks.

“If you buy an old machine that isn’t seized, quite often, it’s only a matter of draining the old oil, putting fresh oil and petrol in, making sure the spark plugs are okay and it’ll start.”

Of course, if you’ve found an old, rare machine that’s not in good nick, the project will take a bit longer. Barry knows guys who’ve taken years on a restoration. And, to be fair, it did take him a couple of years to track down all the parts he needed for the F12. Every project is a different ballgame.

Get yourself a manual and restoration guide

Once you have an understanding of the older beasts, you can restore and then maintain them yourself. But, as Barry says, every old machine is unique. And some of their quirks can look for all the world like problems if you aren’t prepared for them. Getting your hands on the manual for the model you’re restoring will give you the lowdown on your machine’s personality as well as timing and other important specs. Technical book dealers like Plough Books and Rally Badges stock a range of old manuals and restoration guides.

Make the time and space

Whether you’re looking at a quick fix-up of a working piece of equipment or a deeply involved restoration of a wrecked or neglected old machine, you need to make sure you have the time and space to dedicate to the project.

Know where to source parts and tools

Sometimes the most time-consuming part of a restoration project is sourcing the parts. Good quality manufactured parts are available but can be expensive to import. If you’re looking for a new project, Barry recommends starting with something like a Ferguson TE20 (or “Grey Fergie” as they’re affectionately known) as you can get all the parts, including engine kits and body panels, in Australia. Agricultural parts manufacturer, BareCo, carry everything you need to get a Grey Fergie up and running.

If you already have a machine in mind, it is possible to find original parts, so long as you’re prepared to forage. For his Farmal F12, Barry found parts from New Zealand and America and was lucky enough to find a wrecked one just north of Morouya. The machine has steel wheels, so Barry had to fabricate roadbands so he could drive it on the road.

As far as tools go, you need to make sure you’ve got the right spanners to fit the bolts. Barry works with Whitworth or American Fine as the usual Aussie metric spanners don’t quite fit. A high quality penetrating spray will also help with loosening stubborn bolts.

Assess the skills you’ll need

Farmal F12 Etch Primed rear view

Image credit: Barry Hickson

You don’t want to get elbows deep in a project and find you’re actually in over your head. Mechanical knowledge and fabrication skills certainly help but you don’t need to be an expert to restore old machinery. With the older tractor models, for example, you don’t even have a battery to worry about. Turning the crank handle causes a spark within the magneto which supplies electricity to the spark plugs. It’s a simple operation.

Barry discovered the restoration scene inadvertently after escaping the bustle of Sydney, and his job as an executive, to enjoy an early retirement in the bush. Having raced formula Vs in the past, he had some experience tinkering with engines and this proved to be enough knowledge to get him going.

If the machine hasn’t been in use for decades, you will likely need to cut away rust and then fabricate and weld in patches. However, it’s not the end of the world if you’re not experienced in every skill needed for the restoration.

“The most important thing if someone wants to get into the hobby, is to find a local antique machinery repair club. You’ll find plenty of people with knowledge and skills to share.”

Barry and his fellow MATAMA members work on restorations together, sharing their skills and knowledge and making the whole process a lot more fun.

Remember the details

Restoration is as much about getting the mechanics going as it is about getting it to look good. In most old tractors, the engine and many of the parts are exposed; so it’s important to make sure they’re well detailed.

The payoff

Barry uses his restored machines for work and regularly displays them in shows, parades and competitions. He enjoys sharing our agricultural history with others and keeping knowledge alive in the newer generations. These events are also an opportunity to meet other collectors and restorers, share knowledge and get ideas for new projects.

There is also a booming collectors market in Australia. As Barry says, “vintage tractors are the new vintage cars.”

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