Features & Stories
The Old Iron Horse

Feature article by: Jody Murdoch

It was in late October of 2000 just before it started to snow when I acquired my first antique tractor. The tractor is a 1941 Farmall Model A, the engine is roughly 18 hp. It's a bite larger than a sears lawn tractor, five times bigger. These tractors are unique because the engine, transmission and operators platform are off set. This enabled cultivators and other implements to be mounted under the middle of the tractor giving the driver an unobstructed view of them working and a clear view down the rows of the crop. This particular Farmall "A" used to belong to my father, he had given it to a neighbor in exchange for helping put the tin roof on our house that was a few years ago. Ever since then every time we drove by the neighbors house, seeing that little red tractor sitting out in a clearing with all the other junker cars and trucks that he owned getting old and rusty, I've wanted it back. The opportunity had finally arrived this fall. We found out that the neighbor wanted to sell his place and get rid of a few potential eyesores's before any one looked over the half acre to buy. We had our eye on a big three-ton flat deck truck also , we got both. I got the tractor for free and paid $400.00 for the truck, neither ran at the time. Later on I did get the truck running with a lot of sweat and tear. That's another interesting story all together.

The rain was pouring down on us heavy the day we went to get the tractor. We had to cut down a few small trees' to get the tractor out of the clearing it was sitting in for the last 15 years. After topping up the air in the tires, taking the old horse out of gear we gave it a tough yank. Once out, we towed it home behind the diesel truck down the muddy road. I steered the tractor while my dad towed me home. I was like a King riding down the road in a fancy coach, cheerfully waving as we passed by the puzzled neighbors. Nothing could wipe that smile off my face except the odd chunk of mud and road debris flying up onto my face.

Once home I began to check over my new toy. I knew that the engine was seized but wasn't sure how bad. I was told that the coffee tin once covering the muffler had blown off in a storm. I kind a gathered that because there was no evidence of a muffler. The many years of rain and snow had sped up the rusting process. The rusting rotting muffler was slowing falling down into the engine and back into the cylinders. Finding all this out was easy, the hard part would be to reverse the damage.

I once over heard a few back yard tractor restores talking about how to try and free up the engine before having to dismantling it. They had said to take out the spark plugs and pour a 50:50 mix of diesel fuel and coca cola into the cylinders, or to pour straight diesel fuel into each cylinder, then to let the brew soak for a week, month or a year or two. After soaking for sufficient time or until parts are freed up, drag the tractor behind a truck putting the tractor in and out of gear with the clutch in hopes of suddenly freeing up the seized engine. I heard stories of fellow restores doing this and having great success after which they put a new coat of paint on the tractor and sold it for a nice profit. I tried soaking and towing, didn't work for me. I wasted only two or three weeks trying this method. That's when I knew the problem was a little more complex. The next step was to start to dismantle the tractor piece by piece.

Most of the older tractors from the 40's to 50's where designed to be fixed with the least amount tools. They are very easy to work on, all the panels are easily unbolted and removed. My little iron horse is no different, it has no electrical lighting/starting system on it like all the modern tractors. So that means its hand cranked, that's going to be fun. Most of the bolts on the tractor are the same size so a limited supply of wrenches is needed. I have a decent set of tools, the odd tool I will have to borrow from an auto parts store or purchase. But I'm getting ahead of my self. I'm still thinking about taking the old horse apart.

I pushed the tractor into the shop, it's very light. The tractor weighs 1500-2000 lbs so I can push it around by my self. Once in the shop I started to remove body parts. The first part to be removed is the oil pan. Once removed you have a good view up under the bottom of the engine . I was able to check for broken connecting rods and possibly see why the engine would not turn over. When I checked nothing looked out of place, this won't tell me what I need to know. The next step was to remove engine covers, next was the radiator, gas tank then carburetor, exhaust manifold, "missing a muffler" and lastly the oil bathed air cleaner. The tractor looks really bare at this point. It helps if you have good lighting in the shop to really inspect for defects in the tractor. I found that the block was cracked and had been re-welded but was leaking engine oil from the weld. Add that to the list of jobs that need my attention.

The bare looking tractor was now ready for some serious wrenching, time to remove the valve cover and head. Once removed, I had a bird's eye view of the cylinders. I got a real jolt at first glance inside the cylinders. Yep there's the missing muffler. What I saw was cylinder number three sitting in the down stroke with two inches of debris in the bottom, plus a layer of thick scaly rust up and down the cylinder wall. Yikes what do I do next. Time to enlist some help from the experts.

The one thing I relay love about the World Wide Web is how you can get information on just about any thing you would possibly want to know about, plus in most cases, all the experts are just a click away. My favorite web hang out is Yesterdays Tractor antique tractor message board, www.yesterdaystractors.com. You get a chance to quiz folks who are experts in tractor restoration and operation. Some have a few projects under their belts. The best part is it's free but that doesn't mean the advice given is always correct, use your own judgment. If it sounds dangerous it probably is . I had typed up and posted a very simple post, "help me get this seized Farmall model " A" tractor engine freed up". It got some great advice. The tips I got I put to the test, they ranged from radical to realistic.

I tried the realistic solution. Firstly I would clean out the cylinder the best I could with out damaging the cylinder walls. I obtained some penetrating oil and really soaked the cylinder. While the soaking was taking place I then removed the connecting rod connecting the piston to the crankshaft. After letting things soak for a week or two, I took a thick stick and a hammer then started hammering down on the piston. Eventually I got it freed. In the end it took the help of my dad to get it out of the block. I pounded down on the piston while he pounded up from the bottom. It finally moved. Once freed, I re-attached the connecting rod to the piston and crankshaft. Once installed dad continued to tap the piston up from the bottom. Mean while I put a home made starting bar into the starting slot in the front of the tractor, then put a lengthy piece of pipe onto the bar to make a lever. I pushed down, this forced the engine to turn over and forced the piston right up to the top of the block. Second's later the connecting rod was removed for the second time. Pop, the piston was out. I took the piston and put in into a container filled with diesel on the bench. I was hoping to soak the four rings off of the piston.

That's about as far as I got to on this restoration project. I'm in a state of limbo as to what to do next. I could get new rings for the one piston, ream the inside of the cylinder and hope this patch up job last a few hours. Or I could do the job right and get a proper rebuild kit for the whole engine. Which ever I decide to do I will certainly keep all those interested in this old iron horse restoration interested and informed. Happy trails.

By Jody Murdoch

Other articles by Jody Murdock

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