Ploughing money into tractors
An interesting alternative to a ride-on mower and wonderful relic from days gone by, vintage tractors are, surprisingly, becoming collectable, too
Roger Field finds that vintage tractors are highly collectable
Aeons ago, I was walking our dogs with an ex-army, “petrol head” chum of mine. Dud normally only likes the finest of motors. Aston Martins and Maseratis, certainly; he had owned and raced them. Bentleys: “Yes, great racing heritage.” Rolls-royce: “No.” Although whether this was because I had once revealed that my father pootled around in a 1926 Rolls drophead, or whether through some deep-seated and genuine scorn for a non-racing marque, I have still to divine. So, to describe Dud as a motoring perfectionist is to do the word a disservice. Emerging into a clearing, Dud pointed and started to gibber. All I could see were ancient tractors, owned by Lester, our occasional handyman. Lots of them. Some old and rusty, others ready for action. While I knew that Lester, when not building fences and plucking pheasants, liked nothing more than to waste his weekends driving in perfectly straight lines at ploughing competitions, the fact that a fine-car nut like Dud could get that excited by a load of old agricultural machinery was a revelation.
I managed to ensure that Dud and Lester failed to meet, which would doubtless have resulted in the rest of the afternoon being spent boring for Europe as they discussed compression and fuel mixes. I thought no more of it. That is, until I spotted, while researching my auction column, just how much collectors are paying for old tractors: £82,000 in April 2017 for a 1963 Matbro Brothers Mastiff at Cheffins in Cambridge – a UK record for an old wheeled tractor. They followed that a month later by achieving £80,000 for a 1917, International 12-25 “Twin” Mogul. Two very different tractors, with 50 years of automotive development between them, but two jaw-dropping auction prices. What is going on?
The first thing, at the bottom end of the market, is a growing realisation that a small, secondhand/old tractor – a Massey Ferguson 135 or a three-cylinder Massey 35 are perennial favourites – makes a great alternative
to a new, sit-on “lawn” tractor for larger acreages as they are expensive to maintain, liable to go wrong and necessitate a hefty initial capital outlay coupled to a relatively short “working” life. And I would certainly think hard before buying an old one, even if cheap, as I suspect I would be buying someone else’s expensive problems. In stark contrast, an old Massey tends to be simple – and therefore inexpensive – to maintain, easy to use and, if stored out of the rain and not overly abused, should still be doing the job decades from now.
“The small Masseys are the perfect paddock tractors,” says Oliver Godfrey, the man in the know at Cheffins, who describes them as “the Swiss Army knife” of tractors, as, with the right attachment, they can do just about anything and squeeze through all but the smallest gates while they are about it. The Massey is the one he would recommend to a friend wanting a multipurpose tractor that is going to do more than just smart lawns – for which the sit-on lawn tractor is still king.
Five or six years ago you could have bought a “good, ex-farm tractor”, ready to work, for an easy £2,000 to £2,500. Now, with the word already out as to what good value they are, you would need to spend £4,000 to £5,000 at auction. A fully restored version – there are a growing number of mechanics who specialise in rebuilding and then maintaining old tractors – would set you back £7,000 to £8,000; still less than a top-price lawn sit-on, mind you.
In 2014 – again at Cheffins – they sold a, literally, “as new” (it only had five miles on the clock) Massey 135 for £34,000; in 2016, another 135, this with 969 miles on it, ploughed through its £12,000 estimate to
sell for £19,000. A good investment for the future, I asked? Yes, Godfrey answered, but only if you want to use it. Don’t expect the price to jump any time soon. At £2,500 they were ridiculously cheap and, he believes, the current basic price is probably about right for the time being.
And what did my brother-in-law, Malcolm, who tops our paddocks and lawns with his father’s ancient-looking Massey 35, think of all this? “Blinking obvious,” was his assessment. My father-in-law bought it for peanuts decades ago and it has been in constant use ever since. He saw no reason ever to sell it, although the kudos of driving what was now deemed by Godfrey as “a working classic” was entirely lost on him. He’d kill for heating in winter and music would be nice and, come to think of it and best of all, a cup holder.
Another person who has no intention of selling any of his ancient and extremely valuable tractors is avid collector, and farmer, Charles Linnel. He reckons that his obsession with these wonderful beasts most probably goes back to riding tractors with his father on their farm as a youngster. As he puts it, most small boys of his generation collected Dinky and Britain’s tractors, trucks and farmyard animals: after all, most of us are only a generation or two away from working the fields. All that has happened is that he has kept that interest going and, in so doing, he is also helping preserve a whole way of life that has now all but disappeared. He showed me a 1918 Sanderson, today worth £50,000 plus, and recalled seeing one being driven onto a lorry in the 1950s to be taken away for scrap.
Also a victim of ancient neglect was a 1928, 50-horsepower Vickers – at the time the largest wheeled (as against tracked)
He cranked the handle and once it was going it was as noisy as hell
tractor on the market. “Vickers?” I asked. It seems that after each major war, armaments manufacturers with huge iron and steel-making capacity and a sudden lack of customers tried to diversify. Often, and fatal for their bottom line, they alighted on tractors. This one had lived in Australia
where the bored locals had used it for target practice; it still has a load of bullet holes in it. It is 100% original, however, and he had bought it a year ago for £8,000 – “a gift”, as a rough-looking one had sold for £14,000 five years ago and he reckoned this was worth about £22,000. Next he pointed out a 1920 Peterbro’. This was the original works demonstrator and had cost £400 back then: a huge amount of money but then this tractor would save a farmer a great deal in wages. When Linnel bought it the engine would not work. However, deduction and a spanner revealed that bees had used the cylinders, piston heads and carburettor to build an unusual hive, which had crystallised into honeycomb. Paraffin and a high-pressure hose had sorted the problem and “away she went”. Now one of only two original ones left in England, she is worth about £40,000.
Wasn’t he worried about them being purloined? He found that concept amusing. Someone might steal them but they’d never be able to sell them. The cognoscenti – and we’re talking about a worldwide brotherhood here – know where each one of these rare survivors is and who owns it.
As a grand finale, Linnel kindly allowed me to drive a 1920 Weeks Dungey, the only one of this model left. What a palaver it was to get it going, compared to a modern vehicle, but doubtless quicker by a country furlong than a bunch of labourers getting going first thing in the morning. The engine is started using petrol – it has two separate fuel tanks – and then, when it is hot, it is switched over to paraffin. He primed the carb until it was dripping: “Good!” – counterintuitive to my modern mind. Then he cranked the handle until the engine caught. Once it was going it was as noisy as hell, with a sharp clacking sound that would in time doubtless knacker your hearing. And then I was off – easy, in fact, and small and neat to manoeuvre as the iron wheels (this was long before rubber tyres for tractors) scrunched over the stones and my smile grew ever broader as I trundled along on this unique piece of agricultural history.
Linnel, says Oliver Godfrey, is typical of one type of collector who was intent on preserving our agricultural heritage before it was sent to the scrappies. Cheffins has been selling this stuff since the mid 1970s when prices were cheap. The Weeks Dungey had sold for £80,500 but, back then, would have cost a few thousand, tops. However, and back then, “people didn’t know what these things were”. Since then, agricultural museums have been created and there are specialist magazines, which means that enthusiasts now know what things are and, it follows, what they are worth. And as the numbers of enthusiasts continues to rise, so do prices.
The last word to Linnel, though. Shouldn’t landowners be scouring their barns for undiscovered gems? That smile again: farmers are a canny lot and, while anything was possible, he rather doubted that many of them didn’t know exactly what they had in their barns. And, if they had a gem lurking under a tarp, then it was probably remaining “undiscovered” for a very good reason.
This Matbro Mastiff (left) set a UK record for a wheeled tractor at auction; not far behind was a 1917 12-25 International Mogul (above)
Above: a 1918 Holt 75 (left) and the 1928, 50hp Vickers with bullet holes visible (right) Left: this 1920 Peterbro’ was the original works demonstrator