Growing up on a farm and later working in agriculture and related industries (on and off at least), ive spent a lot of time in Tractors, combines, telehandlers and other sundry farm machines. I freely admit to being a big kid when it comes to farm machinery, and in the same way train spotters and railway enthusiasts get all unnecessary when it comes to engines and carriages, so do I when I see a big shiny Massey. I know theres a few regulars on GP who like engines, machines, oil, steam, dirt and grime, so rather than post up another of those ‘cars I have owned’ articles, heres something on a similar theme. Tractors I have Driven. I had an album with many pictures on the subject that my father had gathered but it was sadly lost when the farm office flooded on Christmas day in 2001, so I will recreate my memories with as accurate imagery as I can derive from free to use sources on the interweb, but luckily I have some other pictures of my own from the digital age to supplement the earlier lost archive.
In chronological order (to the extent that what I remember is in the right order), the very first tractor I remember using in a working capacity was our farms old Massey Ferguson 265. This had been the main tractor on the farm since my family moved there in 1981 until 1990 but by the time I was big enough and safe enough to use it, had been relegated to back up and light duties. It was a medium sized and powered tractor for its day, but by the late 80s it was showing its age and lack of sophistication. It wasn’t new to us, but came as a high spec example with two spool valves and power steering. The door bottoms had rusted out and all the lining had gone from the cab and bare metal showed through everywhere, but it was a robust and reliable workhorse despite clocking up 10000 hours by the time it was sold on.
We always had two tractors at any time, and while I was growing up the other one knocking about the yard was a little Case 1390. This did all the dirty jobs like muck raking, scraping, and loading duties. It was new to the farm in late 1983, but being inferior (according to father) to the other tractor it was more suited to yard and livestock work. I learned to drive in this tractor and it really was easy to use with great visibility from the oversize cab and a good turning circle. It was however very temperamental especially in colder weather and I remember father spent a lot of time tinkering with it when he should have been working. This tractor was sold for scrap in 1993 after one too many problems rendered it beyond economic repair. If I remember correctly, it ended up being exported to eastern Europe rather than being broken up.
Replacing the MF 265 in the summer of 1990 was another Massey, this time an MF 390. A bit bigger and much more modern than its predecessor, it had a lot more power and was beefy enough to pull the new Dowdeswell 5 furrow plough that arrived with it. This was a nearly new machine, with just a few hundred hours on the clock, but best of all it had 4wd so could really get about and bring parts of the farm that hadn’t been used in years back into cultivation. It had a radio and air conditioning along with a full air suspension seat making it a very nice place to be when the weather was shitty. It served as the mainstay all the way up until 2001 when the arable part of the farm was contracted out to our next door neighbour, leaving us with only the massively reduced dairy herd and poultry operation. With just shy of 90 acres left we had no need for 3 tractors so we bid farewell to the old 265 which was sold for restoration, as it now qualified as a classic. It was good to see it some years later on a vintage tractor run locally, looking better than the day it left the factory.
The last tractor we ever had on that farm was to replace the 1390. My least favourite of the bunch, it was a horrid little underpowered thing with no creature comforts, and I have no fond memories of it. An International 684, it was old when we got it, but the bugger wouldn’t die no matter how much we abused it. It did everything the old case did without the constant reliability issues, but by god it was a pig to drive. No power steering, metal seat with no suspension, all the glass gone from the cab except the windscreen to be replaced with mesh, working in that thing on a hot summers day was torture. I well remember the agony of hedge cutting in that old dog, getting showered with splinters every time the flail bit in to a thick bit. When dad retired from agriculture in 2007 and we left the farm, all the machinery was sold at auction, and I can still remember how much the 684 (complete with front end loader) sold for. £900, a little under the £1400 we paid for it in 1993, not a bad return on a worn out bit of kit really.
A trip to my uncles farm up on the bucks/northants border was always a treat. He was a solid ford man when it came to tractors and I used to love doing a bit of hedge cutting or topping for him when time allowed. The first of his tractors I drove was a 1979 Ford 4600. He’d had it from new and kept it in excellent condition, considering his was a purely livestock operation. Ford cabs, as far as im concerned were always nice places to be (although there is hot debate amongst tractor enthusiasts on this subject), large and airy with good visibility. The steering was also light, with a decent turning circle, and theres small wonder why these tractors were very popular and can still be found working in large numbers today. Sadly, it was written off when he side slipped into a ditch after some bad weather had washed away the bank and the frame broke in two when they pulled it out. Luckily, he wasn’t hurt too badly.
Uncles other tractor was the much bigger and more powerful Ford 8340 SLE 4WD. With over 100 hp, this was up until that point (some time in the very early 2000s) the biggest and most powerful tractor I had used. This was his main workhorse, and was used in his fledgling contract farming business which he operated with his neighbour. The cab was huge, and the driving position very high up, and outside, a new one on me was a front end linkage making the whole rig more versatile. I clocked up a few hours in this beast carting and such like, and with its 40kph gearbox, it made roadwork less of a chore. It could also pull a six furrow plough, and it certainly earned its keep over the years. That sweet 7.5l 6 cylinder engine sounded awesome at full chat, and its still one of my favourite tractors to see working to this day.
When I started working at the clay pigeon shooting ground in 2006, they had a much used but very special tractor, my favourite ever in fact. Tucked away in a corner of the yard, unloved and abused was sitting an International Harvester 885XL 2WD. Now, my experience with IH tractors up until that point hadn’t been good, but something about this old girl really spoke to me, and I set about getting her back to working condition as soon as I could. It took some time and more than a few parts, but it was worth it. What a hearty beast that tractor was. It did all the hedge and grass cutting over the 300 acre grounds, ran a log splitter and wood chipper and with a rear pallet lifter made the task of transporting heavy things around a breeze. I spent untold hours in it topping vast areas of grass and scrub and unlike other tractors, never got out afterwards feeling exhausted or filthy. It never failed to start, even in the worst conditions, was quite happy sitting at 1400rpm for hours on end and bearing in mind it had been stuck in diff lock for god knows how long before I rescued her, didn’t have a single mechanical issue all the time I was there. I think it was because it was the same age as me (going by the serial number, literally rolling off the production line the same week as I was born) that I loved that tractor, my own little engine that could.
It was around the same time that I started doing occasional work with my friend Nick, who had a small holding locally and amongst other things did a bit of tree surgery and forestry work. I helped him out from time to time, and as the years went on I ended up doing more and more tree work for him. He ran several machines at that time including a couple of 360 excavators and old Sanderson all terrain forklift. But he had a tractor to run his huge Jensen PTO driven chipper and to tow his diggers around. It was an immaculately kept Massey 3095 4WD, with a big Perkins six cylinder engine it was a lot more powerful than even my uncles Ford 8240. The thing I liked most about this tractor was that it was luxurious inside, it even had a little cubby for drinks cans to keep them ice cold. The seat was comfortable and it was the first tractor I remember using that felt like the designers had actually thought about making something to be used for hours on end without fatiguing the driver. It also never failed to pull itself out of some sticky situations, such as the time that it sank up to the axles in a marshy bit of woodland whilst pulling a stump, but with a bit of effort dug its way out again when many other tractors would have been stranded.
After I left the clay ground and moved up to Norfolk, I spent some time working for the council in the grounds department, where I got to use much newer and more sophisticated equipment. Every day was different work wise, with the exception that I would be travelling to and from the job in my brand new tractor, which was another Massey, this time a 2011 5450. It had a permanently attached front end loader with a 4 in 1 shovel/bucket on the front and was mainly used to transport trailer loads of soil or woodchip, or tow a mini digger or stump grinder. I wreaked havoc all over the county driving that around during the rush hour, slow as it was. It was a good tractor though, which despite the relative complexity, was really easy to use once you got used to it and another well designed and comfortable machine.
I didn’t last long at the council, as a chance meeting at a shoot led to the offer of an interesting job at a little hobby farm and stables not far from where I was living. As it was better money and seemed like an easy ride I jumped at the chance, but as so often happens, these things don’t often work out the way you plan. Anyway, while I didn’t get on with my boss, and was bored shitless by the work, he did have a few toys to play with, To do all the various jobs around the paddocks and stables, there was a wonderful little Ford 3910 4WD (although the front axle was only ever driving one wheel). It was small and nimble and did everything it needed to do and despite the poor condition it was in, still worked well and without breaking down a lot like many fords do. The other tractor there was for use on the small farm, and was way overpowered for the job in my opinion. A late 90s New Holland TS115, it sat idle in the barn for long periods of time, given it only had 40 acres to work and the only things we grew were hay and potatoes. It was a big brute of a thing, better suited to hard work on a big farm but I still enjoyed using it, especially on road runs to pick up haylage and straw. I left that farm and agriculture completely after sticking it out for six months, and as yet I have no plans to return to the land.
Fast forward to the present day and other than the occasional go when needed, I haven’t done much tractor work for 10 years or more. I drive the beaters wagon around maybe once or twice a season in the estates forestry spec Valtra N92, which is all computer controlled and starting to get a bit beyond me after a decade out of the game. I do miss agriculture from time to time, but I know of so many farm workers who now have chronic back and leg problems, not to mention my old man who started driving tractors back in the bad old days of the late 50s and who has severe wear and tear on his knees and ankles to show for it. I help out a few farmer mates when they need a bit of time at harvest and the like, but im generally not behind the wheel, and if I am its not doing anything more complicated than loading or carting. My friend Charlie operates a fine fleet of classic fords, including a plucky little Ford 4230 on his farm, and I like to spend time on his land when I can, but to be honest im more likely to be shooting pigeons than driving a tractor. As much as I have many fond memories of my time driving these big and noisy machines, I now have the tinnitus to prove it, and I don’t want to end up crippled like the old boys invariably do. Like many things, its probably passed me by now we live in the days of GPS and laser designation. I will always have my memories though.
A note about other farm machinery I have used over the years, but never held such a place in my heart. Combines are noisy, dirty and difficult to control, but as my experience only extends to the 1970s open cabbed Massey we had when I was younger, nowadays costing upwards of £500000 for the top ones im sure they are infinately better. I do like telehandlers, especially the JCB loadall my friend Nick had, but we never needed one on the farm when I was growing up, and you are just as likely to find them on building sites than farms these days. Skid steers are awful things and I only ever used one as part of a groundskeeping course I went on. Cant really see the point in them if you have access to a digger. Speaking of diggers, A JCB 3CX is about as versatile tool as you can find, and many farms have something similar, but ive never actually used one. The closest I got was a similar but vastly inferior Case backhoe, which we hired in for a summer at the clay ground to do a bit of major landscaping. Less said about that pig the better.
So there we have it. If any of you are still reading this, my sincerest thanks for sticking with me to the bitter end and I hope you enjoyed looking at the pretty pictures. The tractors i started out on were lightyears ahead of anything my father used in the 60s and 70s, things like Fordson Majors and Fergie 135s, so he always says i am spoiled and didnt have a proper education. Full cabs, air suspension seats, heating and air con, 4WD are all basics on modern tractors, but not long ago were expensive extras. As the implements have got bigger and more sophisticated, so have the tractors that power them needed to advance, and the last 10 or 15 years have seen rapid leaps in technology. When i started out, 60 to 80 horsepower was all you would ever need unless you were farming thousands of acres or particularly heavy land, but the norm nowadays is 200 horses or more. With power comes size and weight, and tractors can now weigh 10 tons or more, making soil compaction a real issue, so there is a trend towards tracked or wide tyred variants to help combat this. Its easy to look back with rose tinted specs, but i think i was very lucky to have all the experiences I did, so If you have the opportunity, get in the cab and have a go in a tractor, its way more fun than it looks. Who’d have thought after this many years, ive never driven that most famous of tractors brands, a John Deere! But theres a reason for that….
© Columba Palumbus 2022