How to Drive and Operate Antique Tractors

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How to Drive and Operate Antique Tractors

Many a small farmer drives and operates an antique tractor as part of the daily routine. Ironically, although household goods are not called "antique" until they reach 100 years old, tractors, like automobiles, may be considered "antique" after only a quarter century. That means many 30- and 40-year-old "antique" tractors are still in use, at least as secondary equipment or to handle the tight edges of fields.

A 25-year-old tractor may be described as an "antique" tractor, a "classic" tractor, or a "vintage" tractor by different enthusiasts. A machine described as a "traction engine" is an antique by any definition since this is a nineteenth century term, predating the coinage of the word "tractor" at the turn of the 20th century.

The person who wants to learn how to drive an antique tractor may be able to learn directly from a farmer who still operates the machine of interest. Many clubs and specialty events are hosted by enthusiasts, including those who drive the oldest steam-powered tractors. Manufacturers and farm antiquity sellers often can provide manuals for various machines. Below are offered generalities about operations of several antique tractor types, as well as means for obtaining specialised information and purchasing specific antique tractors on eBay.

Types of Antique Tractors

During more than a century that traction-engine machinery has been produced for farm and agricultural use, there have been many basic types of tractors produced by manufacturers across the world.

Wheels or Treads

Most tractors today have wheels, but many early tractors had tracks similar to what people today think of as a tank tread. These tracked drives were especially useful for heavy hauling in uneven terrain. Some tracked brands in the antique marketplace include the Fordson Major Half-Track, the Fordson Swamp Crawler; the Marshall Track; and the International Crawler.

Fuel Type

Antique tractors operate on several kinds of fuels. The kind of fuel or power system used can make a significant difference in the methods of operating the machinery.

Fuel or Power System

Operating Issues

Steam Power

Extremely heavy equipment; fuelled with wood or coal; requires working knowledge of steam boiler to begin to operate the machine

Kerosene or Petroleum Distillate

Requires auxiliary petrol engine to warm the fuel to 88C for successful start


Used until 1950s; most without electric starters; requires hand crank to start


Electric starters; easiest to operate

The earliest equipment is steam powered, using wood or coal to generate the heat to produce the steam. These are the heaviest of the machines. The U.K. has a relatively large operating stock of historic steam-powered agricultural machinery, including steam-powered harvesters and ploughs, which may often be seen at one of the many steam festivals and vintage rallies annually. Later equipment used kerosene, petroleum distillate, or petrol, depending on which fuel was less expensive. In the 2000s, many tractors are diesel fuelled.

Starting System

After the steam era, engines were started with tractor hand cranks for several decades. The electric starter did not become commonplace until diesel fuel became the standard in farm machinery during the 1950s.

Basics of How to Drive Antique Tractors

With so many kinds of tractor and traction-engine having been produced over more than 150 years, no more than an outline of operations may be offered. This is followed by some guidance on best ways to obtain further instruction on the operations of the particular machine at hand.

Driving Steam-Powered Tractors

A person who wants to drive a steam-powered tractor must first learn to operate a steam engine, a skill that goes far beyond the scope of this brief article. Happily, the U.K. is full of people who are committed to the area's historic heritage of steam power. It is relatively easy to find a club or museum nearby where it is possible to learn from others how to build up a proper head of steam, to maintain the appropriate pressure for the engine, to bleed off excessive pressure, to feed the wood or coal the engine uses, and so forth.

Once the engine is under power, the steam-powered tractors have some factors making them relatively easy compared to contemporary tractors. Their size and weight makes them relatively not very manoeuvrable, so the operator generally takes straight line and broad curve routes. On the other hand, that weight can allow a tractor, which can weigh 5 tons or more, to become stuck in a loamy field. This is why in Great Britain, many of these machines were operated as stationary engines that controlled cable-driven ploughs.

Starting a Hand-Crank Tractor

The most important thing to know about starting a hand-crank tractor is that the tractor hand crank can kick back, which may break a finger, hand, or arm. The second most important thing to know is that hand-cranked engines may be started in gear because they do not have safety devices to prevent it. This puts the operator at risk of a run-over, which is a leading cause of farm machinery fatalities. So set the brakes, chock the wheels, make sure the transmission is in neutral and the power take-off disengaged. If it has a clutch, disengage the clutch as well.

Make sure no clothing, jewellery, or hair is hanging loose. Grip the crank loosely and pull the crank up, instead of pushing it down. That way, if it kicks, it easily can break out of your grip without serious injury. If the tractor has a flywheel instead of an inline engine, then the steering wheel is temporarily engaged with the flywheel shaft on a special crank pin and turned.

Warming Up an Alternative Fuel Tractor

Today, diesel is the standard for farm equipment. Older equipment may have been designed for petrol, kerosene, or petroleum distillate, all of which were less expensive alternatives at various times. The main issue involved in preparing a tractor for operations that runs on a fuel other than diesel or petrol is that the engine cannot start unless it has been pre-warmed. These tractors typically have secondary petrol engines that bring the main engine up to the optimal temperature of 88 degrees C.

Operating a Hand Clutch on an Antique Tractor

Even for those familiar with driving a manual clutch on an automobile, managing the long lever on a tractor's hand clutch is a different matter entirely. David Brown, John Deere, and Massey Ferguson are among the brands equipped with this kind of clutch.;

Owners of antique tractors recommend that anyone trying to drive a tractor with a hand clutch start by attempting to locate the tractor manual. Manufacturers often have copies going back many decades and can provide an electronic version; sometimes one may be sourced from a club or local dealer.

Then, operators should practice in a safe location until the correct clutching action has become automatic. Otherwise, when something surprising happens in the fields, the automatic response is to step on the brakes, and if the operator cannot use the clutch, issues arise.

Steering the Antique Tractor

Many vintage tractors have an overall shape that is similar to a tricycle but with a less stable centre of gravity. The two rear wheels are large and spread far apart. There are two front wheels, but they are small and so closely set that they may as well be a single wheel. The driver sits high above the two large wheels, without the safety belt or roll-bar that are standard equipment in contemporary tractors. Although the weight of the engine balances between the small front wheels and the high rear wheels, the overall centre of gravity is high, and the tractor can feel tippy on uneven ground.

Antique tractors are without power steering so the driver needs to anticipate turns, allowing enough time to physically manoeuvre the wheel and for the wheels to respond. This is particularly important when steering near soft ground. Older tractors often have narrower tyres, which means that the weight per square inch of ground surface is higher. As a result, a relatively light tractor can still become mired in soft soil. If the wheels on only one side become mired, this creates the potential for a rollover. Rollovers are also possible when driving near the edge of a road or ditch.

Even with safety equipment on newer tractors, rollovers remain the number three cause of farm worker fatalities in the United States, they cause half of equipment-related fatalities in Canada, and are included in a Health and Safety Executive advisory through the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs.

Sources of Further Information

Given that an antique tractor could come from any of some two dozen manufacturers and may have been made at any time over the last 150 years, there is a great deal more that may be learned about driving and operating antique tractors. England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales all have many excellent sources for further information for those inclined to increase their expertise.

Tractor Clubs

A significant number of local clubs exist across the U.K. to support local collectors and enthusiasts. These are excellent places to expand one's knowledge of the operation of these historic machines. The National Vintage Tractor and Engine Club has more than 30 local chapters across the U.K. Other organisations may be found with names that include such words as "Classic Tractors" and "Traction-Engines".

Online Forums

Conversations on online forums are often global in scope. This can be useful since the tractor sold in the U.K. under a U.S. nameplate may have been made elsewhere. The Massey " Pony" is one example. Collectors say four models are French-made: MH 812 with Simca gas, MH 820 with Hanomag diesel, MF 821 with Hanomag diesel and MF 821 with Peugeot gas. The best way to understand the operating details for a certain model of antique tractor is often to ask others in the global collector community.

Tractor Rallies and Steam Festivals

A number of antique tractor rallies and steam-powered engine festivals occur across the U.K. annually. The reason these are typically combined is because Britain has a significant history of steam-powered agricultural machinery, including thrashers and ploughs as well as hauling machines. These rallies can be an excellent starting place particularly for those interested in learning how to operate these steam-powered machines, which are technically so different from the petroleum-fuelled machines that gained precedence during the 20th century.

Antique Tractor Manufacturers Manuals and Guides

Tractors were first mass-produced by Ford but had been in the market for a half-century before his factory's innovations reduced the cost of the machine to something affordable by the average farmer. One innovation begat another, and quickly other firms entered the burgeoning farm equipment market. Some of the brands available in the antique equipment market include those below.

Some of these are U.K. brands; some were produced elsewhere in Europe; some were imported from the U.S. For instance, Fordson is the name under which Ford tractors were introduced in the U.K. in 1917; the brand has been sold in the U.K. under both names at various times. Many brands on the list have ceased tractor production. Of these brands, the rarest are HSCS and Twin City tractors.

It is nonetheless often possible to obtain useful information about how to operate a specific piece of antique equipment from a dealer, a local enthusiast who specialises in that brand, a seller of farm equipment antiquities, or directly from the manufacturer, who may have copies of manuals and operator's guides available in electronic form.

How to Buy Antique Tractors on eBay

When searching for an antique tractor on eBay, keep in mind that different sellers may refer to similar pieces of equipment as a classic tractor, or a vintage tractor. Check all the listings for all three terms by using the search bar. Traction-engines appear with less frequency due to their relative rarity, but books and other memorabilia about traction engines may be found.

Some tractors that fall into the antique or vintage age group may simply be listed as "used" by the seller. It is worthwhile to check this category as well. To locate these tractors, Search for "tractor" or for the specific brand desired. The search may then be limited by looking for filters that allow you to indicated that it is used, antique, or of an unspecified age. These selections reduce the overall choices to tractors that are previously used and may be antique. Of course, if a given model manufactured in specific years is what is desired, including this model number in the search provides exactly the desired output.


John Fowler's steam-operated "traction engines" for ploughing won the Royal Agricultural Society of England prize in 1858. By 1861, it is reported that 100 sets of paired stationary engines with ploughing tackle were in agricultural operation across England. These early beginnings, predating the development of mechanised farm equipment elsewhere, undoubtedly account for the U.K.'s love affair with antique tractors.

With more than 150 years of antique tractor designs in operation across the U.K., there are only broad generalisations to be offered the individual seeking to learn how to drive one. The new operator needs to master the machine's fuel system, its starter, its steering and its gearing. All of that must happen before attempting to manage the various attachments that do the work of ploughing, harvesting, thrashing, or other farm chores.

The U.K. is fortunate to have an extensive network of enthusiast clubs and fairs to support the new antique tractor owner. It also has access to a global network of online resources and connections to many manufacturers' resources. Antique tractors themselves, along with replacement parts and many user manuals, are readily available through sellers on the eBay marketplace. The U.K. has many resources through eBay for obtaining an antique tractor and learning how to operate it.

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