Maybe Old Tractors Do Die


After the conversations we had here recently about old tractors, I began to hear about a problem that really does affect their longevity.  Ethanol in gasoline is not the wonder fuel it has been made out to be. It is causing problems when used in off-road vehicles— lawn motors, chain saws, boat motors, four wheelers, not to mention old tractors. Although I have had no cause to complain yet myself, I first heard rumors of these problems when 10 percent ethanol was added to gasoline (E-10 fuel. Now that the EPA has approved 15 percent ethanol in gasoline (E-15 fuel) the complaints are increasing. Ethanol corrodes plastic and rubber and even some metal not made to handle it. It also absorbs water into the fuel. You don’t want to leave a can of gas set around very long unused if it has ethanol in it.  And recently out of California came reports that E-15 gas pollutes the air more than pure gasoline (can you call gasoline “pure”?) — contrary to all the propaganda the champions of ethanol have been putting out for several years.

I called a local small engine repair shop whose proprietors I know and trust and asked them if the problem is serious. The mechanic’s first reply was a long drawn out groan. “Oh yes, unfortunately,” he finally replied. “Our carburetor repair work has at least doubled lately.”

What can you do about it since there are now reports that E-10 gas is causing problems too? He sighed again. “Well, you just have to get your carburetor worked on more often. There are additives now to put in ethanol gas, but I am not yet sure if they are all that effective. And they are expensive. It looks like manufacturers will have to design and develop new carburetors for their motors. Right now, it you look at the warranty on your new lawnmower or chain saw, you will see that the carburetor and attendant parts are not covered. Manufacturers are washing their hands of the whole problem.”

The government requires service stations that sell E-15 gas to have labels on the pumps which say: “Use only on 2001 and newer passenger vehicles and in flex-fuel vehicles.”  The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers think the warning labels ought also to include specific instructions directing consumers to check their owner’s manual to determine the appropriate fuel for their vehicles but so far the EPA evidently does not think that’s necessary. But that complaint might be beside the point because some mechanics say that E-10 shortens the life of small engines too.

Obviously, owners of old tractors are going to be hard hit by this situation because no one is going to start making ethanol-proof carburetors for them, I don’t think. You are going to be forced to buy a new tractor whether you can afford to or not. Or better yet, move forward to draft animal power.

This situation seems to me unconscionable. If you look at only the ethanol news from the corn industry or ethanol manufacturers, you would never know there is this problem because most of these sources simply ignore it. Ethanol from corn is, furthermore, so expensive that it requires huge subsidies from the government before it can be “profitable.” (I think they are going to lose some of the subsidies soon.) Taxpayers must not only pay for it but now must pay the extra costs of keeping their small engines running. We have been sold on green energy, but ethanol from corn is not green.  It is red — red with anger and indebtedness. It is also driving up the cost of food.

Do any of you readers know other ways around the problem? And how can you be sure the gas you buy is free of E-15. According to information on Google, not all gas pumps are properly labeled. Or customers, used to just grabbing the hose and filling the tank or gas can, aren’t aware that they should look for it. The EPA, for political reasons, has not been all that energetic in publicizing the down side of this red alternative fuel.


so i have to be a freaking mechanical engineer crossed with a biologist in order to get my stuff to stay running for the long term? what a joke!

there are some 26 different blends of gas in the usa, one for each of the major city areas.

I was using ethonal back in the midwest in the 90’s with no issues. Wasn’t till I came to the east coast I started have trouble with ethonal. As Brazil using lots of ethonal mix with no issues. It not the ethanol,
its the other stuff.

Funny how things you were not aware of start popping out of the woodwork after you first hear about them. I was oblivious to the system dangers of ethanol till reading this post. Then my neighbor asks to borrow my chainsaw Fri because “ethanol ate through the gas line to the carb” on his. Last evening driving back from seeing our newest grandson in Chicago we were listening to Car Talk on the radio. Toward the end of the show, an older man with a German accent calls in and asks Klik and Klak if they know anything about running cars on woodchips. He remembered that during WW2 he rode in motorized vehicles that they would periodically refill the barrel burn chambers with wood chips and sawdust and that was their only fuel. K&K were pretty incredulous and had their usual fun with it. Thanks to Charles’ comment, I knew there was something to it.

Betty, we have a 1948 Farmall Cub and have never had a lick of problems with it other than the battery needing charged every few weeks when we got it. Once you get them running well, you’ll rarely have a problem with them.

My suggestion is the same as what we did a couple years ago and will save you much time, money and aggravation. Contact you local IH antique tractor club and the locate best Cub mechanic in the club. Give him a couple hundred to go through it and fix everything for you. I had ours go totally through ours and it cost under $200. This included a rebuilt generator, carburetor and a tune up.

If you are still on good terms with the seller, call them up and see what they can tell you. After I buy something like an old car, truck or equipment, I ask the seller to come clean with me on what is really needed as I tell them I know I am buying something as is. I have had nearly 150 vehicles now since 1970 including numerous tractors, motorcycles, cars and trucks.

I am a good mechanic but there are some things I take to the experts. I am a little skeptical that this is a governor or filter related problem. A clogged filter will not let enough fuel in typically for even a good idle. Change them just in case.

The governor keeps the engine from revving too high. You should still be able to get some load out of the engine a low speeds. I am wondering if maybe there is a hydraulic issue involved also but then again this is not my area of expertise.

The float in the carburetor may be stuck also and need cleaned. Does yours have a magneto or points system for the distributor? They made both.

Hopefully you’ll have somebody in your area as I did. Good luck!

    This sounds like a great idea–even better if I can find someone who doesn’t mind if I watch and learn even if I have to pay a little extra. Thanks to you and Jan for your suggestions.

My brother delivered my 1949 Farmall Cub yesterday and suddenly I am brought to earth–It’s beautiful as a show tractor but I want to USE it. I know nothing about keeping this thing going and it comes with a govenor problem that must be overcome before it can be useful at all. It dies on the slightest hill or when the belly mower is engaged to cut much of anything. I spent the day downloading the Owners Manuel and parts of the Service Manual on govenors. OK, basic maintenance I can do–but a freakin’ governor?! I have my work cut out for me.

Should I get help with this–or just dive in and take it apart, hoping I can get it back together? The owners manual refers one to an International Harvester rep, those who would know anything of this must be retired or dead I’m sure. Have read something about “linkages” being able to move freely and problems with the shaft that can prevent this. Any ideas on where to begin the learning curve on zen and the art of old tractor maintenance?

    Hmmm… idles well, stalls under load? Sounds like a clogged fuel filter to me — fairly common on engines that have been sitting around for a while.

    They’ll run well enough for the sales demo, but then an hour or so into the first “real work” you give them, all the rust that’s been accumulating in the fuel tank ends up in the filter.

    What makes you think it’s the governor?

      BTW: the diesel Ford I refer to above does the same thing — it can move itself around all day at idle, but quits under load. I fixed it by replacing a $14 filter… for about two hours! That’s when I discovered algae in the fuel tank…

      Replace the fuel filter. Buy a spare filter when you do, and if things work for a while, but then quit again, you’re going to have to remove and clean the tank. Only then should you use the spare filter you bought!

      A fuel filter sounds like an easier place to start. For some reason I thought my brother said the fuel filter was new–will double check. I know he said he keeps stabilizer in the gas. He’s the one who mentioned he’d adjusted the governor “all the way in” to get it to work as well as it does and he thought the problem might be there. He’s the one who restored it and used it for tractor shows, but after he was kind enough to just give it to me, I don’t want to have to go to him for eveything. I want to learn to take care of it myself.

    More than likely your problem is either water in the fuel system, or degenerated fuel varnish in the carb. A 40’s tractor probably doesn’t have a paper filter anyway. It should have a glass filter. Here’s another tip: today’s gas only has a shelf life of 30 days. Stabilizer will lengthen to 90 days. So don’t buy any more fuel than what you can use in that period. If you intend to store a machine, empty the tank and run the carb dry. That’s the best advice, ethanol is corrosive and will eat fuel lines, aluminum carb parts, and cost more $$ in the long run.

      Farmerbrown, ding, ding, ding, you win stump the chump–it was degenerated fuel gunking up the carborator! There was also a little play in the shaft going to the governor, which caused it to “hunt” but after fixing that, it still took taking apart the carborator and cleaning it out. You’re right, they don’t have a paper filter, but my brother had emptied the gas tank and cleaned the filter so these were OK.

Jan Steinman, very interesting. and promising. Do you know anything about another persistent rumor I hear but haven’t had time to investigate. Biodiesel, I’ve been told, can become infected with fungal growth that renders it ineffective has a fuel. Sounds zany but then everything sounds zany to me anymore. Gene Logsdon

    Gene Logsdon wrote: “Biodiesel, I’ve been told, can become infected with fungal growth…”

    ‘Tis true of petro-diesel, as well. My understanding is that it’s actually an algae that likes to grow in it. There are commercial diesel fuel biocide additives available; most are not much more than methanol.

    Almost all biodiesel is made using methanol, then the excess methanol is “washed out” and wasted. If you make your own and are careful about not using oil that has water in it, you don’t really need to “wash” biodiesel you make yourself, and the left-over methanol keeps algae from growing — and also lowers the gel point, allowing the biodiesel to work at lower temperatures.

    If you do get some algal growth, it can be a pain to deal with. It won’t damage the engine, but it will clog your fuel filter — repeatedly! Then you have to siphon all the fuel out of the tank and run it through cheesecloth — not fun. This tends to happen with biodiesel that sits around for a long time, under humid conditions — like farm equipment in the winter!

    Those disposable cartridge fuel filters can add up to a hunk of change. On a few of our engines, I’ve inserted a cleanable fuel filter (Oberg, Racor, etc.) in between the tank and the stock fuel filter. Then if you have algae problems, you just clean that filter with an old toothbrush in a cottage-cheese container with some mineral spirits or paint thinner. But you still have to strain the fuel and then put biocide in it.

    I’ve never had algal problems with biodiesel I’ve made myself (due to leaving the methanol in), but I’m currently going through hell with some “washed” biodiesel that I got from a friend. It has temporarily disabled our diesel Vanagon and Ford tractor, due to algae-clogged fuel filters.

    If I end up getting biodiesel from a “friend” again, I’ll be putting biocide into it before having problems! I imagine commercially-produced biodiesel is already treated with biocide.

“Do any of you readers know other ways around the problem?”

Yea, don’t own anything that burns gasoline!

That obviously includes the use of draft animals, but more realistically means using diesel engines on everything.

There are other advantages. Diesel engines are more efficient, and diesel fuel contains more energy. The end result is that diesel fuel may do upwards of twice the work as the same volume of gasoline.

Looking forward to a greener future with less fossil sunlight available, plant-based diesel fuels are more easily made than plant-based gasoline substitutes, and they contain more energy, too. With 100% ethanol, you lose about 30% of your power and fuel economy; with 100% biodiesel, you lose just 0% to 5% or so, depending on the feedstock oil.

While it’s true that farmers can make their own ethanol, it’s much easier to make your own biodiesel. The process is not as critical with respect to precision of time and temperature. In fact, you can brew biodiesel in a black barrel under hot summer sun, if you can wait a week or so.

Until the price of diesel crashed after the recession, we were making 120 litres a week, but we just couldn’t justify it with petro-diesel under $1/litre. But with petro-diesel inching up towards $1.50/litre again, we’re getting ready to put our “appleseed” processor back in operation. It’s made from an old electric water heater. We only used a fraction of our output, distributing the rest to grateful neighbours.

On the downside, biodiesel will eventually dissolve rubber parts, but you’ll get a fair warning as fuel lines soften and weep before they give out altogether. Just replace them with Viton(TM) or a hard plastic like polyurethane.

But I’ve saved the best for last: you can easily convert most diesel engines to burn pure plant oil, rather than biodiesel, and that can be any oil you can grow on your farm. All you need to do is heat the oil to about 60°C, so it will flow like diesel fuel. You can get that heat from the radiator after the engine is hot.

The only non-diesel engines we have around here are chain saws. I’m planning to run them on home-brew ethanol with biodiesel as the lubricant.

This has nothing to do with this Post, but was the only way I found to pass an interesting story along. URL below for “Why you can’t find heritage chickens”. Thought you and/or your readers might find it interesting.

I checked with a local small-engine repair guy and he had an idea that I’ve never tried. He said to put water in your gas can. The ethanol will dissolve in the water. The water-ethanol mixture will naturally separate from the gasoline. Then siphon off the water-ethanol mixture or siphon off the gasoline. This obviously increases the price per gallon of the gas but might be cheaper than repairs. He didn’t mention any sort of ratio (how much water per gallon of gas).

As I said, i never tried it, but am thinking of doing a small-scale experiment with maybe half a quart of gasoline and adding water to that to see if it works.


I had no idea. Thanks for such great info.

If you would like to check the ethanol content of your local gas station, Briggs and Stratton makes a tester. It’s easy, cheap, reusable, and available through most any small engine shop. Part number is 795161.

The biggest ethanol subsidy just expired- a good step in the right direction:

And that Mystery Oil has done amazing things for my old diesel MF… A jug of that stuff in the fuel tank and some heavy work put an end to my leaky injector/knocking problem.

Good tip Karl! Thanks for sharing. I use 10W-30 in my old tractors in the Winter with about a quarter to half quart of Marvel Mystery Oil. I use straight 30W in warmer weather designed for old tractors also with the Mystery Oil. No problems, no smoking and no bad exhaust smells with my system. I do not know what is in the additive I use other than it is a mystery.:)

karl francis kohler January 4, 2012 at 10:28 am

It is not just the fuel – it is the oil used in old tractors. new oils actually strip the protection from your cylinder walls and other moving parts. It is important to use “racing oil” or “off road” oil that contains zinc and phosporous. The new synthetic oils and these ethanol fuels destroy old tractors. I have a 1946 Farmall A and a 1948 Cockshutt 30. Both are in perfect running order, I am the second owner. Up here in Canada I use regular gas and “racing” oil for the crankcase and PTO unit, and a heavy duty grease for all the bearings…

I get around this by running diesel, which I admit is not always an option, particularly if you are invested in gas equipment already. The interesting, and somewhat ironic part in light of this ethanol issue, is that older diesel engines tend to do better on biodiesel (once you replace a few hoses) than on petro diesel since it has better lubricity.

My old tractors run fine with the new fuel. I have been more concerned about the lack of lead in the fuel to cushion the valve seats.

My ’48 Farmall Cub and ’54 Ford Golden Jubilee each get a couple ounces of Marvels Mystery Oil in the fuel tank each time I put fuel in them. That seems to make them run smoother and I know it keeps the fuel system clean. I never allow too much fuel to sit in the tank so water buildup hasn’t been an issue.

Bio-diesel in my old ’84 300D Mercedes is a different topic. It disolved the rubber hose going over to the first fuel injector from the fuel pump when I first began using it. I now only burn number 1 diesel in it.

Ethanol was a great idea in 1900. I am not so sure now. It surely does not need Federal subsidies and could certainly be made out of something other than food.

two ways to evade suppositorified [method of forced administration] fuel technologies.

First, when Russia pulled out of Cuba they left behind 75,000 petroleum fueled tractors. In response many of them had internal combustion engines junked, and the favored conversion was to hang dc batteries off the rails, eight or so, which helped balance, and replacing the drive engine with an electric DC motor. I would like to go see this for myself but our Government discourages travel to this “enemy”. We have a neighbor here in Maine who uses his small Farmall in electric conversion, with a parasol top solar cell trickle recharger, and his woodlot is thinned and trimmed for firewood with a 12V electric chainsaw connected by a long extension cord back to the “charging while snoozing” Falectricall.
The small Cuban farm tractor encouragd small farming, and because Havana could grow pocket farms in empty lots and on roof tops, I have been told that the city gets half of its food from plots within the city limits. They don’t need to get the Russian tractors up on the roof, I would presume. And climate advantsage is No Frost season.
Electric conversions are relaively easy and solar cell can refuel while parked. Wind generators too. I had a hand in converting VWs to electric drive back in the 1970s., and have a 1980 vw diesel pick up waiting for conversion with a German forklift motor.

Or gasificatsion. The Renewable Energy Lab at Boulder, Colorado has suceeded in running a John Deere on wood smoke.

I would vote for liquification of lawyer and politician paunch and derierre [sp?] fats to make diesel fuel, and if you look carefully the buttocks resources from public officials which could be removed with liposuction would probably be enough to run the nation for 1000 years. But then how could they “work” without their biggest asset.?

I purchased a new fuel-efficient vehicle last year, and have been advised by brand reps at several different dealerships to try and avoid gasolines with higher Ethanol content, as the gas itself (apparently) tends to burn a bit hotter than regular non-Ethanol gas, and can cause greater engine wear and problems over time (in my particular engine).

Ethanol is a bad idea from a wide variety of angles, and I wish issues like these were getting more press.

The other expensive option is to run high octane (premium) gas that has no corn added. My mechanic suggested that as the current best solution for me (though he has no problem with all the extra work he’s getting). MIght not offset the cost of repairs, but does avoid the aggravation of an ill timed breakdown.

    My nephew is a warranty mechanic for large outboard motors. He goes to school for a month every year or two to keep up his certificate. He told me that his instructor told him to tell his customers to buy premium gas to avoid ethanol damage. The subject came up because I was complaining how it is getting hard to find gasoline without ethanol for my Prius.

I was worried about this problem with my chainsaw, but Stihl’s website addresses this and says E10 is ok.

I still try to find nonoxygenated gasoline for my small engines, which is also ethanol free. I get it at Fleet Farm (Minnesota). Car buffs are also interested in nonoxy- they have a list of gas stations on their website: Not sure how current this is though.

i have several small engines that i have to shut the fuel off and let the carb run dry to keep the rubber tipped float needle from sticking. not all polymers work well with ethanol fuel mixes. i’ve actually replaced newer float valve needles with older all-metal ones to solve this problem.

old tractors not run on ethanol? i have a 1939 JD ‘A’ that doesn’t have any rubber or plastic in the fuel system: all steel & brass with paper gaskets. -and the same with a farmall cub. i merely installed petcocks on the carb drain plugs so i can drain out the system (or at least the carb) when it’s been sitting for a while. they run fine, it’s the time spent not running that is the issue. the problems seem to be with accumulations at the bottom of the system (read: moisture). i suspect poor quality fuel is not a new issue, look at all the older vehicles with sediment bulbs as standard equipment.

I was not aware that E15 was commonly available. I drive a 2003 truck so it may not matter, now I will have to pay attention to the pumps and see if my local gas stations are selling it. Back before E10 was required I always tried to use “pure” gasoline.

The only way ethanol will be profitable is if they change the name to distilleries and age their product in oak barrels. Then sell it as whiskey. $10 a pint is a lot better than $3 a gallon.

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