Starting An Old Tractor


I don’t know of a better argument in favor of farming with horses than trying to start an old tractor in the winter time. I have never thought I could afford a new tractor so I know quite a bit about starting old ones. Or rather I know quite a bit about new and more imaginative combinations of foul language when old tractors won’t start. Some will say that it is all a matter of science. A friend of mine, Roy Harbour, who ran a car dealership most of his life, was fond of saying that “if everything is right, you can’t keep a car from starting.” Maybe so, but to me the fact that a spark from a battery will ignite gas in a carburetor, and the explosion engendered will push pistons up and down to make a drive shaft spin round and round so that tires go forward and backward is sheer magic. To start that process sometimes requires mystic manipulations and incantations heavy on swear words. Once I disgustedly kicked the front tire on my WD Allis when it wouldn’t start, and wouldn’t you know, it fired right up when I tried again. After that, I would as a matter of course, kick the tire superstitiously before trying to start the obstinate thing. That worked for about a week.

The first tractor I had to resort to magic to start was a Massey Harris Challenger, circa 1944. It was equipped with a magneto that seemed to me to have divine power. To start the beast, you had to go through a ritual. First you set the gas lever two notches up from idle. Then you set the magneto one fourth of an inch away from off. Then you cranked, turning the engine over twice. You cranked only one pull upward at a time with your left hand because otherwise if the brute backfired, the crank would kick back and might break your wrist. After cranking over the silent engine with two one-pulls, you re-set the gas lever four notches from idle, moved the magneto an eighth of an inch from off, and did one more pull-up on the crank. Then the motor hacked and sneezed into action. I don’t care what you say, Roy, if you did not follow that procedure to the letter, or rather to the notch, that thing would not start. I was just a boy then and got much fun watching newcomers on the farm try to start that tractor when Dad was not around. I knew if I told them how to do it, they wouldn’t believe me so I let them have at it first. Finally though, I went through the ritual while the newcomer smiled indulgently at me. When the tractor sputtered into action, I had won over another true believer in the mystical power of piston engines.

At an even earlier age, I watched my grandfather literally start a fire under his ancient Fordson on cold mornings to thin out the oil a little before he started cranking and cursing. But he had another secret ingredient. After cranking a few swear words, he would take a hammer and tap gently on the carburetor. I have no idea why and I don’t think he did either, but after about four taps and five cranks, the tractor would start. I have tried this gambit on other tractors since to no avail.

My favorite story about divine intervention in getting old tractors to run I’ve told before but can’t resist. Cousin Bernard liked to tell this story about his father, my Uncle Carl. Seems they had a load of hay back in the field and a summer storm was coming up. The tractor had been sputtering on and off all day, and now as the storm approached, it died. Bernard got it going and then it started sputtering again. Probably dirt in the gas line but Uncle Carl, who had farmed most of his life with horses, had a tendency when rattled to think like a horse farmer. Losing his temper a bit, he thwacked the balking machine on the fender with the screwdriver he had been using to adjust the carburetor. Wouldn’t you know, the tractor sputtered back into full throttle. Carl was dumbfounded. When the motor choked up again, he gave it another thwack and by golly, it gathered strength and moved on towards the barn again. After that he only had to raise the screwdriver menacingly and the sputtering tractor would run smoothly for a bit. And so they proceeded, Bernard driving, Carl walking alongside with screwdriver raised threateningly in the air, haltingly making it to the barn just before the storm hit.

For awhile, the old John Deere I now drive would not run smoothly after starting unless it had been sitting out in the sun for an hour or so. Turned out that something was wrong in the distributor, but why sunlight would, for awhile, keep it almost working is still a mystery.

Surely, in time, electric battery-driven motors will win the day.



I have a 1940 John Deere B. You set the throttle at 1/2, and put the choke on. Then one crank, then set the choke at 1/2 and it will start on the second crank. Otherwise, it won’t start. The rear tires on it were new in 1961 and are close to needing replaced.

Oh I should mention DO NOT USE MODERN OILS IN YOUR OLD TRACTOR Itll kill it
You should use whats called “racing oil” – it has no additives – and those fuels with ethanol, and cleaners will destroy an old tractor engine. My Cockshutt 30 has three “transmissions” – costs me over $300 to do a complete oil change! Almost 3 cases of racing oil! Thats Canadian dollars…

I have a 1946 Farmall A – Im the second owner – bought it two years ago for $750 AND A 1947 COCKSHUTT 30 $1000, Neither has caused me any trouble, and I can use them anytime I want – put the key in press the button. When Im done turn it off. Now a team of horses takes about 5 years to train, they need feed, brushing and exercise every day use them or not new shoes, vet bills teeth care and a warm place to be kept out of the weather. My tractor I can leave out in the field – I dont mind you cause I love them. Horses are nice to look at very romantic to farm with – if youre very young strong and have the training, but an 8 year old can plow a field with a tractor

gene. in one of your early books (one acre eden?) you inspired me with your praise of the ford 8n as an essential component to any homestead. when i retired my bride bought me a brand new mahindra max 22 that (i think) has the same sort of rugged versitility–all steel; 22 hp diesel, small footprint so i can park it in the basement workshop and starts every winter morning (so far the past two years). minus 25 the other day. my problem is slipping off the tractor path into the loose 2 feet of loose powder and getting stuck and then having to hand shovel her out. Here we are in the first of march and i have to hand carry firewood up to the house cause I can’t be sure of getting the tractor back out of the snow. no cursing so far

I think you might enjoy this You-Tube clip, Rick. cg

Lol don’t knock those old Soviet tractors, many are still running around here where I live in rural Latvia. On our ski hill, the farmer chose to use his old Soviet tractor rather than risk his brand new one and it worked fine. Mind you, air conditioning consists of driving with the door open, not good with the high level of biodiversity of insects around here.

PS: The magic words are “son-of-a-b—-“! said 3 times in quick succession!

Yes, duct taping the starter knob into the “sweet spot” on my 1949 Farmall Cub worked for a long time–then it didn’t. t had to figure out how to replace the starter switch. After I did, I felt stupid for waiting so long for such a little repair. I love the simplicity of old tractors!

I guess I am in the minority, but I always thought old tractors are an absolute joy to work on, given that everything is easy to see and work on. Pulling the PTO out of a larger, old tractor, like a 1066 is no joy, but at least what you have to do to fix things and re-assemble is easy to understand, even if you need two sons to help you lift the part. That actually is the hardest part of working on tractors – finding the sons when there is heavy lifting to be done. I like Gene’s reference to FFA as father farming alone.

I got rid of a newer JD tractor because it was designed too much like new cars – everything runs on a computer chip or board, and you have pull or drop the engine to change a belt.

BTW – if your tractor needs to be in the sun to start, I would check the distributor for small crack(s) or a bad seal. Sounds like you are getting some condensate that takes a spell in the sun to dry out. That will booger up charge as it travels from the coil to the spark plug.

I love old engines and tractors of any kind,nothing I like to do more than find an old tractor that hasn’t run for 10 or 20 years be able to get it fired up and drive it off the trailer after working on it some once I get it home.I have bought many tractors that others just flat gave up on, most of the time I have them running in a couple hrs.No magic just an understanding of how they work and a little patience.My wife says no one could steal any of my tractors because no one else could get them cranked,probably true. I have a 3520 Zebra with no electrical system except the starter I use a jump box to fire it up and I mow hay with it.Also love ‘offbrand’ machines my tractor collection has a Zebra,a Pasquali,a CBT built in Brazil,the only UTB 800 I can find in North America,several Cockshutts,a David Brown as well as the more common US built tractors, I love um all.

All this talk of “magnetos” and “carburators” makes my head swim.

I never met a diesel I couldn’t get running. Assuming they’re mechanically sound, either they aren’t getting fuel, or they aren’t getting air.

(Of course, “mechanically sound” is a huge assumption, and a cracked block or ring or sticking valve can make a diesel cantankerous. Just Fix It(TM).)

I know it would be a lot of work – and you are welcome to consider me a neo-Luddite – but personally I would prefer that we all just go back to horses and oxen instead of machines. The world would probably smell a whole lot better and I’m sure the air would be cleaner. I suspect the gardens would be happier too. 😉

When Gene mentioned that there was something wrong with a distributor that was healed by sunshine, it brought back to me a memory that whenever there was trouble, look to the distributor first because there might be moisture in it preventing firing that could be cured by wiping any moisture away off the rotor and points. If it kept up attracting moisture it meant the head had a crack in, even if invisible to the naked eye, and it was time to go buy a new distributor head. Thanks, Gene, for reminding us of “the good ole days”.

With regard to tapping the carburetor, the float in the carburetor tends to stick in the closed
position on the older tractors and not let any fuel into the carburetor. Tapping the float bowl, gently to avoid cracking the metal, usually knocks the float loose and opens the needle valve so it can get fuel. I have a WD Allis and an old John Deere 95 combine that have that problem quite often, especially if they’ve been sitting for a while. The new fuel
blends with ethanol in them seem to cause sticking more often, also.

Thanks for this blog, Gene. I always check here first on Wednesdays to make sure I don’t miss a single post.

One little thing i did forget to mention in my long winded post wasthe farmer i worked for had big minneapolis molines and i discovered a trick to starting. I discovered one day that if it was starting hard to lower the three point hitch lever all the way down and then pull it back to all the way up then start the tractor.Finally found out that the tractors great hydraulic oil reservoir didnt have what is called a “dump valve”. What that does is empties the pump up hydraulic oil and the tractor when turning over does not have to turn the pump under a load. Easy mechanical explanation but was a bit of wizardry and magic at the time! lol

A few of the old farmers whom I worshipped growing up always thought it was funny i could cuss like a trooper.But as anyone who loves old tractors know, it was just practice for when i got older and had to deal with motors and old tractors and machinery. My favorite of the bunch always had a useful tidbit for me. Leo told me once ,” Everything in life has a trick to it . You just got to know the trick!.” Considering he farmed with 2 old tractors where most guys would have 2-3 big ones and one of his was a 1952 minneapolis moline with a 1950 s new idea mounted corn picker with a trailing husking bed ,I figured he knew what he was talking about. He had only owned two trucks in his life and and maybe 3-4 tractors besides the minnie moline . His first truck was a REO ton and a half as they called it back in the day. One of the reasons my first tractor was a wd allis was because it was a smaller version to me of his minnie moline zb. It had a 6 positive ground. Not a negative ground but an ancient positive ground and only 6 volts .If there is anything in life that isa trick to its an old tractor with 6 volt positive ground generators or ‘gennies’ as we in the old tractor collectors world call them.I am finally wising up after all these years of dealing with them and converting over to 12 negative ground because i am getting older and lazier for one thing. And two it eliminates extra runs to the disapearing tractor dealerships for parts that may or may not be in stock which back in the day was a 40 mile one way trip.I often threatened to replace the tractor verbily when it was acting up with buying a green one which usually for some reason would work or magically would let me figure out the probllem!While i need to overhall and restore it that old wd is still my favorite tractor. and Ive driven everything from a 1952 ford 8n of my grandfathers to a 2-155 white with 155 hp and an airconditioned cab. Go figure!

What a hoot! Thanks Gene.. Takes me back 50 years. We always had older tractors but part of dad’s life was spent in the Yukon and in Labrador as a runway manager with the air force so he knew all the little tricks to keep old engines running like new and starting too.

You sure couldn’t cut corners and that advice about cranking with your left arm.. golden.
best regards

You just need the “right” old tractor for easy winter starting. I’ve had my old ones long enough to know all their likes and dislikes and the little tricks to making them start as well in winter as summer. I just spent an hour this morning on my 62 year old Cockshutt blowing snow off the driveway at -14F. The Massey Super 90 diesel fires up as good at -20F as it does at +60, as long as the heater is plugged in. Of course I am assuming everybody uses a coolant heater to start a cold engine. It is a necessity of life here in cold country.

    Ralph, my hubby spent several years at the South Pole back in the 80s as a heavy equipment operator. In that environment, the first thing you did when you got to the job after winter layoff (this is at the beginning of the Antarctic summer, mind you) was get out a blow torch and start melting the ice from the metal. They also had big propane eaters running in the shop, but it still took about 12 hours with the blowtorches, moving them gradually over the rigs, to get them unfrozen enough to even think about starting them. Once started, they were not shut off again until they laid off for the winter.

There is no doubt that starting any gas/diesel engine is a magical thing! Why not use a little bit of magic? Like the Bud Lite commercials… “If it works….” Then there is always the great advice “Get a bigger hammer.”

Heck, you could apply this sort of thinking to any machine — gas, diesel, electric or electronic! Back in the days when I had to go over to the nursing office if I wanted to make a lot of copies of something, the nursing secretaries and I used to joke about the copier; it “knew” when we had a major, time-sensitive project and would become balky. One day, after fighting with the jams, error messages and other tantrums it was throwing, I finally promised it chocolate chip cookies if it it would just let me finish that one job on time. Bingo! Perfect operation. Call me superstitious, but I went down to the cafeteria and got it a cookie, which I left on the cover (it eventually disappeared, but I don’t want to say the machine actually ate it). After that, I always took a cookie along when doing a big project…

    ” the copier… “knew” when we had a major, time-sensitive project and would become balky”

    Didn’t you know? That’s the CND chip (“Critical Need Detector”), which is required to be in any device that Microsoft could imagine itself making in some alternative universe.

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