From GENE LOGSDON
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.