Antique Tractor Consumer Report – (Farmall B, circa 1943)

I’m still mowing at the 1950s farm museum until we find someone to fill the late Jerry Kirk’s resident caretaker position.

Anyway, there’s a new old tractor on the farm, a Farmall B equipped with a belly mower. The arrival of this restored gem was very timely as it corresponded to the radiator going out of the C and the PTO coupler failing on the Cub with the flail type mower. This leaves the Allis Chalmers CA, Jerry’s old favorite, which I still consider his tractor.

That’s an odd thing about this farm. The farmer who formerly leased the 300 acres of crop land here (Joe Hottle/ Egypt Farms) died during his last harvest. His widow, Elaine (Day) Hottle, brought in the crop with the help of the employees of Egypt Farms. What I found unusual, though, was that the family who owns the farm seemed not to acknowledge Joe’s death until his crop was in. Somehow, I didn’t find this too hard to understand and found myself talking about Joe as though he were still alive. Likewise, the Allis will probably be “Jerry’s tractor” until he is replaced.

Anyway, that’s why I’m hesitant to use the Allis — that and because the hydraulics are weird. Jerry and I fought over this particular issue continually for years. But not until I had to do his job did I realize that he was justified in his complaints. Hydraulics are not a problem on the B, though, — it doesn’t have any — or any other bells and whistles of that period, either. I suspect that the B is a “war tractor.”

A “war tractor” is a farm tractor produced during our most intense involvement in World War Two; 1943, 44 and part of 45. During those years certain materials were rationed. According to my 1935 to 1953 Motor’s auto repair manual, automotive production ceased altogether in 43 and 44 (after which the Studebaker Dictator was no longer produced). For obvious reasons, tractors were another matter. Tractors were still produced during the war but in a very bare bones version.

The Army needed all of the rubber that it could get so the tractor’s wheels were steel as was the steering wheel which would normally be coated in black rubber. Copper and brass were needed for shell casings and to wire battle ships so there was no generator or starter whose windings contained yards of these metals.

“Tractor fuel” or “distillate” whatever it was (historians have gone to some effort to make it clear that it was not kerosene) wouldn’t atomize at ambient temperatures and thus would become burnable as a motor fuel only after it was heated. To accomplish this, there was a small fuel tank for rationed gasoline which would be used to start the tractor then warm it up to a temperature necessary to atomize the wartime tractor fuel which could be anything from corn liquor to goose grease. These tractors had a special manifold for heating the fuel and adjustable shutters in front of the radiator to keep the engine temperature up in general.

Over the years, most of these manifolds have been changed to straight gasoline units usually because they were cracked or so deeply pitted with rust that they leaked. The last such change that I made was on Roger Lambourne’s Farmall H, about seven or eight years ago.

As these changes progress, war tractors can become pretty well disguised to look like their post war counterparts. This old B had a rubberized steering wheel but it had obviously been added recently. The fact that the tractor had magneto ignition and no generator was another tipoff. Another clue was the absence of a choke control rod. As there was originally no starter, the tractor was meant to be started from the ground with a hand crank thus the choke was operated at the carburetor.

The final confirmation came when circumstances made it necessary for me to hand crank the tractor. The steel plate guide just inside the grille that was to prevent one from tearing the nose off of the old Farmall while hand cranking was completely worn out. Uh-huh … humming a Glenn Miller tune (a medley of Dig Down Deep and American Patrol) seemed to help.

Like pre and post war Farmall A’s, B’s, BN’s (B‑narrow) and Cubs, this B is equipped with “Cultivision.” Today, this option may sound more like a government program to monitor bizarre religious sects but back then it meant that the tractor’s seat was offset. This offset allowed the operator to more easily see the cultivators as he — or, likely, she tended the crops.

Cultivision normally consists of a long axle housing extending from the right side of the tractor. I don’t know if there’s a lefty version but it could be done. At the end of the housing is the final drive gearbox then the right rear wheel. The operator sits directly above the right axle housing. On the left side, the final drive gearbox is bolted directly to the main body of the tractor which brings the left rear wheel much closer and gives one a convenient fender to lean on.

On the B, all of the above applies except that there is a long axle housing on the left side as well. This gives the impression that the left rear wheel is traveling “out there,” reminiscent of a persistent panhandler who runs along outside your car window between stoplights. It’s easy to forget that it’s there. Narrow bridges can be a problem and the wheel regularly terrorizes hostas and birdhouses and spars with gateposts.

I delivered the C radiator to Dickie’s Radiator in Winchester. The radiator has been in service since 1949 and is thus pretty crusty. It may not be repairable but Dickie does the impossible as a matter of routine. Meanwhile, the little Farmall B “war tractor” is doing a great job of keeping the place mowed and thus in a small way is tasting victory once more.

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