It all started with Gray Counts.
Several decades ago when I was a young designer at GM, I bought a few acres in Hooterville—I mean Ortonville—Michigan. Owning vast acreage (four) means that there will be weeds to cut and snow to blow. So I anted up and bought a new 16-hp Ariens tractor with a 48-inch mower deck with matching 48-inch, 2-stage snow blower. If the snow was right, it’d arc that white stuff 40 feet in the air. About the same time, my friend Gray Counts decides he needs a tractor for weed whacking and snow clearing on his acreage down near Clarkston. Gray bought a real tractor for his spread—he bought a 1948 Ford 8N.
I thought I was pretty smart buying a new tractor. But it slowly started to sink in that I had a fold and staple tinfoil tractor. In ten years mine would be scrap and be worth nada and Gray’s would probably be appreciating. Gray had a real tractor. There is a difference. (Right: Gray and his 8N he’s restoring—nearly 30 years later.)
If the snow was right, it’d arc that white stuff 40 feet in the air.
Years go by and I move to Arizona. Acerage out here changes by the minute. One morning you spot a lizard taking a break under the shade of a cactus. The next morning there is a bulldozer where the cactus and the lizard were. Espresso bars and malls sprout quicker than wildflowers. No snow, but weeds sprout in the spring, and my dirt road is always a mess. So I decided to look for a tractor. A real tractor.
There was this guy down in Phoenix who had old Ford tractors for sale. He catered to unsuspecting city folk like me who were willing to take chances. A buddy of his bought them at auctions in the southeast and hauled them to Phoenix where they were “detailed.” That meant they were power washed. I sat on a few, started them up, drove them around a bit. Figuring that there was no way to know their real condition, I bought the best looking one of the bunch, a ’41 Ford 9N. Kinda like buying a horse by looking at his teeth, I suppose. It had a 3-speed transmission, but it also had a 2-speed rear end which was cool if you wanted to get somewhere fast. With this tractor I would be the one going nowhere fast.
My 1941 Ford 9N. Pretty sad. We named it Harold.
By the way, Ford named tractor models thus: The 9N came out in 1939, the 2N came out in 1942, and the 8N came out in 1948. The NAA Jubilee (named after Ford’s 50-year anniversary) came out in 1953 replacing the 8N and were made for two years.
After a while several issues about my 9N began to emerge. For one thing, the Phoenix heat exposed weaknesses in the hydraulic system. At first the hydraulics would lift my scraper or dirt tote OK until the fluid got warm. Phoenix is all about warm. Between the heat and what use I gave it the hydraulics just got weaker. “Maybe it’s the hydraulic fluid,” I thought. So I drained the old stuff out. It was the color of coffee with too much cream. Water in the hydraulics is bad, but the new stuff without the water didn’t seem to make any difference.
When I went to refill the hydraulic system, I removed the filler plug next to the shifter on a cast cover. This casting is in two parts. The bottom half covers the top of the transmission and cradles the steering shafts to coming out of each side. The top half covers the steering gears. This is important. We’ll come back to this.
I took off the plug to fill the hydraulic system. I looked down into the abyss and see… burlap.
Burlap? A little digging with a pair of extra long needle nosed pliers rewarded me with a piece of burlap about 18-inches square. I had a bad feeling about this. That burlap wasn’t put in at the factory and didn’t get there on its own. There had to be a reason it was there. I had a suspicion that I would regret finding out why.
I forgot to mention that the steering was pretty sloppy and getting worse.
After I removed the grain sack or whatever it was, I filled it with new hydraulic fluid and started the tractor. It was then that I discovered that there were cracks in the cover. Fluid was now seeping out and making a real mess. I had to do something.
The casting is in two parts. It covers the top of the transmission, allows for the steering shafts to come out of each side, and also covers the top part of the steering box.
So I took the cast cover off. Now this is the same cover that also covers the steering gears, remember? Steering shafts come out of each side of the cover supported by bearings. There would be a bearing half in the lower case casting, and another in the upper casting cover along with a rope seal. So I removed a bearing half from the top half, and another from the bottom. Then I removed another one from the bottom. From each side.
Do you remember the Bob Newhart show? “Hi. I’m Larry, and this is my brother Daryl, and this is my other brother Daryl.“ Well there were three half bearings per side. That’s two too many. Some owner up the line shimmed the worn out steering shafts with an extra bearing half to take out the play. Too much play and the steering sector gears would no longer engage and the front wheels would no longer cooperate with each other. The cover was not designed for the extra bearing thickness. As a result the cover cracked when it was tightened down.
The burlap was there to keep oil from splashing up against the cracked cover and leaking all over the place. While the burlap was an effective solution to prevent fluid from seeping through the cracks in the cover, it had an undesirable consequence. It was also very effective at preventing oil from lubricating the steering sector gears that relied on lubrication splashed up from the transmission. This had the look of a short term fix. I think maybe they saw me coming.
I replaced the steering sector gears and shafts, and had the cover welded up. But it still leaked. The fact of the matter was the whole thing was just plain worn out. It didn’t need to be restored. It needed to be replaced. In the words of a good friend of mine, “I know enough that when I can’t fix something to throw it overboard and order a new part.”
The engine ran pretty good. The reason was the thick substance in the crankcase. Of course, I stupidly changed the oil and then it started to smoke. Had I still lived in Michigan, it would have been very effective at keeping mosquitos away. But that’s another story.
I eventually sold the 9N, but a few years later had to have another tractor. I bought a ’53 Jubilee from the owner in Union, Nebraska who had it 23 years. It’s not perfect, but it’s not worn out. And in ten years I’ll still have something. If I would have bought a fold and staple tinfoil garden tractor from Home Depot, in ten years it would just be so much scrap. If it lasted that long.
Most people when they find out I have a tractor look at me funny. They always ask why on earth would I want a tractor and what do I do with it? “What, do you have 100 acres?” I don’t waste my time with them. First off, it’s just a really cool piece of machinery. My property is groomed, and I can pop a large staghorn cholla out of the ground like it was nothing. You can’t get close enough to one of those nasty cacti to get it out by hand without getting stuck.
By Gary D. Smith. Story edited by John Thawley. Thanks, coach.
The Jubilee is a modern tractor with its overhead valve engine! And it has a really cool hood.