Classic 1978 MF 590 restored

Posted by Chris Graham on 19th February 2024

Chris Graham meets Ferguson and Massey Ferguson tractor enthusiast, Ray McAvoy-Kifford, to find out more about his treasured 1978 MF 590.

1978 MF 590

Ray’s 1978 MF 590 gets regular farming use but attends local shows and tractor runs as well. The front weights are made of plastic, and were 3D-printed.

The old expression about ‘tractors being in the blood’ was never more apt than when applied to Ferguson and Massey Ferguson enthusiast Ray McAvoy-Kifford, who was born on a dairy farm near Lewes, in East Sussex, where his dad was the cowman. 

Itford Farm was owned by EJ Brickell & Sons, and Ray has very fond memories of his time spent growing up and then working there and is still in touch with the surviving Brickell family members today. 

Cherished memories
“The Brickells were traditional farmers and absolutely wonderful to work for,” Ray told me. “It was an absolute privilege to both know them and work on their farm, and I have nothing but good memories from that part of my life. 

1978 MF 590

It’s understandable that Tony was wary about putting the 590 on his trailer; it’s certainly a tight fit!

“Massey Ferguson was the chosen make of tractor on the farm and, in the early days, I remember a Lambourne-cabbed MF 135 doing most of the work. But many other models – including 165, 188 and 1250 – all came and went as the years passed. I can still recall the excitement I felt when the Culverwells transporter would arrive from nearby Lewes, delivering another shiny new tractor. It was a fantastic place to grow up, and I spent many happy hours as a youngster simply standing at our garden gate and watching everything that drove up and down the lane. Tractors were certainly in my blood from an early age.

“I got my first part-time job on the farm when I was 13, and that’s when I started doing some tractor driving. There was, of course, a main tractor driver on the farm, but I was allowed to help with jobs like harrowing, rolling, fertiliser-spreading and muck-carting. I learned very much ‘on the job’ although, when I left school, I enrolled on a course at Plumpton Agricultural College. I was working on the farm full-time by that stage, but on the machinery side of the operation rather than with the cows.

“I stayed in that job until I was 24, living in a cottage that came with the position, then my life took a change in direction and I became a bus driver. My dad had made the same switch, so I simply followed his lead. That was 32 years ago, and I’m still doing that job today! It was a big gamble for me at the time, though, leaving the farm and the industry I knew so well, and losing my home at the same time.”

1978 MF 590

A very young Ray in his element with his father aboard an MF 135 back on the farm.

A Fergie arrives
“My working association with tractors ended at that point, although my interest in them never faded. However, I was living in a town house, so there was no prospect for tractor ownership, but then, in 2010, a change in circumstances enabled me to buy myself a little grey Fergie. I’d moved to Seaford and had a bit more space to play with and, initially, was able to keep the Fergie on the drive. But I soon found a local farmer who was happy for me to store the tractor in one of his barns.

“The Fergie was a runner when I bought it, and all I’ve had to do since is fit a new main seal in the bell housing (to cure an oil leak that was contaminating the clutch), replace a couple of tie rods and give it a lick of paint. That work was all done soon after I got it, and it’s been as good as gold ever since. I attended a few local shows with it, then made up a trailer so that I could begin using it to collect scrap metal. 

“I quickly became quite well known in the Seaford area, and would collect metal from wherever I could find it, then tow the loaded trailer to a scrapyard in Newhaven. That little sideline went well, and soon reached the stage where people were calling me at work about items they wanted me to collect. I even used my bus to carry a few larger items. On one occasion, I’d noticed a pile of scrap in the front garden of a house in Polegate and, as it was on my route back to the garage once my shift had ended, I stopped the double-decker outside and loaded up!”

1978 MF 590

The hydraulics have proved utterly reliable and the system is regularly hitched to Ray’s assortment of implements.

Opportunity knocks!
In 2015, Ray suffered a bought of ill health that meant he had to stop driving. “However, it wasn’t all bad news,” he explained, “as I was able to divert the redundancy payment I received to fund the purchase of a new tractor! I put an advert on the Friends of Ferguson Heritage club’s website, explaining that I was looking for an MF 500 Series tractor in Sussex. I’d worked with a 565 latterly on the farm and had very fond memories of that excellent machine, so it seemed obvious to go for something similar. 

“Amazingly, I received a reply within the hour, from a man offering a 1978 Multi-Power MF 590, although it was in Sevenoaks, Kent. I requested a few photographs although, to be honest, I was expecting it to be a bit of a dog. However, I was amazed by what I saw. It looked complete, very tidy and rust-free, so I arranged a visit for a proper look.

“The tractor was a runner, so I was able to give it a decent test, including a run up and down a nearby lane. The seller was asking for £5,000 and, to be honest, I was quite happy to pay that as it was such a complete and original machine. Then, a week or so later, a friend – Tony – and I arranged a trip to Sevenoaks to collect the 590. I used my old Land Rover Discovery to pull Tony’s twin-axle trailer that, in reality, was a converted livestock trailer. 

The tractor’s Perkins engine is so far living up to its reputation for bulletproof reliability.

“Tony was a little concerned about the trailer’s ability to cope with the weight of the tractor, but I assured him that it would be fine. Inwardly, though, I had my own doubts, although there was no other option, so off we went. Tony’s concerns intensified when he saw the size of the 590, but, as before, I brushed his fears aside and remained outwardly confident. Then, while driving the tractor up the loading ramps and onto the trailer, the deck gave way a little, and lurched to one side, distorting the framework. But it seemed to hold firm, and once I’d repositioned the tractor, we strapped it down, paid the money and set off carefully for home.”

Scary descent!
“We hadn’t travelled more than a mile or so before we found ourselves at the top of a long descent with a road junction at the bottom. About halfway down, the Discovery started to fill with smoke as the brakes began to overheat, and I realised that the load on the unbraked trailer was simply too heavy and that there was no way that we’d be able to stop at the fast-approaching junction. But, thanks to an amazing stroke of luck, the main road was clear both ways as we reached the junction, and we were able to join without further drama. It was a truly nerve-wracking moment!

“The rest of the journey – taken very slowly – passed uneventfully. I couldn’t push the Discovery any faster than 28mph without the trailer starting to fishtail horribly. So, you can imagine how relieved we were to finally spot the ‘Welcome to Seaford’ road sign; I knew that then, if the worst came to the worst, at least I’d be able to drive the tractor the rest of the way home. We stopped for some celebratory fish and chips, and while inside ordering, the man behind the counter mentioned the  nice old tractor we had. 

Ray has been impressed with the comfort of the 590’s cab. He’s re-covered the seat and fitted new interior trim.

“I explained that we’d just bought it, and said that I thought it would look even better after a good clean. The chippy owner then asked if I had a jet wash and, if not, whether I wanted one that he was about to get rid of? When I said I hadn’t got one and asked what he wanted for his, he said I was welcome to take it for nothing, which was so kind. So I left the shop with two portions of cod and chips, plus a jet washer. What’s more, I’ve still got it and it continues to work perfectly!

“Once home and with the 590 sitting on my drive, I could assess its condition properly, and remained thoroughly impressed. It was complete in every detail, although I didn’t know much about its history, other than the fact that it was supplied by a dealer in Grantham. I also discovered a weakness with the Multi-Power, as the oil pressure light was triggered once the tractor was fully warmed. I tested it on a hill with the Multi-Power in the ‘hi’ setting, and it started to roll backwards, so I knew there was an issue with the pump or clutch pack.”

Further investigations
With about 6,000 hours showing on the clock, Ray’s tractor doesn’t appear to have endured a particularly hard working life, but the Multi-power issue clearly required further investigation. “I decided to get my friend, Peter, to look into things; he used to be a fitter at Culverwells in Lewes. Over the winter months, he stripped the back end and removed the pump, which was found to be very worn. So a replacement was fitted, together with a few other bits and bobs (including a new brake on the PTO shaft). I also asked him to check the steering and, having found excessive play, he replaced the main shaft and the track rods. It’s been perfect ever since. 

All mod cons! Ray has added some accessories in his 590’s cab, including a digital speedometer, a CB radio, a CD player and a digital clock.

“I then started taking the 590 to a few shows, took my niece and nephew for an unforgettable ride around Seaford one Christmas Eve, and did a bit of work with it, too. Then, in 2018, I moved house again – this time to Battle, in East Sussex – taking my grey Fergie, a two-furrow plough, a small earth scoop, a red Weeks trailer and, of course, the MF 590, with me. To begin with, everything had to live outside on a farm at Netherfield while I searched for a yard to rent on a more permanent basis. I spent about two years searching, then found the perfect spot in nearby Ninfield. I’ve spent the past few years clearing undergrowth, levelling much of the site and building a tractor shed using recycled materials. 

“My implement collection has grown, too, as I’ve added a couple of Massey balers (one for spares that I spotted while out on a tractor road run), quite a few trailers, a Tasker fertiliser-spreader, a Howard muck-spreader and a set of Ferguson harrows. Then, a year or so later, I stumbled upon a 1967 MF 135, which I bought from a contractor friend of mine in Ringmer. It’s a Lenfield conversion that was built in Ashford and remains in great, original condition. It’s powered, of course, by a three-cylinder Perkins, so is as mechanically bulletproof as you can get. Just the sound of that engine firing up takes me straight back to those happy childhood days on the farm; such evocative memories! 

A practical classic
“Even now, 57 years on, the 135 remains an incredibly capable tractor. It really is a model that hits the ‘sweet spot’ in terms of size, performance and reliability. This one works in the summer to help with hay-making and, just the other day, I used it with my Weeks four-ton trailer to collect a couple of full loads of old roof tiles, which it handled with ease.”

A tractor enthusiast in the making. Young Mr Oaks with the 590.

Ray’s most recent acquisition is a 1980 MF 50D Industrial model that was being sold on Facebook Marketplace by a man in Hamstreet, near Ashford. 

“It was a nice little example,’ Ray explained, “and I agreed to buy it immediately. In the past, a previous owner had covered most of the ‘Industrial’ yellow with more traditional MF red and grey paint. Apart from a bit of an issue with vague steering, it’s a very straight machine and I use it quite often nowadays. It’s a bit more economical to run than the 590, but the cab isn’t nearly as comfortable. 

“Originally I’d decided to leave it as it was but then, after I’d made some repairs to the rusted floor, I decided to smarten it up with a fresh coat of paint, which I did myself. During that process I discovered that the cab roof was badly corroded, so that had to be repaired, too. Also, I stripped, cleaned, greased and oiled the entire braking system, which was working very inefficiently, but it’s all great now.”

Ray McAvoy-Kifford is building quite a Ferguson/Massey Ferguson tractor and implement collection. His 590 is a favourite.

Future plans
Ideally, Ray would like to collect a complete set of 500 Series models, but he appreciates that that’s going to be a slow process. “The machines I buy have got to be available at the right price, so finding the ideal examples takes time. Disappointingly, I missed out on the old MF 565 I used on the farm back in the day; it was sold for export about a year ago, but I only heard about it after it had gone, which was a shame. 

“I typically attend a handful of events every year, but limit myself to the ones I can drive to. Current favourites include The Spring and Autumn shows at Laughton, the Heathfield Show, the Hellingly Festival of Transport and the Tingles Trundle Road Run. Sadly, I don’t have the equipment to trailer machinery to events that are further away but, because I love driving, getting to the events under my own steam is all part of the fun for me.  

“I’m delighted that my young grandson, Oakley – who I call ‘Mr Oaks’ – is already an enthusiast, and loves spending time with me and the tractors. I often mention him in my social media posts, and he’s developing quite a following of his own. Lots of my colleagues often stop me to ask how Mr Oaks is doing!

1978 MF 590

Ray enjoying himself in the 590 taking part in this year’s Tingles Trundle Tractor Road Run.

“I only actually work on the busses one day a week now, which allows me to spend the rest of the time up at the yard building, clearing, laying hardcore, logging, working on my tractors and tackling seasonal jobs on the land around the place, as and when needed. It’s a brilliant compromise and fantastically satisfying. In many respects, I now regard the time spent driving my bus as a day off! I love the contrasts I now get. For example, the other day I was luxuriating and smartly dressed behind the wheel of my beautifully warm and comfortable bus then, the day after, I was out in a freezing cold and very muddy field, worming my boy Charlie’s sheep. Brilliant!

“I think I’m very lucky to enjoy the best of both worlds, although it’s the farming – and tractors – that remain my first loves. Being able to work the tractors is so important. I ploughed then re-seeded a local field earlier this year, which was great fun. Performing worthwhile and necessary jobs with these fine machines keeps them alive and relevant. 

“Working the land is simply in my blood, and always will be. I love the outdoor life and it’s great now to be in a position where I don’t have the pressure of making a farm pay for itself, yet can still enjoy getting out on the land on my own terms, thanks to machines such as my fantastic MF 590.”

This feature comes from the latest issue of Classic Massey & Ferguson Enthusiast, and you can get a money-saving subscription to this magazine simply by clicking HERE


Subscribe & Save today!

Subscribe to Tractor & Machinery today and pay just £3.44 an issue!