Willie Carson enjoys a visit to see a man with a real passion for engineering and classic International tractors.
The story of Stephen Wilson and his interest in farm mechanisation goes back a bit. “I left school and went to work for a general fabrication firm, making gates and railings and the like. Then, in 1972, I went to work as a welder for Rory Woolf. In fact, I was his first employee, making digger buckets and carrying out plant repair work.”
For those not familiar with the characters in Northern Ireland’s vintage circles, Rory has been a stalwart of the steam engine and vintage tractor scene since the early days, so it’s not surprising that Stephen developed an interest in our agricultural and mechanical heritage when the shift towards preservation began to develop, during the 1970s.
“I went down to Portlaois, in an old Commer lorry and low loader, with Rory, to collect Molly – his first steam traction engine. During those days I bought a Fordson Standard N and later I sold it and bought another Standard in Harvest Gold, which needed a full restoration.”
But Stephen didn’t buy his vintage tractor just so he could paint it and park it in the shed – he wanted to enjoy working with it. “I was always looking for something a bit bigger and more useful, so I sold the Standard N and bought an E27N Major. In the late 1970s or early ’80s I was looking for a diesel Major when I found out about a farmer from Templepatrick, called James Brown, who bought all his tractors from Savilles, the International dealer in Belfast.
In 1949, the first International Farmall M rolled off the tractor assembly line at the Wheatley Hall Road factory in Doncaster. By 1952, the range had expanded to include the diesel-engined Farmall BMD, a curious design that required the operator to start the engine on petrol and switch it over to diesel once it had reached working temperature.
This engine was later used in the BWD-6, a British-designed, diesel version of the American W-6 tractor which, in the late 1950s, was restyled and fitted with the BD-264 diesel to create the B-450. At the same time, the Fordson Power Major was setting the pace in tractor development, its uprated engine with 100mm bore and 115mm stroke producing 51.8bhp from 220cu in (3.6 litres).
The 55hp B-450 engine had a similar bore size, but the swept volume of 264cu in (4.33 litres) was much more impressive, and all those extra ‘cubes’ came from the 5.25in stroke – which provided a very different experience for the driver. The long-stroke engine produced an exceptional 200lb/ft of torque at 1,200rpm, and soon gained many admirers because of its phenomenal, ‘never say die’, lugging ability.
The specification also included live hydraulics and a differential lock, but all this wasn’t enough to catch the eye of the buyers who spent their money on the Major and the Massey Ferguson 65. They didn’t realise what they were missing.
The performance characteristics of the B-450 hadn’t gone unnoticed by Roadless Traction Ltd. of Hounslow, Middlesex, and, in 1963, the company announced the introduction of its four-wheel-drive conversion in the September issue of The Roadless News.
The International conversion was similar to the previous designs, but there were some necessary variations due to the B-450’s single casting that incorporated the transmission and final drive. With no opportunity to use the principle of the Fordson Major conversion, whereby a transfer box was inserted behind the gearbox, a special transfer box was designed to fit over an aperture in the nearside of the main transmission housing. From this gearbox a propeller shaft, incorporating universal joints and a pre-set, sintered metal, oil-immersed safety clutch, took the drive forward to the offset differential in the front axle.
Constant-velocity steering joints running in oil and housed in sealed, ball-type mountings, transmitted power to the front wheels. A combination of driven front wheels with impressive engine characteristics, a differential lock in the rear axle and near 50:50 weight distribution between front and rear axles, gave the Roadless B-450 superb traction and increased the maximum drawbar pull by 25%.
“Mr Brown had a BTD-6 crawler as well as wheeled tractors, including two McCormick International B-450s,” Stephen continued. “His two-wheel-drive model was for sale, so I went to see it, and bought it. If there were any fallen trees or blown-down branches in the locality, I was the man to call.
“I used the International and a 4½-ton Weeks trailer for carting logs and then, with the belt pulley, I used it to drive a saw bench to cut the logs into firewood. I’d made my own circular saw with a three-foot blade mounted in a frame made from two-inch pipe. When I was younger, I would split the logs with a hatchet, but now I use a home-made splitter powered by a two-cylinder Lister 30hp diesel engine and a hydraulic pump from a forklift.
“That tractor didn’t need anything more than servicing and served me well, but I decided to move it on. Before long I had bought another two-wheel-drive B-450 but, as soon as I got it, a chap turned up wanting me to sell it and, in the end, I gave in and had to look for another tractor!
“In 1985, Mr Brown’s 1967 Roadless IH B-450 was for sale, so I returned to Templepatrick and bought it in its off-farm condition, complete with a loader and a cab.” During the autumn of 1985, the rain didn’t know when to stop and, even today, farmers still talk about the extremely difficult harvest conditions that year.
Stephen’s neighbours were in the same boat as everyone else, and were struggling to dig their potato crop on some steep ground, as Stephen remembers: “They were digging with a Massey Ferguson 711 harvester. The spuds were going into bags, which had to be lifted off the field at the end of the day’s work. They were using an MF 185 and an MF 165 to cart the bags out, but the ground was so wet that they weren’t able to move.
“There were no four-wheel-drive tractors in the area at that time, so they borrowed the Roadless.” The McCormick International was more than capable of completing the job – the Roadless B-450’s four-wheel-drive abilities had been proven in difficult conditions.
In 2002, Stephen began a detailed overhaul of his McCormick International, now minus its loader, grille guard and Winsam cab. “The engine was smoking badly, so I stripped it and gave it a complete overhaul. I had the cylinders taken out to 10 thou oversize, and fitted new pistons and rings. The crank shells were replaced and I fitted a new oil pump and that sorted the bottom end. The cylinder head was also rebuilt with new guides and valves, and my own modification to sort the heater plugs. That was a big issue.
“New standard International parts were going to cost £65 per plug and I knew that Land Rover 90 pencil plugs were the right length and would only cost £9 each, but they had different threads. I had four adapters made to fit into the head, and with the correct internal thread to suit the Land Rover plugs. That modification hasn’t let me down since it was done, nearly 20 years ago.”
The International retained some features from its American roots, most notably the solidly-constructed transmission which, from clutch to PTO shaft, has given Stephen no trouble at all. “Everything on the gearbox is heavier and stronger than the Major. I do like Majors and they have a reputation for being well built, but the International is just that wee bit more solid. I didn’t even have to replace any oil seals on the half shafts or PTO, although I did decide to refurbish the brakes with new friction linings.”
Now that all the mechanical aspects of the restoration had been completed, it was time for some paint. “The original owner had been very particular about looking after his tractors, so there weren’t many dents or rusty areas to deal with. There wasn’t even a dent in the grille and the mesh behind it was perfect.
“I prepared the skid unit and painted it myself, but decided to let the professionals handle the other parts. Harry Finlay sprayed the fuel tank and the tinwork, while Willie Wilson sprayed the rims for me.”
The torque control clutch that Roadless designed into its conversion was to become a bit of an issue for Stephen’s B-450 in its new life. Its purpose was to prevent all that engine torque from causing damage to the drivetrain in tough conditions. The heavy weight of this robustly-constructed device wouldn’t have been a problem at the tractor’s intended working speeds when carrying out cultivations and off-road haulage duties, but Stephen likes to take part in local road runs and he soon began to notice the effects.
“It started to wear the splines on the Hardy Spicer joint at the transfer box output shaft. I took the original shaft off and made a replacement from a lorry drive shaft. The four-wheel-drive still engages as normal, but the drive shaft is more suitable for long road runs at constant higher speeds.”
In 2000, Stephen bought a two-wheel-drive International 634. “It had originally been used for forestry work before it went to a local farmer. He was upgrading to a four-wheel-drive 784, so I bought it in its working clothes. There were signs of head gasket trouble in the future, but it did what I needed it to do for seven or eight years before the gasket eventually failed, and it was parked up and left for a rainy day.
Two years later, Stephen saw a photo of an All-Wheel-Drive 634, produced by County Commercial Cars, in Tractor & Machinery magazine. He mentioned it to his friend, Henry, who said he knew where there was another example. Henry likes a bit of a joke, so Stephen didn’t know whether to believe him or not but, calling his bluff, arranged to go and see it later that week.
Sure enough, there it was, larger than life, parked in an even larger hedge. As soon as he saw it, Stephen knew it was going home to join the collection and, having a 281cu in (4.6-litre) version of the B-450 engine, with that same long stroke producing 66hp and 225lb/ft of torque, it would certainly be in good company.
“There was no tinwork on it at all but, thankfully, it had all been taken off and put in a shed. I did a deal for it that night and I decided not to respray it, so I straightened it into good off-farm condition. I do a wee bit of tractor pulling at local shows with it. It has the sort of low-down torque that suits the pulling.
“Stick it in four-wheel-drive, put the diff lock in and when the four wheels start to loose grip you just back off the throttle, easy, let her down to about 400rpm and she just keeps digging in. The six-cylinder Majors are all beaten when they drop down to 800rpm. They’re on the trailer and on their way home while the 634 County is still pulling!”
Stephen bought a Poclain winch for his new acquisition and refurbished it, making brackets to mount it to the 634’s back end and servicing the hydraulics. He takes great satisfaction from putting a lifetime’s experience as a fabricator and plant fitter to good use when he’s restoring and maintaining his tractors. In the meantime, the two-wheel-drive 634 with the blown head gasket, having waited patiently at the back of the yard for so long, may soon have a new life.
“I have bought a Perkins 6.354 engine for that tractor. I want to see if I can fit it under the original bonnet without having to lengthen the tinwork or the wheelbase. Making an adapter plate to mate the engine to the clutch housing should be straightforward, and I have ideas for the front of the engine.
“If I remove the fan from the water pump, then the radiator shroud won’t be needed, so I can bring the rad closer to the engine and put an electric fan between the rad and the grille. The 634 front axle support casting is bigger than it needs to be, so I intend to fabricate a new, neater bracket that will keep the wheelbase as standard. That’s the plan.”
When Stephen’s not giving the tractor pulling sled a hard time at the back of the show field, he can be seen in the working display area with his saw belted-up to the nearest tractor belt pulley. He doesn’t just go to events to make the saw blade sing; he has plenty of time to talk about the pleasures of owning a tough torque-ing, long-stroke International or two.
Tractor & Machinery would like to thank Davey Mark for allowing us to use his yard for the photography associated with this feature.
County Tractor Spares Ltd
Tel: 023 8081 4340
John Bownes Ltd
Tel: 01606 592639
Earl Shilton, Leicestershire
Tel: 01455 843955
(IH parts specialist)
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