Chris Graham meets Peter Milner whose interest in Fordson tractors from the 1950s can best be described as a Major one!
I meet all sorts of tractor enthusiasts in this job, some with large, varied collections and others with just a single, cherished machine. But I think Peter Milner is unique in that his tractor collection includes three, 70-year-old Fordson Majors, all of which he still uses regularly as part of his working life.
Peter who, 25 years ago, managed to buy back the farmhouse he grew up in, plus a 25-acre package of land around it, now runs an interesting operation with his wife, Helen, that includes a fencing business, livery stables and three holiday cottages. While he spends much of every week out and about quoting for and erecting all sorts of fencing, his weekends are fully occupied at home, which is where his beloved Majors earn their keep.
But, like so many others in the movement today, Peter has his family to thank for his tractor passion. “I grew up on a farm and we always had Fordsons working there,” he told me. “My father told me lots of stories about the Standard Ns and E27Ns they used to use and then, by the time I was old enough to start taking a boyhood interest, it was E1A Majors that were doing all the work around the place.
“By that stage, though, they were all pretty long in the tooth. The work they did was certainly hard, and they were kept going by the sort of ‘make do and mend’ attitude that was so typical among farmers in those days. To be honest, I don’t remember much maintenance being carried out, but the tractors just kept going anyway. Repairs were simply made when absolutely necessary. My uncle had been to agricultural college, and was quite mechanically-minded but, despite that, there was never much money spare to invest in routine servicing.”
Peter continued: “I suppose we should all be grateful for how massively over-engineered tractors from that era were. Their ability to withstand mechanical neglect was truly impressive. Sadly, the last remaining Super Major was disposed of at the farm sale in 1981, after my grandfather had died. Everything went then; the house, the land and all the equipment.”
But, evidently, the seeds had been sewn, and Peter’s interest in tractors – and the Fordson Major, in particular – grew steadily. “I’ve always had a tremendous affection for the Major,” he explained. “It’s a model that dominates my earliest memories and I’ve had a close affection for it ever since. I’ve owned a number over the years, going right back to the days when we ran a smallholding producing eggs, at Cranswick, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, during the late 1980s. In fact, a number of them came and went during that period and then, in the late 1990s, I managed to move back to the family farm, buying the by then dilapidated remains of the house, some run-down outbuildings and a bit of land around it. It was then that my involvement with the Majors started to get a bit more serious.”
Presented with a range of fields, verges and hedgerows to manage, it was obvious to Peter that a Fordson Major would provide an ideal and cost-effective mechanical helper. “The first of the trio I now have arrived about 20 years ago,” he recalls. “It’s a 1955 Diesel Major which I found thanks to a friend. It was described as being a good runner, and had apparently been restored but, judging by the photographs, I could tell that it was now in pretty rough condition. Nevertheless, I took the plunge, bought it and got straight on with sorting out the most immediate issues. All I wanted was to create a tractor that looked reasonable and would provide a reliable workhorse for the farm.
So I spent a bit of time and money fitting a new nosecone, a pair of new mudguards, servicing the steering and overhauling the brakes, then began working it. But it was blowing oil out of the exhaust and I couldn’t stop that, so knew that something more fundamental was required.”
“My mechanical expertise doesn’t really extend to a full engine renovation, so I entrusted that work to a professional. The initial investigation revealed that oil was being pushed up past one of the pistons so, given that new pistons and liners would be needed, I decided to commit to a complete rebuild. I also decided that the gearbox – which was whining noticeably – would benefit from the same treatment. It was fitted with new bearings and seals, as were the half-shafts. In addition, the tractor has had a new clutch, a new set of tyres and a replacement diaphragm in the injector pump.
“From what I can gather, the tractor lead a relatively easy working life, spending much of its time powering a corn drier and, as a result, the rear linkage remains in decent condition. As far as the previous restoration is concerned, I don’t really think this amounted to much more than a rather poor, hand-applied paint job. That’s now flaking off in places, so is something that I’ll have to deal with in due course. I’ve probably only put a couple of hundred hours onto it since I bought it, mostly harrowing and spraying, so I’m happy to report that its easy life continues!”
The next Major that Peter bought arrived a year or two later and was restored and then sold, but getting rid of that one is a decision that he regrets to this day. However, it was bought by a friend, has been used for splitting and cutting logs since, and Peter is quietly confident that he’ll get the opportunity to buy it back in due course.
The second of the three Majors featured here arrived much more recently; about three years ago. It was an eBay purchase and Peter bought it because he was after a tractor he could use on the farm for towing the rubbish trailer. “It’s a 1954 Diesel Major and, not only did it seem to fit the bill in the ad, it was also local to me here in the East Riding. Despite being outwardly tatty, it was described as being an excellent runner so I was confident that, after a bit of tidying-up, it would suit me well.”
Come in No. 2!
“As before, I took a bit of a gamble with this one as it was an unknown quantity for which I paid £1,600. But it started easily, ran smoothly and drove well enough around the field during my pre-purchase inspection, so I was happy to hand over the cash.
“There were, of course, plenty of jobs to be done. The steering was terrible, so I tackled that first, reconditioning the steering box and replacing joints and bearings wherever necessary. Then I stripped and refurbished the brakes, after which I turned my attention to the tinwork. The wings were badly dented and corroded, so I bought new replacements which fitted well. The original nosecone was in a poor condition, too, but the new replacement I got was much more of a struggle to fit. Getting good alignment with the original bonnet was very difficult, and it’s still not perfect today, although I’m happy enough with it.
“Given that I’d done quite a bit of work on this tractor, I then opted to have it professionally painted. Luckily there’s a man with a spray shop in the next village, so I was able to do the prep work, then drop the parts off in batches for painting. But the painter came to me to spray the skid unit, and everything was done in modern, two-pack paint. The wheels were in reasonable condition, although they are the later design so, strictly speaking, not right for the tractor’s age. They were shot-blasted and then powder-coated.
I’m certainly not too precious about the overall finish of the tractor. I like it to look smart but, at the same time, I think a few imperfections here and there are perfectly acceptable for what’s an all-but 70-year-old working machine. All my tractors need to work for their keep, so there’s no point in stressing about keeping the fully-restored one in absolutely pristine condition. I know that the cylinder head needs re-tightening now, following the engine rebuild, and I’ve spotted a slight leak from the PTO housing that also needs to be dealt with.”
Another new arrival
The third of Peter’s Fordson Majors – a 1959 Power Major – arrived last year, simply because he felt like buying it. “If I’m honest,” he said, “I don’t really need three tractors for what I do here, but I just love having them and find any excuse to use them whenever I can. The other day I was out top-dressing in the back field with one of them, and thinking to myself that I could quite happily spend my retirement doing jobs like that; pure pleasure!”
This tractor was another internet purchase, and Peter was attracted by its original, unrestored appearance. “I phoned the seller, who was based in Warrington, Cheshire, and he seemed quite genuine. He claimed that the tractor had only run for 2,000 hours from new, although there’s nothing to officially verify that. However, the engine does run beautifully, which adds some weight to the claim. In addition, the gearbox is extremely quiet and there’s minimal wear showing on the rear linkage, so I suppose it could be true.
“I’ve only used it a bit since it arrived and, obviously, it needs a bit of work. I think that the engine will probably need to come out at some stage, as the crank seals need to be replaced and I can tell that a new clutch will be required soon, too. Overall, though, I’m delighted with it. Other niggling issues that I’ve discovered include a rear axle with lots of water mixed with the oil. I know this is quite common on Majors that have been uncovered and outside for many years, and that the rear end was typically ignored by owners back in the day. In their defence, though, the rear axle and the gearbox hold 13 gallons of oil, so changing that fluid is an expensive business.”
Unlike many enthusiasts, Peter’s interest doesn’t extend to other Fordson or Ford tractors; he truly is a one-model man. “None of the other models – either older or newer – do much for me,” he explained, “It really is the Major that ticks all the boxes. I’ve used plenty of newer machines over the years, but never really took to them. For example, I worked with a Ford 4000 (with a Quicke front loader) for a couple of years, and it wasn’t a tractor that made any kind of lasting impression on me. It didn’t make the same sound or have the same inherent solidity as the Major. I found it rattly and tinny by comparison!
I also went bailing with a TW-15 for a couple of seasons, but the engine on that one went porous and I was instructed to refill it with water two or three times a day. It was like driving a steam train down the road, and I remember that other drivers would flash me and point at the engine as they passed. Then, one day, I’d just turned off a main road when I got a whiff of burning oil and, before I could react, the engine started clattering terribly. The big ends had gone and that was that. I remember somebody once telling me that the Fordson Major was the last genuinely good tractor that Ford ever built and, all things considered, I think there’s quite a lot of truth to that.”
Of course, one of the beauties of the Fordson Major is that, apart from the New Performance Super Major version, it’s not a model that’s seen a dramatic rise in values. The ‘ordinary’ examples remain available at affordable prices, especially if you buy unrestored examples, as Peter does.
Labour of love
Of course, as Peter is quick to point out, you don’t restore Fordson Majors to make money. “Going through a tractor like this inevitably costs you more than you’re expecting and, in many ways, it’s best not to add up the total cost once the work is finished,” he explained with a wry smile. “The one here that’s been fully restored is probably worth about half of what it cost me to buy it and do all the work. So this type of project really has to be a labour of love; something you undertake because you have a passion for the machine, not because you want to see a profit at the end of the process.
“Lots of people find this out the hard way, which is one of the reasons why you have to be careful buying examples that have already been restored. Peoples’ interpretation of ‘restored’ can vary enormously. The first of my trio here, that I bought 20 years ago, was sold to me as a restored tractor but, in effect, all it had had was a badly-applied lick of paint. And that sort of thing still goes on today, so it’s very much a case of buyer beware. That’s why I think that, in many respects, it’s better to buy a tractor that’s unrestored, where everything’s on view, and the previous owner hasn’t done their best to disguise any shortfalls.
“The thing I like most about the Fordson Major is that it’s just such a usable tractor. I’m a great believer in working these machines as their designers intended. I don’t have any issue with the power output, and find it perfectly adequate for my needs. I was sub-soiling the other day with one of mine, and it was losing traction before running out of power. Too many people wrap their tractors in cotton wool these days, which I think is such a shame.
I’m really like a kid in a toyshop when I’m out using my Majors, and that pleasure shows no sign of abating. I still get the same thrill from working with one as I did when I got the first one all those years ago; they are simply amazing tractors!”
This feature comes from the latest issue of Ford & Fordson Tractors, and you can get a money-saving subscription to this magazine simply by clicking HERE