The Old Timer’s Tractor
By John Charles Corrigan
On August 15, 1958, my Uncle Vince purchased an Allis-Chalmers WD-45 tractor, (Serial Number: 224101), from Tucker’s Farm Equipment at Tucker’s Corners near Belleville, Ontario. The serial number confirms it was a 1956 model, which he appears to have purchased new. It was unlike my uncle to purchase new vehicles; however, his name is the only one that appears on the operator’s manual. In his book Allis-Chalmers Farm Equipment 1914-1985, Norm Swinford explained,
“A-C tractors experienced a very important year in 1957. Two new models with an all news appearance and loaded with new features were introduced; the D14 in the spring and the D17 in the fall. These tractors provided plenty of new features to talk about and demonstrate: more power, a larger diesel engine, new styling, and a better ride for the operator – just to name a few.”
I suspect farmers in the area were more interested in purchasing the new “D” models. No doubt Vince felt the WD-45 was more than capable of handling the tasks he needed it for, and because it had been sitting unsold at the dealership for two years, he likely got a very good deal on it. Vince drove his new tractor home that day, a distance of 18 km. It would have taken him well over an hour, because in high gear and at full throttle the WD-45’s top speed was only 18 kph.
The “45” as we called it, was my uncle’s second tractor – the first one being a Massey-Harris Model 22. I can actually remember climbing onto that tractor in the loft of the barn when I was about four-years-old. Vince never said much about the Massey, other than it had a top speed of 42 kph. Vince’s Uncle Frank owned the Massey-Harris dealership in Belleville and the family connection may have influenced that purchase. I got the impression that the “22” was too small and under-powered for the job. That wasn’t the case with the “45”. From that day forward Vince was an Allis man! There would be two other Allis-Chalmers tractors along the way, a 1953 WD with a front end loader that he bought at auction in 1969, and a 1977 5050 that he purchased in 1981. Eventually, he sold the “WD” to a young man who used to ride by the farm in a bus on his way to school. My brother Pat bought the 5050 from Vince’s estate.
My uncle had a 138 acre dairy farm in Stockdale, about four kilometers northwest of Frankford, Ontario. Vince was more interested in breeding purebred Holstein cattle than he was in producing milk. For his talents in this area, he was well known and highly respected. People came from all over the world to try and buy his cows. He separated his milk and sold the cream. Vince kept a few pigs and a couple of Percheron work horses. He claimed the horses were needed to pull the older equipment but we all knew that they were really his pets.
My earliest recollection of the “45” was sitting on the tool box, hanging on to the fender while my uncle used the tractor to plow, plant, spread manure, mow, rake and bale hay, or harvest crops. Vince was still using a threshing machine back then and I remember being mesmerized by all the spinning belts and wheels, all being driven by the pulley on the side of this impressive tractor. When I was in high school, I spent my summers “down on the farm” with my uncle and grandfather. Eventually, I was allowed to drive the tractor, although I was mostly confined to spreading manure and towing hay wagons.
Vince believed in doing things the old way – the way his grandfather did. He was still using a binder and stooking grain in the seventies. Pat and our cousin Denis nicknamed Vince the “Old Timer”, because of his belief that the ways of the past were better than the technology of the present. Unfortunately, his approach to farming meant a lot of hard work and equipment that was always breaking down – with one exception – the “45”. In all my summers working at the farm, I can’t remember a problem with that tractor or the “WD”. And it’s not that they were constantly fussed over; I can remember checking the engine oil in the “45” with the dipstick and finding a gray sludge-like substance in the oil pan. The only negative thing I remember about those old Allis tractors was trying to start them. You had to pull on a wire with a loop on the end. Sometimes you thought your finger would fall off before they would start – especially the “WD”! But once they did fire up, what a smooth and powerful sound they made.
In the mid-eighties Vince sold off his herd and retired from farming. Although I am sure he had offers, he never seemed interested in selling his “45”. The Old Timer passed away in May of 1996. In his will he named my cousin Maureen and I as executors to his estate. (BTW, he never asked either of us. We had worked together at a Consumer’s Distributing store and he thought we got along well.) The farm had been in our family for four generations and we didn’t want to see it sold to strangers. Fortunately, Pat and his wife Kath were interested in buying the property and working the land. They were also interested in some of the farm equipment, but not the “45”. This meant it would have to be sold to settle the estate. I knew I didn’t want that to happen, so after discussing it with my wife Donna, we decided to buy the tractor from the estate, along with its mower and plow.
Although the tractor was in rough shape, it was by no means ready for the scrap yard. There were a few wrinkles on the fenders and the radiator shroud, and the grill had a hole in it. The right front tire had a banged up rim, and three of the four tires needed to be replaced. The battery box was corroded right through in several places and the lid and side panel were missing. The tractor seat flopped from side to side, which jolted the driver. According to Pat the “45” had not started on its own in years. The only thing he could remember it being used for was to run an old saw blade with its belt pulley, and they had to bump-start it to do that. Generally speaking, it was pretty well preserved. It had been parked undercover in the machine shed since it was new and a thick, black coating of oil that had built up over the years protected it from corrosion.
I bought a new 6 volt battery and tried to start it, but it wouldn’t fire up. We decided to try to bump-start it. Pat got his tractor and hooked a chain onto the front axle; we hadn’t towed it ten feet when the “45” came back to life. It wasn’t sounding very smooth, but everything seemed to be working; everything except the lights. It was inspiration enough to get us excited about fixing her up. It would be extremely difficult to undertake such a restoration project without the help of people like Earle and Jill at Trewin’s Farm Equipment in Blackstock, Ontario. Their willingness to hunt down parts, both new and used, and Earle’s amazing knowledge of all things Allis-Chalmers was invaluable. I always learned something new when I visited Trewin’s and I can’t thank them enough for all their help.
We started slowly, doing one task at a time. The fact that the tractor was an hour and a half away from our home in Oshawa, Ontario meant that all the work had to be done on weekends and holidays. First, we got the rim fixed and replaced the two front tires. I replaced the spark plugs and the wires, then had the starter motor rebuilt. A new battery box, a set of battery cables and finally she would start up on her own. There came a point where what was needed to be done was beyond our capabilities. We sought the help of John’s Equipment Sales & Service in Frankford. With support from Earle Trewin, who located the necessary parts, they were able to replace the radiator and get the brakes working properly. When it was ready, I drove the “45” back to the farm. It ran well, and I’m sure I was just as impressed with her as Vince must have been 40 years earlier.
On December 29, 1998, we made one last trip to the farm. A few minor jobs to look after before firing up the “45” one last time that year. The restoration work stopped for the winter. There was still a lot to be done. The day will come when the bumps and wrinkles on the fenders and shroud will be gone; when the old girl rolls out of a paint shop with a new coat of Persian orange and a bold, new set of Allis-Chalmers decals. I’m only sorry the “Old Timer” won’t be there to see it.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I wrote this short story in 1998. Twenty-five years later, the “45” is in the drive shed at my rural property in Frankford. This tractor has run from time to time and I have a shed full of replacement parts to finish the restoration. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t have a shiny coat of Persian orange paint or that bold, new set of Allis-Chalmers decals.