Rebuilding Red

From my earliest memories, my father has always been an International Harvester man.  Green was not a color, at least not of tractors, often seen on the farm of my youth.  When Rebecca and I first started our farm in Montana, my father, like any good IH aficionado, was back home reading an issue of Red Power magazine when he got the idea of looking for a tractor for us.  I’m not sure of all the specifics, but I’m guessing he knew we would likely need a cultivating tractor at some point, so he found us a 1964 Farmall 140 in the classifieds.   It was not an expensive tractor, it was located in Kentucky, and he bought it sight unseen and had it shipped to Montana.  Given my father is a stickler for equipment maintenance, the listing either didn’t have a photo, or the photo must have been black and white and very small.

The tractor ran, but it was in rough shape and had obviously spent most of its life outside unprotected from the elements.  After hilling potatoes with it that first year, the hydraulic block sprung a leak and lost all its fluid.  Since the tractor now had no use of its cultivators, it served no real purpose, and was relegated a lawn ornament.  Seeing this non-functional tractor every day just sitting in the grass bothered me.  I went back and forth between selling it for scrap, or taking the time to fix it.  This debate went on for years.   When we finally moved our farm to a new location, and I had a better shop to work in, I decided that out of respect for both my father and the tractor, that I would tackle the rebuilding of ol’ Red.  The deciding factor was that, inspite of the rough condition of the tractor, the engine always started right up and ran strong.  This is what Red looked liked with the sheet metal hood pulled off and the gas tank removed.   Time had not been kind to this tractor

Still tentative with the entire idea of tackling this project, I promptly broke off the first rusty nut I tried to loosen.   I realized that this project was not going to be straightforward, and that a lot of heat and PB Blaster, as well as tricks that I had not yet learned, would be in order.   You see, I wasn’t interested in a “rattle can rebuild”, which is a term for the highly questionable tactic employed by used tractor dealers in which they take a rusty old tractor, and without even cleaning the grease off, give it a new paint job and call it good.  No, I wanted this tractor to be a working tractor that was a productive member of the farm, and my goal was to take this entire tractor apart, grind off every ounce of old paint, replace every leaky gasket and seal, and put it back together without too many pieces left over.

It was amazing where decades of tan colored Kentucky soil had caked on to this tractor.   Not to mention, I think a squirrel or pack rat had taken up residence in the clutch housing.  Shoot, I couldn’t tell if this was the nest or the remains of the actual animal!

As I started to get further and further into the deconstructing of this tractor, the more I got sucked in to the project.  It was both addicting and fascinating, and every stuck bolt I eventually got out felt like a victory.   One of the most amazing items, which is a testament to this tractors hard life, was the condition of the lug nuts holding the wheels on.

How many more hours or miles do you think this bolt had left?    Having never rebuilt a tractor, the hardest part during the initial tear down was determining if my next step was a logical one, or if I was getting way in over my head.   I think this was most in question  when I decided to split the tractor in half.

OK, maybe that’s more like one third and two thirds.  Regardless…unlike passenger vehicles, this tractor doesn’t have a frame.  The engine and transmission are literally bolted right to the axle assembly.  And If I was planning on taking this thing apart and grinding off the paint, then this had to be done.  For the record, I recognize holding a tractor up with a floor jack and wood blocks is a bit red-neck, and not OSHA approved, so don’t worry, I promptly invested in an engine hoist the next day to inject some safety into the project.  Like I said, I hadn’t done this before, and it’s hard to prepare when you don’t have a plan.  

I broke down the entire front axle and steering mechanism, grinding and repainting, replacing gaskets and broken parts as I went.

Because I was doing this piece by piece, and I didn’t have a spray booth, I bought the local Case dealer out of spray paint cans of original IH primer and Iron Gard 2150 red paint.  Once I had the front end finished, I put everything back together.   Given the engine ran great, in spite of all its leak, I didn’t need to rebuild the engine or re-sleeve the cylinders, which saved me a lot of time and effort.


New paint, new water pump, new tires.   Now for the back half.

Oh, and then there was the aforementioned hydraulic block.  Not sure who invented this bad boy, but I’m glad they are no longer common on tractors.   60….yes, 60 o-rings later, I think I got it back together properly. I will confess, some old school southern guy has a two part video on Youtube that will walk you through the process on how to rebuild a hydraulic block, in case you were wondering.

After too many hours using a hand held angle grinder with a metal brush to remove paint, I finally punted on the sheet metal fenders, gas tank and hood.   While it’s not a good idea to sandblast the actual tractor, for fear of driving sand into all the seals and other areas that don’t like friction, I could find no good reason not to bring the sheet metal to the local sandblaster for a bit of help.  Best money I ever spent!  Another trip to the tire shop for rear tires, some new rims, a radiator, and a wiring harness from Steiner Tractor, and things were coming along nicely.

While I didn’t work on this tractor all day, every day, I put at least a couple of hours in most days over the course of two and a half months to complete this project.  In the end, it turned better than I expected.  Not a trophy museum piece by any stretch, but certainly a respectable looking, fully functional farm tractor.   54 year-old farm tractor, rather.

Many thanks to Steiner Tractor, Yesterday’s Tractor Co., and M&C tire of Kalispell for the assist.  And my father, of course.   Heck, maybe someday he’ll read about this in Red Power magazine!