Gas characters

Do you covet a Ferguson 35 copper belly? Dream of driving a Porsche Allgaier? Welcome to the world of vintage tractors


Some people spend their honeymoon visiting vintage tractor shows abroad. Others long for their holidays so they can escape to the shed to strip the engine of their latest pet project. They talk about their tractors like they are human – most tractors appear to be female – and bemoan having to sell “her” to pay for another purchase. They rhapsodise about the smell of engine oil more passionately than wine buffs talk about the nose of a good vintage. Some have even been taken to their final resting place by their beloved tractor instead of a hearse.

Yes, vintage tractor enthusiasts take their hobby very seriously indeed. One man has flown in from Dubai to attend tomorrow’s vintage day at Durrow, Co Laois. “He has a few tractors to exhibit and he never misses the show,” explains Austin Ryan, one of the organisers of the Durrow Vintage Vehicle Show. “The vintage movement is a very big one.”

Some 800 exhibitors will attend tomorrow’s event, and up to 3,000 spectators are expected. But the Durrow show is just one of dozens of vintage days in the calendar.

A world record was achieved in Cooley, Co Louth in 2007 when 4,572 working vintage tractors were assembled, which gives an idea of the number of people involved. For some, it’s a return to childhood as they set out to find the model of tractor their father used, or the tractor they learned to drive on.

“You see that a lot,” says Jim Fogarty, chairman of the Irish Vintage Engine and Tractor Association.

“Everyone has some roots in rural Ireland, and vintage machinery takes them back to their youth. They remember what it was like learning to drive on a certain tractor and they want to go back to that.”

His association has 3,500 members and the Irish Vintage Society has slightly more. Charities benefit from the hundreds of vintage events and tractor runs held around the country.

John Taylor of the Irish Vintage Society estimates that the society has raised more than €1 million for various charities. “It’s not something that’s often recognised, but it should be,” he says.

While the recession has affected spending on machinery, Fogarty says vintage enthusiasts are keeping the economy going in rural Ireland. “One machinery supplier told me he would have to close his doors if it wasn’t for the vintage people buying parts. But unfortunately the Government doesn’t see it that way.”

He’d like to see the Government giving special recognition to the vintage sector so that it would be exempt from tests and charges levied on commercial machinery. He knows of one case where a man who owns a 1916 pick-up truck was told he would have to have it tested in the same way a commercial truck would be tested. “If you parked that outside a test centre they wouldn’t know what to do with it,” he says. “If they keep that up, it will kill the sector.”

But with people happy to spend years looking for the right door handle for their tractor, it sounds like the vintage enthusiasts aren’t shutting up shop any time soon.

Me and my tractors
Some women buy their husbands aftershave for their birthdays. Others opt for shirts. Joan Goulden bought her husband George a Porsche for his 60th birthday. A Porsche Allgaier (AP 17) tractor to be precise. Not many people know that Prof Ferdinand Porsche had a strong history in tractors. The birthday present was a rare one as that particular model was only produced for about three years. “We’ve never seen one like it on our travels,” says Goulden. “It was a surprise tractor and I told him he wouldn’t be getting one of them every year.”

Goulden, who works as a supervisor in a hospital, and her husband, a farmer from Coolaney, Co Sligo, share a passion for vintage machinery and cars. “You buy one, and another, and another, and after that you lose count,” she says.

So what explains the fascination? “It’s the look of them, really. And it’s about protecting something that is part of the heritage of this country.”

It’s definitely not a money-making exercise. “No, a lot of people spend more money on tractors than they are worth.”

She says it is a very time-consuming hobby but it brings great satisfaction. “It’s nice to see something that once was under the hedge and now has been turned inside out and put back together almost better than the day it was made. And as my husband says, it’s far better than a night in the pub.” Her husband is adept at restoring tractors and cars, “but I have no problem getting my hands dirty. It wouldn’t cost me a thought,” she says. “We’re definitely hooked at this stage.”

A Claas of its own
John O’Neill is struggling. He has been asked to name his favourite piece of vintage machinery but can’t. It’s like asking a parent to point to their favourite child. “I enjoy them all,” he says finally. He has several tractors as well as Ford Model T pick-up trucks and farm implements such as threshers and binders. He also has the first Claas combine harvester that was imported to Ireland in 1950. “Last year I finished restoring it to its former glory. Combines have come on in leaps and bounds since but it’s still a good machine.”

Would he sell it if he was offered a handsome sum? He doesn’t hesitate. “No, I wouldn’t. To tell the truth, you get attached to them after spending so much time working on them.”

O’Neill runs an engineering company in Ballinadee, Bandon, and says his love of machinery has given him a living and reared his family. His heroes are inventors such as Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson and he will never forget refurbishing his first tractor, a Ferguson 20, in his late 30s.

“There’s a certain satisfaction in getting an old machine and restoring it and then taking it out to the field and getting it working again.” He enjoys the social aspect, too, as friends gather round to watch the machine being put through its paces.

“You meet a lot of people throughout Ireland and other countries. People help out each other if they have a certain part that they are looking for, or know where it can be got,” he says. “Why the fascination? I don’t know. It must be in our blood.”

Tea, jam and tractor oil
Anne Berrill says vintage tractors take her back to a slower, gentler world when people had time to look around them. “There is something definitely in the smell of the TVO [tractor vaporising oil] and diesel that really brings back childhood memories. It brings you back to being out in the fields at the hay as a youngster. It reminds you of the tea coming out to the field in the gallon cans, the homemade soda bread and the blackcurrant jam.”

It’s hard to know who is the biggest vintage enthusiast – Berrill or her partner, Bartle Browne. “Bartle has about 15 tractors. He buys them and I have the pleasure and the fun of driving them,” she says. “My favourite one is a Ferguson 35 copper belly tractor, the grey one.”

Last August she drove a 60-year-old Ferguson 20 TVO around the Ring of Kerry as part of a charity fund-raising drive. “It went around like a bird, very, very sweetly. We’d have gone at 14 miles an hour at the very most.”

In September, she and some friends are heading to the Great Dorset Steam Fair. “It’s the highlight of the year. It’s our Electric Picnic and Slane and everything rolled in together. You couldn’t miss it.”

Digging up a David Brown
Cecil Jackson from Ballycastle, Co Mayo, loves vintage tractors so much he dug up one that had been buried 10 years earlier. The owner of the derelict 1955 David Brown tractor had promised it to him some years earlier in return for a favour, but when he didn’t collect it, the tractor was buried deep in a bog.

“But then I began wondering what it would be like to dig it up,” says Jackson. The digger was commissioned and after some time the tractor was located. “It looked terribly bad and was covered in dirt. But I got at it and I got it going, bit by bit. I didn’t take any of the dirt off it, though. I had it threshing oats and I brought it to the Riverstown Folk Park in Sligo where it was put on display. You wouldn’t believe the interest in it. People say no one would look at it if you cleaned it up and painted it.”

He has also restored a tractor his brother bought when Cecil was10. He says a love of vintage tractors is like an incurable disease. “You never get rid of it. I think I have about 11 or 12 tractors. My wife Mary says if any more come, she’s leaving. And she’s been with me for 40 years.”

Durrow Vintage Club’s 11th Annual Vintage Vehicle Show and Autojumble, Durrow, Co Laois Tomorrow €5 Children under 12 free. For more info contact Austin Ryan at 086-8860598