12 December 1997

Classics full of character

As time moves on, so a new generation of tractors sparks

the interest of enthusiasts. Peter Hill tracks down two

classics from the 1970s

FORDSON Majors and grey Fergies are all well and good. But for a growing band of tractor enthusiasts, models from the 1970s and 1980s now generate almost as much fascination and enthusiasm.

Particularly the Ford-based equal four-wheel drives from County, Muir-Hill and Roadless that, at one time, represented the peak of power and tractive performance for British farmers.

Many of them are still in use, and perhaps that adds to the interest, adds to the conviction that these essentially basic tractors put more performance in the hands of the operator than any mass-produced machine of the time.

That tractors are still broadly similar in layout, but differ enormously in detail, is another part of the equation. Whereas the driver of the modern machine is remote from what his charge is doing – cushioned on an air suspension seat, controlling the transmission with fingertip switch gear, and watching lights dance as electrics regulate the draft control system – the 70s tractor offers a more tactile experience.

The meaty burble of a powerful six-cylinder engine; the tug on the steering wheel as front wheels bite for grip; the satisfying clunk as the lever slots home for a well-timed gear change.

Its right that drivers working umpteen hours a day should be cocooned in as much comfort as possible, without ear drums assailed by mechanical din. But is it as much fun?

"Its just that tractors from the 1970s have so much more character than the modern machine," says William Cadbury who farms 500 mostly arable acres at Edgeworth, north-west of Cirencester, Glos. "Whats more remarkable is that they perform just as well, in some respects; you just have to put up with the noise and the lack of creature comforts."

There is certainly precious little of the latter in Mr Cadburys immaculate Duncan-cabbed Roadless 120. Bare metalwork everywhere apart from the modestly padded cab roof.

Its a distinctive looking machine, one of the last of the "real" Roadless tractors, in Mr Cadburys eye; low slung, thanks to a distinctive front axle arrangement that keeps the front end more or less level with the back, and with four big but narrow wheels enveloping a Ford 120hp six-cylinder engine driving through an all-mechanical gearbox.

Mr Cadbury bought the Roadless three years ago. Its a Sept 1973 M registered model that first saw service as an Ernest Doe demonstrator in Essex before being run on a Northants farm where it remained until its current owner bought and rebuilt it.

"The tractor worked with a heavy four-furrow reversible plough for a couple of years and was then fitted with dual wheels all round for much of its life," recalls Mr Cadbury. "The original engine seized a year or so before I bought it and was replaced with a Dover-block engine from a combine."

Mr Cadburys work included fitting a new nose cone, with the hole for the air intake used on four-cylinder Fords carefully filled in, installing new timing case seals, and fitting lids for the mudguard-mounted tool boxes.

The lower linkage arm mounts where reamed out, bushed and fitted with new pins to get everything nice and tight, and hydraulic outlets neatly repositioned in a line beneath the number plate. A new paint job and "Roadless 120" decals complete the refurbishment.

"There are still one or two little bits and pieces that need doing but otherwise its all there and largely original," notes Mr Cadbury.

Nor is it kept in cushioned comfort following its cosmetic make-over. "No, its been used with a heavy swipe and on cultivations this autumn; and it did every bit as good a job as my 120hp Fendt," Mr Cadbury enthuses.

The sight of William Cadburys pristine Roadless could be the inspiration for a restoration job on the Muir-Hill 111 that has spent its entire 24-year working life on nearby Miserden Park Estate.

Purchased from dealer Aubrey Rees of Cirencester in 1973 as principal cultivations tractor, it has since been superseded by more modern power units for field work. But for the past 15 years or so it has put in stirling service in the hands of Rolly Holtham who, with Dan Williams, operates the estate forestry department.

"When it was new, it would pull a mountain," Mr Holtham recalls. "Its still a nice old powerful tractor and I must admit Im quite attached to it."

Apart from a timely wash and brush-up for the camera, the Muir-Hill remains in original working condition which reflects both its age and its workload.

"Ive been meaning to treat myself to a new seat for some time," Mr Holtham muses. "But, really, it would be nice to take it out of service and do a thorough restoration job before it goes too far."

Main task these days for the 110hp Perkins-engined machine is hauling a timber trailer along forest tracks to stacking points. It still tackles hills with gusto, as long as gear changes are executed fast enough to keep up the momentum, and for a big four-wheel drive, the steering lock and short wheelbase produce a remarkably tight turning circle.

"The short wheelbase makes the tractor pitch a lot but its just as manoeuvrable as a more modern tractor," Rolly Holtham maintains.

Tyres that are narrow by current standards help, of course, but there is no doubting the commanding all-round view from that tall cab mounted high above the whirring mechanical components – even if getting there demands a firm grip and steady footing.n

William Cadburys Roadless 120 – a thorough rebuild has brought it to pristine condition.

William Cadbury: "These tractors simply have more character than their modern counterparts."

Rolly Holtham: "I must admit, Im quite attached to the old tractor."

Perkins-engined Muir-Hill 111 still earns its keep by hauling a timber trailer and grading forest tracks.