21 December 2001

Its all about anticipating vintage tastes

Few people would buy a tractor without even looking at it,

let alone without taking a test drive. But the vintage

machinery market is unusual in its operation, where sought-

after tractors can change hands more frequently than the

arrival of a tax demand. Geoff Ashcroft reports

IF VINTAGE machinery trader Robert Fearnley could call upon the magical abilities of Harry Potter, it would be to establish what vintage tractors might be in vogue each year.

"Its quite a fickle market," explains the Norfolk-based vintage machinery trader, who runs his business, Robert Fearnley Tractors, from Manor Farm, Denton near Harleston.

"Knowing what will be the next sought-after classic tractor or highly prized vintage find is an unknown quantity when working in this industry," he says. "There is no rhyme nor reason over demand and second-hand values."

"Early John Deeres were much sought-after a couple of years back, but theyre not so popular at the moment because interest has moved around to other types of tractor," he says.

"Some tractors will be collectible from an early stage – long before they become rare – while some will simply enjoy classic status because of the impact and contribution they made to farming," he adds.

Mr Fearnley cites one of his latest purchases, an Australian-built Chamberlain Super Ninety powered by a GM two-stroke, three-cylinder diesel engine, as an example of a tractor that has become almost fashionable to collect.

"Theyre quite unusual on this side of the world," he says. "And the sound of that two-stroke engine is addictive." But getting hold of such a tractor is not easy – he reckons some countries are making it harder to export older tractors for fear of losing too much of their heritage.

Mr Fearnleys career in buying and selling vintage tractors was borne out of a fascination for older equipment.

"I grew up with heavily engineered tractors that father used in his contracting business and started to buy a few older tractors for my own interest, just out of appreciation for the way they were built," he says. "And the older tractors were the only ones I could afford. It was very much a hobby that eventually grew into a business."

He adds that owning vintage tractors neednt cost the earth.

"It can be a relatively cheap hobby to get started in, as £400 could buy you something to work on," he adds. "And you can spend as much or as little as you like on tidying them up or carrying out a full restoration."

Mr Fearnleys first purchase was a 1952 County Crawler. Since then, hundreds of tractors have passed through his hands.

"Ive bought and sold about 100 tractors this year," he says. "A few have remained with farmers, but most go to collectors, others to vintage enthusiasts and some have even been sold to folk looking for a better investment than a savings account."

Mr Fearnley rarely visits auctions to buy his vintage tractors. Indeed, he seldom looks at what he intends to buy, too. Instead, he chooses to use the internet to view classified ad sales from around the world and he has established contacts in Canada, America, South Africa, Australia and Europe. Which means those with something to sell often know where to find Fearnley Tractors.

"Canadian tractors are a fairly safe bet because the short growing season and dry climate helps to preserve the condition of equipment," he says. "While South African-sourced kit often comes from a tough working life where 15,000 hours of use is not uncommon."

Needless to say, warranty issues are not up for negotiation, as most tractors are bought for collection and might only be required to carry out the occasional road run or attend vintage rallies.

"You can buy and sell some tractors because of what they are, which doesnt rely on whether or not they start first time, or what condition they are in. You couldnt expect these tractors to turn a wheel reliably every day of the week.

"Most of my business is conducted over the telephone," he explains. "I know what Im looking for and people in this market are very honest – usually because many deals are done with collectors too, looking to swap some tractors from their collections. But with more unusual tractors, the seller might send photos by email so I can get a better idea of condition."

The biggest costs he faces, are those involved in shipping tractors home. "I own quite a few tractors scattered throughout the world, but cant afford to get them home profitably unless I buy enough to fill a container," he says.

But before you rush out and scour the back of the barn or scythe your way through those overgrown hedgerows in search of that golden nugget, Mr Fearnley offers a sobering comment.

"Those days of finding something rare hiding in a barn, are just about over," he adds. "Those tractors have all been found." &#42

From hobby to business: Robert Fearnleys vintage tractor operation was borne out of a fascination for older, heavily engineered equipment.

Chamberlain Super Ninety, built in Australia back in the mid-1960s, comes with GM three-cylinder, two-stroke diesel power.

ItGeoffAwaiting collection by their new owners are these 1920s vintage paraffin-engined Case 15-27, David Brown 50D and 60hp