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I was working on my grandfather’s tractor over the Fourth of July weekend, and I was once again struck by the brute simplicity of the machine. The engine block and frame are the same casting. The carburetor is a leaky single-barrel updraft, feeding a thirty-pound cast-iron intake manifold. The manual transmission has no synchros, making an unholy racket every time you change gears. The front wheels are so close together that it’s basically a three-ton tricycle. The steering has about twenty degrees of play.

And I enjoy the heck out of that thing. So it was designed with a crayon to be assembled with a hammer; after over sixty years in service, it’s still running. After months of working with electronic spark and multi-point fuel-injected engines, it’s very satisfying to get back to something as solid and straightforward as that old Farmall. It’s from an age where problems were solved by throwing lots of iron at them, and has something our modern marvels lack. What do you think, folks? Fuel injection and aluminum blocks, or updraft carbs and iron intake manifolds?

(Thanks to Flickr user kretyen for this great CC-licensed photo.)

 

19 Responses to The Old-Fashioned Way

  1. Jim German says:

    And I’m sure its wonderfully fuel efficient, and puts out zero pollution! It also surelly runs smooth as butter, and is nice and quiet too, no problem sitting on it all day long!

  2. Jim Nutt says:

    There’s a lot to be said for the old brute force approach, on the other hand that tractor probably sucks gas down like nobody’s business when it’s pushed. There’s a place for both, on a small farm, reliable and easy to repair trump efficiency, whereas on the highway you want to extract as much energy from the fuel as possible. It’s not so much that modern engines are unreliable, they’re very reliable, much more so than older ones; it’s that when they break, they are very expensive to fix. Which is better depends on the available infrastructure.

  3. Chris Farley says:

    Before anyone answers, I recommend you read the new book, One Second After by William R. Forstchen. After you read it, you will agree that the answer is most definitely old fashioned updraft carbs and iron intake manifolds and anything else that isn’t run by non-hardened electronics.

    The book is about how one small nuclear warhead, with less power than the ones we dropped on Japan in WWII, set off somewhere near Ohio, high in the atmosphere would create an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) that would destroy 100% of the electronics in the US – no power, no phones, no cars with computer controlled fuel injection. Nothing electronic would survive.

    Even back up generators would be toast, so it would be an immediate and complete blackout of both lights and communications. It would set any modern country back about 200 to 300 years…except, of course, for the old-fashioned Farmall tractors that don’t have a bunch of fancy electronics and anything it does have can be easily by-passed.

    My fancy, modern, loaded Chevy Avalanche would be no better than scrap metal and that old, beat up, stripped down tractor would become the local Rolls Royce.

    The book tells the story of a small town and how it copes with the after-effects. It really scared the hell out of me. Our population would most likely shrink to about 15% of its current size. It is likely that anyone reading this comment would not survive more than a few months.

    Someone could be sneaking up on us from the Gulf of Mexico right now. Even scarier is that with just five or six of them, they could black out the entire world.

  4. Eric says:

    So… we should use massively inefficient, polluting engines at high personal and environmental cost because of the almost zero possibility of nuclear war?

  5. PeterP says:

    Fuel injection and aluminum blocks all the way.

    While I do often keep myself awake nights worrying that a rogue state will somehow set up a rocket gantry in Ohio and launch a nuclear missile higher than the orbit of the ISS with nobody noticing, I console myself with driving a lightweight, efficient, powerful car.

    In fact, It might be a fun project to convert the tractor to EFI using Megasquirt and a TBI setup. ;-)

  6. MattW says:

    The comment about the block and frame brought to mind a picture that is one of my books on locomotives. I can’t find the picture via google images, but some locomotives were built with the cylinder, boiler saddle, and frame as a single casting. This is one of them.

    http://www.railarchive.net/randomsteam/cnw3035.htm

    That would be a big casting.

    Also, EMP effects are consistently overblown by wierd science types and the paranoid claiming you can end the world by way of fragile electronics. Skepticism in the face of no evidence will be your friend here.

    MW

  7. Anonymous says:

    Your post reminds me of my first car that was a 1981 Plymouth Horizon I received in 2004. No fuel injection although there was a label on something that said “Electronically Controlled Fuel System” which I think was put on there for comic relief, or maybe electronic in 1981 had a different definition.

    Anyway the 2.2L 4cyl engine had a Distributor, 3 Pulleys for the timing belt (Crank, Cam, and Intermediate) and pretty much everything was adjustable with hand tools. What i would give to have that car as a backup to my heavily computerized 2001 Sedan is well, more than I have.

  8. I’m not even going to bother showing you the math about how what Chris Farley says is impossible. I’ll just say that the power of electromagnetic waves decrease as the square of the distance and let you do the math. Maybe on a very local scale you can blow out some electronics , but one bomb taking out the entire US is hogwash.

    There is a source that is more likely possibility: A Coronal Mass Ejection. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences put out a report in January that if a coronal mass ejection hit the earths magnetic field it would seriously damage the power grid.

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20127001.300-space-storm-alert-90-seconds-from-catastrophe.html

    Would your Chevy be affected by this? It’s hard to say.

  9. Geoff K. says:

    It sounds to me like a coronal mass ejection is just what this world needs at the moment. Talk about back to basics. Sure, it would put me out of a job (I’m a computer geek) but I’ve been dreaming of such things for years now, and the thought of finding that one big plug and pulling it looks good to me on lots of levels.

    We could all sure use a dose of experiencing how most of the world actually does live, with very few modern conveniences, and WAY more simply than a lot of us who read this blog and depend on the electronics that could be taken down by such an event.

    Some think it sounds like a threat, but I say it sounds like heaven, once we get past the shock of the initial event and actually figure out how to live more simply.

  10. Lex Dodson says:

    Geoff, if there’s one big plug that could shut down certain aspects of modern tech, I’d be racing you to pull the plug. Of course, then I might be out of the job. ;)

  11. MattC says:

    I think we are getting off course here. The farm tractor was designed for years and years of hard labor. The engine was designed for easy repairs on the farm. Remember, farmers then and now are usually self-reliant sorts. Yes, it is inefficient compared to a modern ECU, fuel injected engine. But for its intended, low speed grunt work, it is an ideal setup.

  12. Matt K says:

    I have to agree, I love old Farmall and IH tractors… Sometimes you just need something to work. If it’s harvest time and your tractor breaks down what are you going to do? Load it up take it in to town and have the dealer hook it up to his computer and tell you the idle air valve is bad? “I’ll order it today” He says, “have you back working first part of next week”? No, you just want it to work. A set of points, a 5 gallon bucket of hydraulic fluid and a carb rebuild kit, is all you’ll ever need.

    As far as emmissions go, Id be willing to beleive that all the push mowers and two-stroke string trimmers put out more pollution than all of the old tractors in the world. Especially considereing that many as far back as the 30′s were runnign propane, many more were diesel (whose exhaust does not contribute to the greenhouse effect as much as gas).

  13. Cameron Watt says:

    I wonder about the low-grade tone of contempt for newer equipment I’m hearing in some of these posts…Flame away! I can take a little heat.

    I’ll leave the EMP talk for the savants and paranoiacs…I’m just a dumb welder ;)

    Mr Matt K: Your idle air valve scenario sounds like a dealer support issue rather than a technological one. I’m sure this has been happening for as long as there have been dealerships.

    In my opinion the most immediate trade-off between old vs new equipment is the buy-in vs the operating costs.

    A perfect example is an old Hobart welder of mine. It was made sometime around 1960 and is driven by a Wisconsin gas engine of the same vintage; a simple, beautiful, reliable machine.

    It’s a good engine and a great welder that you could find for a few hundred dollars. A new engine-drivin welder with the same capacity and duty cycle that would weld as smoothly as my old beater would cost about $4K in my area; a perfect example of how differences for buy-in costs can be considerable.

    As for reliability: An old piece of equipment can be a can of worms; even after you whip it into shape; the cost of reconditioning an old machine can be considerable. On the other hand a new, quality piece of equipment shouldn’t need much more than fuel and oil for quite some time.

    Downtime is a fact of life; you have to ask youself how much money you’re willing to spend to avoid UNSCHEDULED downtime.

    Of course the matter of efficiency rears its ugly head. The less you use your equipment, the less this is an issue. If you run my old welder a couple hours a week, then the extra operating cost associated with the older engine is insignificant and your cash-flow isn’t hurt by the outlay for a new machine. If, however, that machine is running all day and every day then the fuel savings can offset the cost of the newer machine in as little as a few months….and if it’s running that often then you can’t afford not to buy new.

    Examine your own situation and do the analysis!

  14. MeasureOnceCutTwice says:

    I say both! When you want to enjoy life, relish the simple. When you need to get a huge amount of work done quickly & efficiently, use the best technology you can – once work is done, then enjoy the simple stuff again.

    I got as much pleasure out of racing in a high tech car on the track as I did loafing around back roads in an ancient pickup truck. Each has their place.

    (One last jab – in spite of the harsh use of the sports car, I still had to spend more time maintaining the old truck.)

  15. Michael says:

    Some of the best times I had visiting my grand parents farm in Kansas was playing on the tractor. My granddad would take us out to a fallow field and lets us go wild, though we did have to come in every few hours to grease its nipples.

    I’d love to have one today. you could run over and flatten a prius, then rotate the seat around and use the backhoe to bury the thing.

  16. Mike lee says:

    I will take a tractor with a booth, radio, gps, cruise control and air conditioning any day. Working on technology is great. All you need is a computer.

  17. Eric says:

    My granddad would take us out to a fallow field and lets us go wild, though we did have to come in every few hours to grease its nipples.

    …and that’s why we never were allowed to visit Granddad unsupervised ever again.

  18. Larry says:

    Who the heck “shifts gears” on a vintage tractor? You select the gear for the job and just start out in that gear! They have enough torque to start from dead stand still even “hi” or “road gear”. They don’t need no stinking synchro!

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