The Third Time is the Charm
by Brent Mathson
On those rare occasions when I found the need to be in the machine shed on Mom’s farm, I would check out the little Allis resting forlornly in the corner. There was always the temptation to grab the crank and try to start it up, but knowing that the procedure would tax my arms and most likely prove to be futile, led me to ignore the temptation. For the next twenty years my little Allis was largely ignored in her corner of the shed.
One weekend my son, Van, happened to be with me on a visit to my mom’s place, and we found ourselves doing an errand for Mom in the machine shed. For some reason, the little orange tractor in the corner captured Van’s attention, and he moved in for a close inspection. After climbing onto the seat, he looked over at me. “What’s the story on the tractor?” he asked.
“Well, that tractor has quite the story,” I answered, and then began a history lesson starting from the first time that I saw Grandpa Lee working his garden with the tractor and culminating with my son perched on the tractor’s seat.
“That is quite a story,” Van said after I had finished my presentation. “Do you think I could start it and maybe take it for a spin around the field?”
I shook my head. “Nah, there’s no gas in the tank, and the engine hasn’t run for years. We could spend all day trying to get it to run and probably not succeed. Right now we’ve got more urgent matters to attend to. We should get going.”
I winced at the dejected look on Van’s face as he climbed from the seat and then remembered an offer Grandpa Lee had made to a high school kid. I made that same offer to my son. “The tractor is yours if you want it,” I said.
The smile on his face was what I had hoped it would be. “I think that I will take you up on that offer,” he replied. “Someday I will get that tractor running.”
That “someday” would be a long time in the coming. In the ensuing years Van would finish his college education and take a job with Menards, serving as a construction manager responsible for supervising the construction of new store buildings. After a couple of years of traveling around the country to help Menards expand its business, Van met and married his wife, Jessica. Not wanting to be on the road away from his wife, Van quit his job at Menards and found employment with a local electrical contracting business. Van and his wife bought a house, built a nice shop building, and started a family. With all that going on, who would have thought that Van still had a little orange tractor on his mind?
I believe the year was 2019 when Van came to me with a request for my help. I’ve got a nice heated shop building,” he began. “My company has a large trailer they said I could use. How about you and me taking a trip to Grandma’s house and bringing home the Allis tractor you said I could have?”
His proposal, though unexpected, was welcomed. My brother had recently asked me what I wanted to do with the orange tractor taking up space in the machine shed. I didn’t have an answer for him. I certainly didn’t have a need for a tractor that would take some time and money to get running. I had contemplated selling it, but then again, it had once belonged to Grandpa Lee, and that fact saddened me every time I saw it deteriorating in the corner of the shed. Van’s suggestion to haul it to his shop and get it back to running order was an answer to my dilemma.
Bright and early Saturday morning we were on the road to Mom’s house. We loaded up the eighty year old Allis Chalmers model B and hauled it to Van’s shop. Once it was rolled off the trailer and into the shop, I grabbed a tablet and began taking notes on what would be required make that tractor look and run like it had eighty years ago. The engine that hadn’t run in close to thirty years was my first concern. Even though it turned over with the crank, I anticipated that it would require a complete over-haul. The crank would probably need to be reground and new pistons, rings, and bearings would have to be bought. I was pretty sure that the cylinder liners would also have to be replaced because they were eighty years old and who ever heard of an eighty year old engine that had never had any work done on the cylinders? A complete engine rebuilding kit including cylinder liners would cost about six hundred bucks. The brakes on the tractor no longer functioned, probably due to the fact that they had never been serviced in eighty years. New brake bands would solve that problem if the old ones could be removed. The steering was very loose, so the steering gear would need some work, and the steering wheel was completely shot. Luckily, replacements were readily available. The front spindles as well as the bushings they rode in were badly worn and would need to go to a machine shop to be rebuilt. Fortunately, the rear tire rims were in useable condition, but one of the front rims would need to be replaced due to the numerous rust holes present. The rear tires were in fair condition but undersized, so Van determined that they would be replaced.
When I had previously repaired the engine, Dad had bought new tires for the tractor, but the correct size had not been in stock, so he settled for a smaller size. The tires had functioned well with the little use that they had been exposed to and were still serviceable, but Van wanted his great-grandfather’s tractor to ride on the correct tires. “I’m going to put new tires on the front also,” he declared. His determination to equip the tractor with proper tires raised the bar I had set in my mind for the tractor’s restoration to a little higher level.
With most of the expensive repair items listed on my notepad, I began to jot down the smaller repairs. The carburetor as well as the magneto would have to be disassembled and inspected. New spark plugs and wires would definitely be required but that was about all that would be needed because the electrical system was so simple. A new muffler was in order, and the manifold had a corner broken off, but I was confident that I could repair it in my shop. The clutch components couldn’t be evaluated until we split the tractor, but I was pretty sure that they were in good shape being that I had replaced all of the parts on my prior engine repair. The transmission had always performed flawlessly, and the gears still shifted smoothly, so I assumed that no work other than an inspection would be needed.
With all of the mechanical estimates in place along with a new set of tires, I guessed that Van and I were about to sink close to three thousand dollars into Grandpa’s little Allis. This total did not include any bodywork because up to this point I had not considered any bodywork. How much bodywork do you need to perform on an eighty year old tractor that probably won’t be used more than a few hours a year? As I stated previously, when Van decided that the tractor would need new tires to look proper, my restoration bar had been raised a few notches. When I realized that my grandchildren would one day be driving their great-great-grandfather’s cherished tractor, the bar was raised a whole lot. I would use all of the skills I had developed over my fifty years of automobile bodywork to make Grandpa’s little Allis something that would surprise even Grandpa Lee.
During the fall of 2019, Van officially began the reconstruction, or maybe deconstruction would be a better term, of one 1938, serial number B9047, Allis Chalmers model B tractor. All of the body panels and parts that could be removed from the main tractor frame were removed and placed on pallets. All the bolts and small parts were labeled and placed in small sandwich bags so that they would not be lost and so that they would eventually find their rightful place on the restored tractor. Van must have heard my tales of woe about missing parts when I was working on some of my rebuild projects. Every part of his tractor would be available when it was needed. His great -grandpa would have been proud of him. I asked Van to box up the manifold, magneto, and carburetor so that I could take them to my shop and work on them.
I ordered rebuild kits for both the carburetor and magneto. While I was waiting for them to arrive, I went to work on the broken manifold. Somehow a corner with one of the mounting bolt holes had broken off. I reasoned that I could repair it quite easily by brazing a proper sized nut where the missing piece had once been. Once the proper sized nut had been found and carefully brazed in place, the manifold was as good as new- or almost as good as new. I sprayed it with some black manifold paint and baked it in my wife’s oven when she wasn’t around. When I pulled it out of the oven, it was as good as new.
Repairing the carburetor turned out to be a pretty simple task compared to some of the automobile carburetors that I had rebuilt. In fact it was more comparable to rebuilding a lawnmower carburetor. 1938 carburetor technology was not very complex, and being that both the choke and throttle shafts were not worn, the rebuild involved only a thorough cleaning and installation of the new parts in the kit.
The magneto rebuild had concerned me much more than the carburetor rebuild because I had had no experience rebuilding tractor magnetos. The engine from an airplane that I was building had two magnetos very similar to the tractor magneto, but I had taken them to a magneto shop to have rebuilt, so I had learned very little from that experience. I often tell my grandkids that we learn best by doing. It was time for me to get to “doing”. Of course the first step was to watch a computer video on magneto rebuilding several times. When I understood everything that my instructor was trying to teach me, I went to my shop to put my newly acquired knowledge to the test. I guess that I passed the test because when I had everything cleaned and assembled, and when I turned the magneto shaft, a half-inch long spark jumped the gap. At this point there was nothing to do but to box up a carburetor, a magneto, and a manifold and wait for Christmas when Van would receive some special gifts.
Christmas has always been a special time for our family when we celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus. We commemorate God’s great gift to us by giving gifts to those that we love. Most of those gifts are bought in a store, wrapped up, and put under the tree. On Christmas, the kids excitedly tear open the presents and joyfully play with their toys. In time the toys are broken, or discarded, or put away in boxes, and lost to the memory. The special gift is the gift that will be cherished for years and will forever hold a memory. Those are the gifts that I like to give. One day, years from now, when I am but a memory, one of my grandkids will take their son or daughter out to the shop to see a little orange tractor. They will point to the manifold and say, “there’s a story about how your great- grandpa fixed that.”
With the winter months work slowed, or I should say came to a halt on the little Allis. The spring brought a new addition to Van’s family-a little girl to join his two sons, and as is the case with most great fathers, Van’s time and attention were focused on his family while his personal projects were neglected. Among those projects was a tractor named Allis. The months passed. The weather grew colder. The snow fell, and it was Christmas once more. This time Van received a couple of tractor spindles with bushings, a muffler, and a set of brake bands. The gifts were not a demand that he get to work immediately on a delayed project. They were meant only to be a gentle reminder that there was another girl in his life named Allis that needed some of his attention. The early months of 2021 passed and Allis wasn’t getting her attention.
I believe that I was attending the first birthday party for Van’s daughter, Claire, when I happened to go to his shop to check on his tractor. It was still there with all of its parts neatly arranged on pallets and nuts and bolts resting in packages on shelves. I didn’t frown on Van’s lack of progress on the tractor’s restoration, rather I was gladdened by the fact that he was truly a great father. I knew how disappointed he was not having the time to work on the project that he really wanted to work on. Of course he could have made the time but then his family would have suffered. Van was putting his family first which is what great fathers do. I told myself that the tractor can wait. At that moment, I realized that I too had put off projects until I could find the time to work on them. My Mustang had sat in my field for over twenty years until I retired from my teaching job and found the time to work on it. I realized that in a few years I probably wouldn’t be able to help Van complete the restoration on Allis. Maybe it was time for me to take action.
I had thought that My Mustang would be the last restoration project that I would attempt. When I had completed it, I was sure that it would be the last project because the work had truly tested my strength and endurance. I had passed the test, but it was a test that I didn’t want to take again. Then I was faced with the dilemma of my dad’s Chevy truck going to the salvage yard. If it was just a Chevy truck there would have been no dilemma. It would have gone to the salvage yard without a second thought, but it was Dad’s Chevy truck, and it got a second thought and a third thought and then a restoration. That restoration really taxed my sixty-eight year old body, but it was an experience I would never regret. Every day that I was working on that truck, I was thinking about my dad. Treasured memories that I had lost, returned to me. Often times I even caught myself talking to Dad. Luckily, only he was there to hear me or the project would never have been completed. The men in the white suits would have taken me away. In my heart I knew that if I were to start seriously working on a little orange tractor, memories of my Grandpa Lee would be with me each hour that I worked. Who knows, I might even have a little chat with Grandpa. It was time to get to work.