When City banker Tristram Sutton leaves London for his weekend hideaway in North Wales, it’s usually in the family Audi – but once there he happily throws the car keys aside in favour of the vehicle he loves driving best of all: a 1940s Ferguson tractor.
Sutton is one of many to have recently succumbed to the charms of vintage tractor ownership, which has proven itself to be the ideal way of recapturing a Darling Buds of May existence when life moved more slowly, summers were hot and languorous and the ubiquitous “little grey Fergie” was a familiar sight on Britain’s country roads.
The burgeoning interest in old tractors has seen numerous other defunct models from makers such as Marshall, David Brown, Fordson, Nuffield and Allis-Chalmers rise in value as high-earning professionals who have second homes with land snap them up for grass-cutting, log-carrying and trailer-pulling – but, most of all, for lazy, low-octane fun.
“We use our Fergie for an incredible range of tasks, most of which I invent in order to have an excuse to drive it,” says Sutton of the tractor that he bought a year ago from a local farmer who was clearing out a barn.
“Our cottage in Snowdonia has a few acres of land and the tractor gets used to collect firewood, for moving piles of stone from one place to another and for taking the family off for remote picnics. Despite its age, it is tremendously powerful and remarkably reliable. It was designed to be very low maintenance and simple to repair, but what I really like about it is its appearance – it is unrestored but has a wonderful patina of age that speaks of decades of happy use in an era when farming was the country’s backbone,” adds Sutton.
Not long ago, vintage Ferguson TE20 tractors in working order could be picked up at farm auctions for as little as £500, but now good restored examples change hands for up to £2,000 – more if they include original accessories such as ploughs and link boxes (load-carrying containers that attach to the back). Yet the Fergie is very much an entry-level machine in terms of price.
Oliver Godfrey, a specialist with Cambridge-based auction house Cheffins, which has been selling tractors and agricultural machinery for more than 70 years, says the values of rarer examples began to rise steeply about five years ago, leading to the sale of a 1958 Marshall MP6 for a record £70,000, a 1962 Doe Triple D for £61,000 and a 1953 David Brown for £43,000.
“There are now several categories of buyers – people who have weekend homes with a bit of land; people who want to take part in vintage rallies and ploughing matches; and people who are, simply, fanatical collectors,” says Godfrey.
“The first group is mainly interested in diesel-engined machines because they tend to be more reliable. They can be left for weeks on end, but they invariably start with a turn of the key when the owner comes back to them. But the market has evolved to the extent that it is not just 40-, 50- or 60-year-old tractors that are considered collectable – there is now interest in so-called “modern classics” made during the 1980s. A few years ago we sold a 1987 County ‘Long Nose’ for £66,000. It was one of just five produced.”
Godfrey warns, however, that the ultra-rare models can prove expensive to maintain and restore. “There are many companies that supply parts for the more popular tractors, but often components simply don’t exist for models that were made in small numbers, meaning that they will have to be specially made. Enthusiasts are often willing to do this, but it can be extremely costly.” There is interest, too, in truly pioneering vehicles from as far back as the early 1900s made by firms such as Ivel and Overtime.
According to Rory Day, editor of Classic Tractor magazine (which now has a circulation of 70,000 copies in the UK alone), nostalgia is undoubtedly behind the growing interest in the subject. “Most people who become interested in old tractors had some sort of involvement with them when growing up – often a tractor was the first vehicle they remember getting behind the wheel of, perhaps when they were on holiday or visiting a relative’s farm. Many enthusiasts simply keep them in the garage and take them to shows and events – it’s a very affordable way into classic vehicle ownership, as insurance is extremely cheap, there is no requirement for an MOT test and no road tax to pay.”
For some people, however, tractor ownership becomes a labour of love – as in the case of Michael Thorne, whose company is one of the largest suppliers of agricultural and industrial buildings in south-west England. He bought his first tractor 27 years ago and now has no fewer than 50, most in working order and housed in his own private museum in Devon, which he opens to the public once a year.
“The first tractor I ever drove was a very clumsy Fordson major which had to be started by hand. But then, at 15, I tried an electric-start Ferguson which was a dream in comparison. Since then, Harry Ferguson has been a great hero of mine and I have made a point of collecting only Ferguson and Massey Ferguson tractors made between 1936 and 1979,” says Thorne.
“As recently as 20 years ago there was always an old tractor to be seen abandoned in a hedge or stuck in the back of a barn – now they are coming out of the woodwork and providing a lot of people with a lot of fun.”