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Bringing Old Iron Back From the Dead

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Project Rustbucket

I have always enjoyed taking something that is broken, and making it useful again - my latest project is the result of that desire. It all started when I took my first tractor, a 1948 8N, and brought it back to its original glory and discovered I loved working on old iron. After I finished that project, I got a bout of what I can only describe as insanity. I wanted to locate the worst, rusted out, destined for the scrap yard, sorry excuse for a tractor and see if I could bring it back from the dead and make it usable once again.

I searched for several months to locate the perfect tractor for my new project. The answer came in the form of a 1954 NAA that was being sold as a parts tractor. It was rusted from several decades of sitting outside, what was left of the transmission was severely rusted due to the shifter cover being removed and was missing several parts, the bell housing had 7 gallons of rain water sitting in it, and the engine was stuck. I affectionately dubbed this tractor “Project Rustbucket” for the fact that every metal part on the tractor was seriously rusted from its exposure to the elements. Most would have parted this tractor out, or scrapped it - and I admit when I finally saw it in person I had second thoughts, but I kept reminding myself that this is a hobby and I LIKE working on old iron. I remember patting it on the corner of its rusted hood that day and telling it I may not have it in me to bring it back.

The project started off by tearing down the tractor so I could get an idea of the severity of the damage and to assess parts requirements (and potential cost). Of course, every nut and bolt was rust welded in place, and I made a huge investment in Kroil penetrating oil to loosen everything up. Believe it or not, I only snapped 2 bolts and had to cut off 6 nuts to complete the tractor. The sheet metal had some rust through in a few spots, luckily my Father-in-Law is a master with a welding machine and fixed them right up where you can barely see the repair. Continuing on with the tear down, the last big chore was the dreaded “split”. I did not have an engine lift, so it was a nervous event, but with my wonderful wife assisting it went smoother than expected, except for the discovery of about 7 gallons of rainwater sitting in the bell housing I mentioned earlier due to the drain plug being clogged up with old oil.

The first order of business was the transmission. It had been scavenged and what was left was badly rusted due to the shifter cover being left off. The transmission housing was in good shape, so I located a source who sold me the entire guts from another parted out NAA tractor. The parts were in excellent shape, and I had the housing cleaned up and a new transmission installed in no time. I replaced the frequently forgotten clutch and brake bushings in the transmission housing while I was in there. I got the transmission bearing preloaded by hand, sealed up, and set aside until needed.

The next big task I decided should be the engine. I discovered the stuck engine was due to a blown head gasket caused by a cracked head that leaked water into the #2 cylinder and rusted the rings to the cylinder wall from decades of sitting. I had to locate a replacement head, as well as a good local machine shop willing to do the required machine work needed for the rebuild on an old 1954 Ford tractor engine. I checked with all the local mechanics for suggestions as I was very picky about who I wanted working on this engine, and several of them pointed me to a well known guy who has a full machine shop behind his house and specializes in old car engines that are fairly rare. I set up a meeting with the machine shop and brought the engine by to show him (without telling him what it was). As soon as he saw the engine, he said “Oh, it’s an old Ford overhead valve engine – looks like it is off a tractor”, that sure gave me confidence right off the bat. He was a wonderful machinist who took pride in his work, paid attention to detail, and gave me more than I asked for at no extra charge – I would wish that everyone could be as lucky with their shops as I was with mine. Magna-fluxing showed the engine had no cracks, but it took three dips and two trips through the power washer to get all the silt out of the water jacket. It appeared the previous owner was refilling the radiator with pond water, but the engine came back in pristine shape. I had the machine shop remove the old sleeves and press in new ones, install the piston wrist pins, turn the crank shaft, install the new valve guides and valves, and clean up the valve seats. With the engine back from the shop and safely home, I got busy installing the engine rebuild kit back into it. I had never seen the insides of any engine, due to my first tractor already having excellent compression, so the task was a little daunting. I took my time and double checked all main and rod bearing clearances, which were perfect by the way. I rebuilt the oil pump, distributor, carburetor, and governor. I kept spinning the engine by hand as I was installing the crank shaft, bearings, pistons, front and rear main seals, and cam shaft all along the way to ensure nothing was binding, and used plenty of Lubriplate assembly grease on all moving parts. With quite a bit of help from the internet message boards, and quite a bit more book reading and research on my part though, I got the engine rebuilt and spinning smoothly. There is nothing like the satisfaction of successfully rebuilding your engine yourself. The clutch and flywheel were severely rusted due to the 7 gallons of rainwater sitting in the bell housing. I replaced the clutch and pressure plate, pilot and throw out bearings, and had the flywheel resurfaced with a new ring gear installed. I installed the newly acquired head on the engine, installed the push rods, set the valve lash, then closed the engine up and painted it on the stand. Then I rebuilt the generator and starter motor and mounted them to the freshly rebuilt engine.

Now I turned my attention to the hydraulic system. The pump was a newer piston style pump, so rebuild kits were still available. I did discover however, that two of the needles from the needle bearing on the main shaft had worked there way loose and got pulverized by the pistons inside the pump – but not before damaging the rim of the bore and seizing two of the six pistons tight. I took the pump apart, did some cleanup grinding on the lip of the bores with my trusty Dremel tool, installed the new rebuild kit, and the pump was good as new. The hydraulic lift was equally challenging. The cam follower pin was badly worn, and all the valves were stuck with gummy old hydraulic oil. I took everything apart, cleaned it up, and installed new rings on the piston as well as a new cam follower pin. My inexperience did shine at one point, causing me to mushroom out the hydraulic lever bolt in a bad attempt to remove the lift quadrant – but I lucked out and was able to grind the mushroomed part off and still have enough usable bolt left to work.

I tackled the steering box next. As my boys and I were pushing the tractor into the garage those several months ago, I felt a grinding as I turned the steering wheel. Judging from the condition of the rest of the tractor, I feared the worse. As it turned out, the steering box was full of good flowable grease, and besides the upper bearing and race, the rest of the parts were in pristine condition. This was the first pleasant surprise of the project. I also rebuilt the front axle and front hubs about this time with new spindle bushings, spindle thrust bearings, a new king pin to tighten the front end up, and new bearings, cups, and seals on the front hubs to ensure they rolled smoothly. Then I removed and installed new tie rod grease boots on the front and back ends to hold the grease in place. After a quick alignment, the steering was now perfect and turning smoothly.

The last big mechanical section was the differential and rear axles. I had to remove the entire left trumpet to tighten a lower lift arm pin that was leaking when I got the tractor, and got a great chance to inspect my ring gear and bearings, which all looked great. This was one chamber that still had good semi-clean oil still in it, so it was in good shape with the exception of cleaning up the inevitable sludge that settles to the bottom on almost all 50+ year old tractors. The brake pads were down to metal, the rear oil seals were the original ones still in place and the “FoMoCo” stamp on them, the hubs were worn smooth out and the left axle threads were almost non-existent. I replaced the rear oil seals, brake pads and springs, hubs, and a few brake retaining studs I had to drill out. I did discover too late though, that new hubs would not fix the loose hub issue I had discovered earlier. Apparently, the previous owner had run the hubs loose on the axles for so long, not only did they destroy the hubs, but the axle splines were worn past the point of usability. Off came the hubs, brakes, and bearing retainers again to put new axles in place. That did the trick, now the hubs were tight and not rubbing on the brake springs anymore. Once again the rear axle and brakes were clean, dry, and tight – ready for another 10 years or more.

Project Rustbucket roared back to life once again at 8:30 am on March 4, 2005 (coincidentally also my 40th Birthday). It started up so fast it startled me, firing up on the second revolution of the engine: I took that as a very good sign. After some minor tweaking it was running as smoothly as the day it was made. Of course there were the usual false alarms inherent with a rebuild of this scope, like the radiator level suddenly dropping (working the air out of the system), and slight knocking (low oil level). After additional help from my internet message board mechanics, I worked through these false alarms and I deemed the engine rebuilt. There is nothing like the feeling you get the first time an engine you rebuilt yourself starts up for the first time. I am sure my neighbors thought I was being attacked by the way I was whooping it up.

For the most part, this tractor was painted with Rustoleum paint due to its obvious needs. The smaller pieces were done with spray cans and the body was brush painted. I did spray the sheet metal with an air brush due to the large surface area and getting the paint uniform and smooth. You could tell I was not a professional painter though, as the paint surface ended up with a texture to it. However, this actually worked to my advantage on this project, as it blends the rust pits under the paint in well. I was not trying to do a full restore on this tractor, I would not insult the professionals who really know how to do a true restoration, I only wanted to bring it back from the dead to a usable tractor once again. I did spend some extra time, money, and effort on it as I plan to replace my 1952 8N workhorse with this tractor due to its more powerful engine and live hydraulics. I have enjoyed this project immensely, learned quite a bit about the mechanical operation and repair of these great tractors, and gained a lot of new friends along the way who have provided their invaluable assistance to the process. This hobby really is one I gain great satisfaction in, not only for bringing old iron back from the dead, but also saving it for future generations as well. I have had many people ask me what I will call the tractor, now that it is all fixed up – I tell them it will always be my Rustbucket, but now it is more a term of affection than one of fact.

Dan DeGroot, TX, entered 2005-07-31
My Email Address: Not Displayed

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Today's Featured Article - The Engine Rebuild Kit - by Curtis Von Fange. I always liked engine rebuild kits. They have all the replacement parts for overhauling an engine without going to the store to get gaskets, special measuring tools, or miscellaneous parts. They come neatly packaged, clean and tidy. But it's important not to let that packaging lull you into a false sense of security. The appearance of matching sleeves, pistons, rings, and bearings can cause frustration and agony if not properly measured and installed in a workshop environment. Following c ... [Read Article]

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