Sunday, July 11, 2021

Project Basket Case - Trying to Resurrect an Old Garden Tractor


1980's Turf Trac 18 hp garden tractor

Well, it started off as a desire to grow some pumpkins.  

With all of the pandemic issues that are swirling around, it has been taking its toll on the local community events that usually occur around my local area. 

One significant event (at least to me) is the local agricultural fair that is usually held this time of year. For obvious reasons, the fair is canceled this year, but to at least keep the spirit of the fair alive, the local agricultural society decided to hold a series of virtual events. 

One of those events was a competition to grow the largest pumpkin. That was something that definitely intrigued me, so I signed up, collected a few pumpkin seeds, and started growing my large pumpkin.

While it's fun to grow large gourds, the vines do take up a great deal of space in the garden. This requires a lot of tilling around the plants to keep the weeds at bay. Cultivating by hand is a bit of a chore and to be frank, I don't consider it one of my favorite things to do. 

Due to the larger than normal space that I needed to keep tilled, I figured that making some sort of tow behind a cultivator that I could pull with a small tractor would be a nice project while I was waiting for the plants to grow.

Initially, I figured that I could use my lawn tractor to pull my cultivator, but after doing some digging I realized that this would be a terrible and potentially expensive mistake. Your typical lawn tractor is designed to do only one thing, cut grass. Because of this, it is only structurally strong enough to carry the weight of the operator and itself. Likewise, the transmission of a typical lawn tractor is fairly lightly built, again since it's only designed to drive around on a lawn. 

If I was to use my lawn tractor to pull an implement that is dragging on the ground, I would quickly discover that I either that I had a tractor that was in two pieces or that I had a transmission that had given up the ghost - both not good outcomes. 

What I needed was something that was classed as a garden tractor. While they tended to look like any other lawn tractor, they had more beefed-up frames, differentials, and transmissions. They also tended to be a bit bigger and had more powerful engines and larger tires than your typical lawn tractor. 

Of course, they are a lot more expensive than your typical lawn tractor, so buying a new or even a gently used tractor was going to be a very expensive proposition. 

Looking around at the various online ads in my area for anything closer to my price range revealed tractors that were charitably referred to as restoration projects, or more commonly as "for parts only".

While I certainly wasn't going to find anything ready to go on the cheap, I was starting to warm up to the idea of perhaps trying my hand at bringing an old tractor back to life. It certainly would be a good way to learn more about small engine repair, and if I really mess it up, I could at least get some of my money back by selling the tractor for scrap metal. 

And so, it was at a local auction that I spied my project tractor. 

Turf Trac Tractor - built by MTD

The tractor was a Turf Trac 18 horse tractor that was sold by the local Co-op farm supply stores back in the early 1980s. The official brand of the tractor was Universal Co-op however the tractor was really built by MTD and was probably offered under a variety of different names and color schemes. 

A truly "vanilla" tractor, which I figured would be more or less ignored by the local tractor collectors who would likely hover around the nearby vintage John Deeres and Cub Cadets that were on offer at the auction. 

Taking a closer look at the tractor showed that it definitely had the heavier frame and differential that I was looking for. Plus it had an old-school four-speed transmission, meaning that it should be a bit more robust for pulling things than the hydrostatic transmissions that are common on today's tractors. 

Heavy duty axle

Four speed transmission

Frame detail

Frame detail

Four speed transmission

The top part of the tractor did have a good amount of surface rust on it, however, the metal underneath was still quite solid, and more importantly, the frame of the tractor was in almost pristine condition. 

The engine was an old Briggs and Stratton in-line twin-cylinder engine that was pretty common in that era. While the tractor was listed as being in unknown running condition, I was able to move the engine flywheel by hand and I could feel some compression in the engine. The transmission was able to go into gear and I could see that the drive wheel from the differential to the engine was turning when I pushed the tractor. 

The tires were basically rotten, so they certainly needed to be replaced, but I was planning to do anyway since I wanted to replace the stock turf tires with "Ag" tires anyway. 

It was definitely weathered and faded, but the bones of the tractor seemed good. So I gambled $100 and I took the old girl home. 

Once home the first thing I did was hook up a battery and gave the key a turn. 

The engine did crank over one turn, but it also was creating a loud grinding noise. While I am somewhat convinced that it was the starter motor that was making the noise, I am probably going to assume the whole motor is bad. As luck should have it - I actually have a spare motor sitting in my back shed. 

So it looks like I may be doing an engine swap next week. 

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