Tractor attraction

Last updated 13:30 01/04/2013
Southland Times photo
JOHN HAWKINS/Fairfax NZ
Mervyn Horrell with one of his prized tractors.

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Mervyn Horrell keeps saying he's got enough tractors, but they do seem to keep breeding. Photographer John Hawkins and reporter Michael Fallow catch up with the Oreti Plains sheddie.

Even a patient man has his limits, and Mervyn Horrell is a patient man. Seventy tractors, all but a few fully restored, stand testimony to that, but right now, a confounded Turner V4 diesel engine is sorely testing his equanimity.

There is a country song by Sawyer Brown that goes, "If hearts were built like John Deere tractors / There'd be happy ever afters."

Yes, but if they were built like a Turners tractor, it would be coronary carnage.

Mr Horrell's own 70-year-old heart doesn't sink at the sight of a broken tractor. Broken, he doesn't mind. Decrepit, that's a mere detail.

Mechanical eccentricities are not, necessarily, without their charm. But is it too much to ask that any tractor, deep down there in its innards, make just a bit of sense?

He gestures reproachfully to the misbehaving Turner, skulking in his otherwise cheerfully crowded, colourful, capacious shed.

Actually, he has the bones for three of them, all the same model, and a pile of extra bits and pieces has been gathering up during the past two decades. Yet hardly one blessed Turner piece will fit another, he says with undemonstrative disapproval.

It's painfully obvious that the British factory workers did a lot of freehand assembly. "They just had a portable drill and went zonk, zonk, zonk, but they never marked them off, so the bloody holes are different on every one. Even with things like exhaust manifolds, one won't bolt on to the other."

It's hardly as if they were cheap. Back in the day, these imports were quite an expensive tractor. Most people hereabouts found they didn't last all that long. Something would go bang in them and that was that - a life in broken-tractor purgatory with little future other than exasperating the likes of Mervyn Horrell.

As for John Deeres, well he recalls one local, a fanatical John Deere man, who had one lined up for his wedding day. His bride, however, declared it was the wrong colour for her bridesmaids' dresses, although a Moline would match nicely.

"It was the first argument of their marriage," Mr Horrell recalls. "She got her own way."

Back up the driveway at the house, his wife, Janet, can't really be called long-suffering, because she is sometimes a co-conspirator in his tractor projects. That said, she is innocent in the recent addition of five frankly undistinguished Fordson machines to his existing backlog.

"He reckons it's going to take until he's 108 before he gets them all done," she says, airily ."But now he has bought these Fordsons, he's going to have to live to 115."

"Oh, it will be 120 now," he breaks it to her.

There's a moment of raised-eyebrow curiosity.

"I'm getting slower," he explains.

Here's the thing. Tractor restoration is the ideal job for this retired farmer still on the land.

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Sport, fishing, golf - he has never found any of them interesting. The Oreti pub wasn't without its appeal for a while there, but then it burned down.

"So the story went around the place that the old man had to find something else to do, so he started playing with old tractors," Mr Horrell says.

Actually, he was already well steeped in the joys and challenges of restoration by then, but there's no use spoiling a good story by sticking to the facts.

His wife gets it because, as a gardener, she understands the satisfaction of burying your attention in a gratifying task.

Mr Horrell sees another upside: "At least she does know, when I come in covered in grease and stinking to high heaven, that I'm not chasing a woman around somewhere."

It's like his grandfather used to say, you could tell a genuine Horrell newborn because of the grease under the fingernails.

One of Mervyn and Janet's sons, Simon, is a heavy engineer and mechanic in Alexandra. The other, Bryce, lives next door and is more of a stockman, running the farm.

"So," says Mr Horrell, "if I sit around the house looking like I'm not very busy, I get handed a job from herself. And if I'm standing around the yard, the junior partner wants me to go and chase woolly animals."

So the shed beckons.

A tractor is a tractor is a tractor, isn't it?

Apparently not. Helping his dad shift 40 or 50 of them when the shed was being extended a few years ago, Bryce looked him in the eye: "I'd better start looking after you a bit, you old bugger. No-one else around here would know how to start any of these."

They still have grain and the neighbourhood finds it a merry sight when Horrell Sr is out there being busily democratic with the workload - hooking up a tractor to the auger, running it for about an hour until it's hot and refreshed, then trundling out with the next one.

Then there was the time Mr Horrell booked the couple on a trip to Canada. The record does show that they did visit a farm couple they had hosted years before.

So it's really just a footnote to the man-planned expedition, the bit where he missed a turn at Vancouver - "that's the trouble with driving on the wrong side of the road" - and wound up, as you do, just out of Toronto, where, to everyone's great surprise, a celebration happened to be under way of 150 years of Massey-Harris.

There is one tractor for which Janet had particular project oversight. It was a 1920 Austin owned by her grandfather. Her eye for quality control came in to play when she noticed that man of hers a-fixin' to affix something other than brass screws to it.

But they had to be brass. She demanded it. So he dutifully and wisely eschewed what he only quietly confirms were perfectly good 16-cent screws from E Hayes, and applied the right ones for $16 each.

"And that," she says, sweetly, "is why it's my tractor."

His most monumental restoration project is a Minneapolis-Moline, an American-British brute of a hybrid that proved too powerful for the needs and wants of most Brits, (65 horsepower against 22 for a Fergie), so most were exported to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

This one, Mr Horrell swears, was in about 10,000 pieces.

It had been sitting in a hayshed at Garston, probably for 30 years, bedecked in loose hay. He and a few others spent four hours scratching through the shed until they got to ground level and "damned nearly the lot that we needed."

The problem, it turned out, was that it had thrown a piston. Someone had pulled it to pieces and found it was too much work to get it going again. You get that.

Mr Horrell has a 1939 Minneapolis- Moline ZTU from Castlerock, rescued from the Oreti River. Every time it was in flood, the waters came straight down the hollow where it rested. If it had not been for the elderberry growing right up through it, the floods would have probably taken it away.

Mind you, judging from the number of shotgun scars, some bugger up that way must have thought it was edible, Mr Horrell reckons.

His own skills have been developed largely through observation.

"I'm a great believer in keeping my eyes open, my ears open and my mouth shut when someone's working."

The restorations aren't always a one- man job by any means. Simon has been roped in to lend a fairly educated hand when he's handy. And when it comes to really technical stuff, semi-retired engineer David Robertson comes helpfully into the picture.

As for the financial details of acquiring old tractors, there are three types of people. Some people think their old machines are worth $1 million, but there are plenty of other people who are quite happy to let him have their old tractors and do them up.

Then there are are the "gunnas" - the ones who were "gunna" do them up themselves, but, well . . .

There's also a great deal of good- spirited collective fondness for the machines themselves that comes into the picture.

Since we came in on a song, we should exit with one, country of course, from Rodney Atkins.

"I live out in the country

Happily ever after

I got everything I need

'Cause I got friends with tractors."

- The Southland Times

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