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A new look at old tractors

At the 2013 edition of Agritechnica (the massive machinery show) in Germany, there was a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the diesel engine. Of course Rudolph Diesel, inventor of the diesel engine, hailed from that part of the world, so it isn’t surprising that country would honour his invention. But the intent behind the celebration, according to show staff, was really to look back at how agricultural machinery has evolved over the past century.

As part of that theme, the show also had a special pavilion dedicated to vintage farm equipment, with a German tractor collector club providing the machines on display. There were some collectors there as well talk about their classic machines. It was a place any machinery guy would love to spend hours.

I found it particularly interesting, because classic European machinery is, well, different. Every Canadian farmer has seen umpteen examples of restored Minneapolis-Moline Us and Zs, Massey Harris 55s, John Deere Rs, etc. Don’t get me wrong. I still find time to wander through classic machinery exhibits at Canadian and U.S shows and admire those tractors. If you can appreciate industrial design, they really are things of beauty.

In Europe, however, the wars played a big part in farm machinery evolution. Extreme hardship and lack of money to invest in equipment meant many farm tractors also became the only vehicle on the farm, so companies designed hybrids. For example, the Mercedes Benz Unimog could plow fields, haul produce to market and get the family to church on Sunday morning.

I don’t recall how a conversation at an entirely different event last September made its way around to a discussion of the evolution of European farm equipment, but while I sat with a group of farm machinery writers from Finland and Ireland, it did. We were enjoying some German beer at the end of the day after watching machinery demonstrations in a field in Northern Germany.

Justin Roberts, a writer who now lives in Ireland, mentioned he had been spending some time in Finland doing research for his book on the development of tractor manufacturing in the Scandinavian countries.

Now, I have to admit, I didn’t immediately think there would be a lot to talk about on that front. But after listening to Justin and the Finnish writers talk, it’s clear the industry there in the early years of mechanization was much more vibrant than I had though.

And that really shouldn’t have been a surprise. Volvo, based in Sweden, was a major farm machinery manufacturer; Valtra still builds tractors under AGCO ownership in Suolahti Finland. And there are many other short-line brands still based there.

One of the unique demands farmers in that part of the world put on tractors is they make them do double duty. In summer, the machines do typical fieldwork. In the winter, they work in woodlots hauling timber. Many farms in that region include both types of operations. So that requirement had a unique influence on tractor design and development.

This week, Justin’s publisher, Old Pond Books, in the UK sent me an early copy of his book, The Nordic Tractor, The History, and Heritage of Volvo, Valtra and Valmet, for a review.

The book has all kinds of images of early machines, most I’ve never seen before. And Justin has managed to dig pretty deeply into the history of the industry in the Scandinavian countries, even though he had to rely on others to translate old documents from Finnish to English.

For anyone with an interest in farm machinery, it’s pretty interesting and a completely new angle on the subject—at least for me. We’ll have a published review of Justin’s book in the pages of an upcoming issue of Grainews—once I read through it all. So far, I have to say I’m enjoying learning about a segment of farm machinery development I knew virtually nothing about.

The book can be ordered from Old Pond Books at It retails for £29.95. That’s about C$50.85.



About the author


Scott Garvey

Scott Garvey is a freelance writer and video producer. He is also the former machinery editor at Grainews.


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