Vintage tractor restoration, a hobby in bloom
What started as a four-page flier advertising “new parts for old tractors” has grown into a 616-page, phone book-sized catalog of more than 5,000 parts. Those parts are designed to keep old tractors working farm fields, and to feed the growing hobby of restoring and showing vintage tractors.
Earlier this month, the producer of many of those parts, Steiner Tractor Parts Inc., of Lennon, Michigan, sponsored an auction in Michigan’s Thumb, where one collector’s’ trove of more than 100 vintage tractors generated nearly $2 million in sales. A 1938 Minneapolis-Moline UDLX sold for $200,000, a record price for any tractor sold by the Gone Farmin’ division of Wisconsin-based Mecum Auctions.
Steiner Tractor Parts was founded in 1977 by Dave Steiner, who started repairing and selling tractors while in high school and who worked his way through Michigan State’s agriculture college by operating his own tractor salvage yard.
Seeing that certain tractor parts wore out prematurely and that used parts weren’t sufficient to keep up with the demand, Steiner began building new parts for old tractors, starting with a manifold for an Allis Chalmers B tractor engine.
At the time, the goal was simply to keep family farmers in their fields during an economic recession, but he also helped keep small foundries, machine shops and related firms in business producing his parts.
“My father, when he started making parts, he was making parts for guys who couldn’t afford to modernize their equipment,” said Dan Steiner, Dave’s son, who with his youngest sister, Jennifer, now heads the family-owned company.
“By the time I came along (to run the business) in 2001, the tractor restoration craze was well underway,” which Dan credited to Pennzoil ads featuring golfer Arnold Palmer and the old tractor he used at his golf course in Pennsylvania.
“Farming became industrialized,” Dan Steiner said, adding that tractors became larger and more powerful and, like cars, computerized. “Small farms got gobbled up. There wasn’t a place for children who grew up on the farm.”
But now, between people who still farm and those nostalgic for the good old days of family agriculture, restoring and showing vintage tractors has become a significant hobby. Dozens of vintage tractor and farm equipment shows are held each summer, and in Michigan the hobby has its own version of the Woodward Dream Cruise: The annual Mackinac Bridge Antique Tractor Crossing, scheduled this year for the weekend of Sept. 8-10.
“And you can actually work on them,” Dan Steiner said of the vintage farm tractors. “There’s no electronics. If you want to teach your grandchildren about how to do basic mechanics, you need an older vehicle. It’s a good learning tool.
“And there are a lot of (tractor) clubs, a lot of opportunities to get together. It’s a bonding experience for a lot of people.”
Steiner Tractor maintains a 45,000-square-foot facility south of Lennon, a rural community between Flint and Lansing. The building was new in 2002 but the business has grown so much that a 40,000-square-foot expansion is being planned. While still producing its big catalog, some 40 percent of the company’s business is done online (www.steinertractor.com) and many orders come from overseas, where vintage farm equipment collecting is an even larger hobby, especially in Europe and Australia, Dan Steiner said.
While his children run the business, Dave Steiner has returned to his roots, running his tractor salvage yard, but with a twist, Dan Steiner said. “Dad used to take tractors apart and sell the pieces,” but now he and some of his father’s retired friends are putting those tractors back together for the growing vintage collector market.
Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at email@example.com.