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The art of tractor maintenance

If only the best moments of my life took as long as those agonising seconds to roll into the ditch. I had plenty of time to put my foot on the brake and push hard, but this was an old tractor. The brakes had taken a break.


The ditch was neither deep nor steep. I reversed out on the grip of those mighty herring-bone tyres and into the realisation that it was time for some tractor maintenance.

While I was at it, I may as well give my Massey Ferguson 135 new oil and fuel filters, and top up the hydraulic fluid for the PTO that turns the mower. But what kind of hydraulic oil? And where to put it?

“Ask Nobby,” everyone said.

Back in my yacht-owning days, I had a Yanmar YSE 8. When I first bought the boat, I knew nothing about the engine, so it ran on diesel and hope. Then it blew a head gasket. The obvious way to fix it was to pay someone Lots of Money but a friend reminded me that I had completed my diesel engine maintenance course and that, with some mentoring, I could do it.

Oh, but it was awkward. My Yanmar and I were nervous strangers reluctantly sharing a confined space. Over many weeks, we swapped bodily fluids – blood, tears, sweat in exchange for oil, diesel and sea water. Initially I worked mostly alone but blokes can smell diesel maintenance on the breeze from 10 miles away. By the time that newly-painted engine was craned back into the boat, there was a core of helpers and advisors. And the Yanmar and I were soulmates.

After that, basic Yanmar maintenance was routine, even fun. But my tractor’s three-cylinder Perkins and I were not on such close terms. In fact, until I met Nobby, then aged 79 and three-quarters, I didn’t even know it was a Perkins.

Or that it had three cylinders.

Or, that its rollcage was slightly taller than the eave to my cottage carport. It got under with a bang and a clang. My tenant thought it was an earthquake.

To get the tractor out of the carport without wrecking the gutter, I dug two shallow trenches for the big tyres to dip into as they passed beneath the eave. Then I noticed the tyres were flat, so I got a compressor and asked someone to show me how to use it and we re-inflated the tyres. This made the tractor too high to pass beneath the eaves.

About then, Nobby got involved. We deepened the trenches, let down the tyres and reckoned we’d just scrape clear. Except I’d forgotten the key for the tractor.

“Key?” Nobby said. “We don’t need a key.” He sounded like the Doc in Back to the Future: “Roads… We don’t need roads.”

Anyway, Nobby pulled out a screwdriver. Sparks zizzed and spat. Zizz-spat. Chug-a-chug-a-chug-chug-chug-CHUG-CHUG. When I grow up, I want to be able to start a tractor with a screwdriver.

I asked Nobby if I could be his apprentice while he worked on the tractor. “I sort of know my way around a diesel engine,” I told him. “I used to own a yacht with a Yanmar YSE8.”

“I’ll remove the first fuel filter; you remove the second,” he said. His son Darren was working on the rear brakes.

I got the glass bowl off the diesel filter and the oil filter followed, but I knew enough about diesel maintenance to know it was all going too well. Pretty soon Nobby announced the water pump would never pump again.

To remove the water pump, we had to remove the radiator. To remove the radiator, we had to remove the bonnet. By the time we had done that, Darren had removed the tractor’s huge, rear tyres. It looked like a weta that had lost its back legs.

Meanwhile local men had smelled diesel. Like dogs following a bone, they had gathered at the scene of the scent. They tried to be nonchalant but really they were waiting for the moment when the tractor went chug-a-chug-a-chug-CHUG-CHUG! Or maybe for when Nobby started it with a screwdriver.

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