Orange Silicone! Secret ingredient to tractor repair.


When my grandfather finished school at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 1953, he headed back to middle Tennessee to begin his farming career. He had a degree in agriculture and was ready to put it to work. He was searching for a modern farm tractor of the color green. He was a diehard John Deere man based on the good service he had seen from his father’s green tractor while growing up on the farm. He was such a green fan that he wouldn’t even allow me to have blue and red toys as a child.

The tractor as it was pushed off the trailer.

His father owned a hand start “B” that replaced an unstyled Allis Chalmers of some sorts. The “B” was a bit small for the acreage needing to be tilled since there were now going to be more hands dipping out of the piggy bank. Like any young man with a dream, he was on the lookout for a larger machine with hydraulics and electric start. He found exactly what he was looking for on a finished housing project in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a 1952 “A.” The tractor had been used to pull a sheep’s foot and air compressor around the job site.

My father and aunt on the tractor in early 1959

As soon as the tractor made it home, my grandfather was off to the local John Deere dealer in Centerville, Tennessee to buy a whole new line of equipment. He purchased a 12A combine, a 74 forage harvester with a Continental engine along with a 402H disc plow. I can only imagine the thrill of taking that year-old tractor to the field for the first time. Other implements were acquired along the way including a 116W baler, cultivators, then quick attach cultivators, a 45 loader and a KBA wheeled disk to name a few. A 14T baler came later—I still have the cancelled check from the purchase.

The “A” was the main tractor around the farm until a 70 diesel came along sometime in the late ’50s. The “A” was then used mostly for cultivation, pulling a disc harrow and setting tobacco. As time went along and more horsepower was needed, he purchased a new 4020 in 1970. The “A” was then used solely for transplanting tobacco. The transplanter (“setter” as it is called in tobacco country) stayed mounted on it year round with the water tank mounted on the left frame rail.

My family ceased farming tobacco in 1990, which allowed the “A” to be put to complete rest. Much to my dismay, my father sold the “A” in 1995 to a neighbor who used it for a few years. He then passed away and his widow allowed another neighbor to purchase the tractor. I was actually unaware of the tractor’s whereabouts after that sale. The purchaser wanted the “A” to pull a rotary cutter around on some serious hills. Sometime in the winter of 2008, I located the “A” still in the second neighbor’s shed, only about eight miles from my house. The tractor had some serious mechanical problems.

Upon first seeing the tractor, I was in total awe of the pure destruction that had occurred to the “A” in a 14-year span. The metal had been changed to an all-fuel hood and a pair of incredibly rough grills with a good heavy coating of brush paint. The hood replacement was due to the number of times the tractor had been rolled on the hills with the rotary cutter. Somehow the old man still had all his limbs and digits. As my dad would say, “He must be living right.”

This tractor had a history of roll-overs. My great uncle borrowed the tractor on numerous occasions and he had the pleasure of rolling it over twice with the 45 loader, breaking a few ribs in one incident. The gentleman who bought it in 1995 rolled it over as well, breaking the exhaust manifold. The owner that I purchased the tractor from stated that the tractor had not run in a couple of years. The final parking decision came after the governor/fanshaft stopped spinning when the governor drive gear disintegrated. I’m sure it would not have been parked then, but they just could not figure out how to make the distributor spin without the governor turning. I’m really surprised that they didn’t surmise some sort of fix as creative as some of the other repairs on the tractor. I’m guessing that the governor problem must have had something to do with the bent fan shaft. After surveying the damage, we struck up a deal for $400 to buy the tractor. The son of the owner was so overjoyed his father was selling the tractor that he insisted we not go home to get our trailer, but use his immediately before his father changed his mind.

The fuzzy warm feeling was gone and the fun began.

My father and I got the tractor home. We pulled it in the shop and started seriously surveying the damage. It was evident that a “Tennessee jackleg” mechanic had done his best work in numerous places on this tractor. Whoever worked on this tractor must have found a good deal on orange RTV silicone. This wonderful orange product was absolutely everywhere—even in places that needed a gasket of exact thickness for the setting of gear lash. I feel certain that he must have administered it to his children for the stomach ache and rubbed it on his aching joints for an instant relief.

Many necessary components on the tractor were not in service. The ventilator pump had the pipe removed and reinstalled with a piece of garden hose plugged with a stick. The end of the tube on the breather revealed the same fix. The water pump must have leaked because the pulley was removed and orange silicone was again the fix, daubed in around the shaft. The starter motor was also bad. The previous owners had been rolling the tractor down the hill for daily starts.

It was startling to see just how much wear the tractor had. I wish the “A” had a tachometer that could read tens of thousand of hours. It would be interesting to know how many hours it took to have this much wear. There were two worn out blocks in the tool shed at my grandfather’s house. I have to wonder if even another block has been installed since then. There were various parts on the tractor that would lead one to believe that it had never seen a day of rest. The carburetor bore was gouged from the throttle butterfly shaking up and down in the bore as the tractor ran. The clutch operating sleeve stop pin was worn more than halfway through and the operating sleeve had never been built up, allowing a multitude of torsion on clutch operating parts. I’m sure normal clutch operation was somewhat altered. The tractor had no oil filter, but did have a pile of dirt infested sludge sitting on top of the filter cap. The crankcase had somewhere around a half inch of sludge in the bottom that would not come loose with diesel fuel. I chiseled it out with a screwdriver and scooped out the pieces with my hand. There was a large hole in the exhaust manifold on the right side through which a house cat could have been tossed (it was a big hole), as well as a hole that had been patched with a bolt and a couple flat washers.

It would be interesting to know how many million times the butterfly bounced in the carburetor to make such a deeply worn groove in the bore.

Let me stop in mid-thought to say that I absolutely despise silicone as it pertains to machinery repair. I’m sure there is a place for it. I just have not yet found it. It’s ugly! Who knows what the thickness will be? To top it all off, most of the time it leaks after a short while! My theory is that anyone who uses it must not have scraped as much of it off as I have. I have been so aggravated as to burn it off with the torch!

Now back to the “A.”

We moved on to those normal wear parts such as brakes, clutch, battery box, manifold, water pump, radiator core, generator, battery box, distributor and steering. The siliconed water pump had a bad shaft, so a new water pump was ordered since the rebuild kit for the older style water pump found on “As” and 60s is quite pricey. A new radiator core was installed, which happens to be my most hated two cylinder service job. I would gladly exchange 50 swift kicks in the shin in exchange for someone else to do the work. The brakes were re-lined and the loose clutch driver replaced along with the clutch discs. The clutch pulley was replaced with an NOS pulley since there was a fairly large chunk missing from the original, thanks to my grandfather knocking the wrench off the adjusting nut with a hammer. There was a bearing totally missing behind the steering worm. Steering must have been a joy, but possibly made easier by the fairly new JD suicide knob found on the steering wheel, installed by the previous owner. I have to even ask myself, why fix the steering parts when a suicide knob will suffice for those precise steering movements? We decided to replace the whole steering pedestal with a two piece pedestal in order to be able to use the front end of our choice. A Roll-O-Matic front end was put together by using a New Generation mast and the old knuckles from my original single piece pedestal. The lobes on the old distributor point shaft had been worn out and repaired with an arc welder.The spark advance mechanism must have failed. It appeared that someone must have thrown it over their left shoulder, as it was missing altogether. A used distributor was purchased as well as an electronic ignition. A freshly refurbished generator replaced the alternator that had been fabricated to fit the tractor. A new Brillman wiring harness was installed. An uncut gasoline hood was purchased at an auction and grilles purchased on eBay.

Luckily I had a NOS operating sleeve put away for just such an occasion. The original was worn to twice the size of the new sleeve.

The moment of truth came. We refilled each housing with its respective fluid and put in some fresh gasoline. I pushed the starter pedal and the engine came to life. I ran it for a few moments to find that it vibrated so profusely that I thought the hood was going to bounce off the tractor. I backed it into the shop where I rechecked my clutch driver for proper alignment. It was correct. We pulled the flywheel cover back off and shined up the end of the crankshaft to check the flywheel alignment. The “silicone bandit” (previous mechanic) must not have noted the weighted flywheel or perhaps thought the orange silicone would compensate for any vibration. The flywheel was removed and rotated two splines for proper orientation.

The fuzzy warm feeling was back. It was then off to the shed to hook to the No. 44 plow. I plowed the garden without episode. My grandmother came out to see the tractor in operation. I’m sure I could have enticed my grandfather to take a spin if he were still with us. He was a sucker for a two cylinder. My mother says it’s genetic. I won’t have to worry about the mosquitoes chasing me so long as the “A “ is running. It smokes like crazy. I guess an engine rebuild will come this winter after the scene at plow day when the blowby became so fierce that the engine was actually blowing oil out around the clutch pulley in a fine mist. The old “A” somewhat resembled “old faithful” with its smoke and spray.

I’m not much of a painter and really can appreciate tractors in their work clothes so long as they are functional. It seems as often times I see “restored” tractors that are not really very field worthy. For now, the “A” will not get any paint. Perhaps after the engine rebuild, I may have someone hold my hand while I paint or maybe a better outcome would be for someone to hold my hands behind my back while they paint. The second scenario would most likely yield the best outcome since I seem to do my best paint work with a rattle can.

With the procurement of the “A,” I now have my grandfather’s 1952 “A” and “B” and a 1969 4020. I now only lack owning two of his tractors. I know where his very early 50 is located. It happens to be in a fence row and not for sale. There is one whose whereabouts is unknown—the missing tractor is the 70 diesel. I’m on the trail but have yet to find it. It took weeks and at least 15 phone calls to get the information I have, but I now know it is located near Lebanon, Tennessee, not far from the fair grounds and was purchased in Dickson, Tennessee by an older gentleman and his grandson around three years ago. If any reader knows where the tractor may be, please let me know. I don’t have to own it now, but would love to know its whereabouts and to have the opportunity to own it whenever the current owner is finished with it if that opportunity ever arises.