The pandemic in Oz: Time for a reckoning
Of matters malevolent - & a fiery stunt

The peerless, resilient Massey Ferguson

Tractor flambe
Paul Oates' Massey Ferguson after the fire


Phil Fitzpatrick recently paid tribute in these columns to the incomparable durability of the Massey Ferguson tractor.  In this piece, extracted from his memoir, ‘Phascogales and Other Tales’, former kiap Papua New Guinea kiap Paul Oates recalls his own experience with this wonderfully resilient machine. By the way, Paul's book available here from Amazon - KJ

CLEVELAND – While we lived on the farm, each year at the end of winter I slashed the dry, dead grass to reduce the fire hazard, to improve the pasture and try to build up some ground covering against rain washing away the topsoil.

Turning the Massey Ferguson tractor in a tight circle could be difficult, especially if there was an implement attached at the rear.

When the slasher was attached, its weight would tend to over-swing the tractor if the slasher was raised.

Cutting the large front lawn one day, I swung the tractor around a small gum tree. The weight of the slasher swinging behind made the front tyre clip the tree.

Suddenly I had no steering. Fortunately, a tractor can be steered using the brakes like in the Army when steering tanks.

Uncoupling the two rear wheel brakes, I was able to use the individual brakes to steer the tractor back to the shed.

I had a flat top truck come to pick up the tractor and take it to be serviced.

The mechanic found that the tension from the front wheel through to the steering wheel has raised the shaft of the wheel a micron too far.

The hollow screw mechanism inside the base of the steering wheel allowed the tractor to be steered using a number of steel ball bearings.

The steering wheel used these to convert the driver’s turn of the wheel to the mechanical connections on the front wheels that allowed the tractor to be steered.

The slight movement of bumping the tree had raised the base of the wheel and all the ball bearings had simply fallen out.

The tractor also had a wheel lock on the rear wheels and when I dragged logs around I would engage the lock to enable the tractor to maintain its full towing capacity.

A few years previously, something more dangerous had happened. While slashing one of the front paddocks with the tractor I drove over a sharp bump.

Often when this happened, the front of the tractor would twist out of alignment and the radiator fan grate against the metal fan cover with a ‘clank, clank, clank!’

Thinking nothing of it because it had happened before, I drove on.

Oates - Trakta flambe igo long hausik
The burned Massey Ferguson is taken off to tractor hospital

After a few metres, I saw blue smoke coming from underneath the engine and stopped.

The radiator fan, grating against the metal cover must have created sparks and started a fire in the grass seeds under the radiator.

At that point, the small fire then found the residue of diesel fuel and dust on the hot engine and that too burst into flame.

As I looked on, the fire burnt through the plastic fuel line and the diesel fuel then started to run out of the fuel tank.

Fully expecting an explosion, and there would have been if the tractor was run on petrol, I immediately saw

this had the potential to start a major fire. This was confirmed as the grass around the tractor then started to catch fire.

The nearest telephone was in the house and the house was about a kilometer away. I ran flat out for the house, cursing the need to open and close three gates on the way.

Arriving inside the living room I found Sue talking on the telephone.

“Get off the phone, get off the phone!” I gasped but Sue was speaking to a friend of ours about a serious medical matter they had just been informed about.

“Tell them you’ll ring back!” I said, not having the time to explain fully. “This is an emergency.”

Finally, I was connected to the local Rural Fire Service and explained where the fire was and that I needed help as quickly as possible.

I had visions of being responsible for a major bushfire and all that goes with it. Loss of houses, fences and pasture and stock with the possibility of even loss of life.

Then I realised the fire service would come up our front driveway but couldn’t quickly access the fire, although they would have seen it in the front paddock.

Rushing back to the road gate for the front paddock, I just had time to flag down the brigade as it went past.

Reversing the engine, the local firefighters, who all knew me, gave me a lift to where the tractor and grass were burning fiercely.

Quickly using the fire tender’s water hose they brought the main fire under control and hosed the tractor to cool it down so the fire wouldn’t spring up again.

A senior fire inspector then arrived to prepare a written report of the incident. It’s fair to say that I had feelings of both guilt and regret, especially when I looked at my poor tractor.

Oates - What we needed. A real one not a picture of one
What I needed that day (a real one, not a photo of one)

The local Rural Fire Brigade from Mt Alford then arrived and we spent the next two hours making sure all the smouldering cowpats were extinguished.

The main team had departed back to town to their normal day jobs.

Perhaps that dangerous situation might have been stopped before it got out of control. We will never know.
Hindsight is a wonderful quality that unfortunately only arrives just after you really need it.

I made sure the next day I bought a fire extinguisher and attached it to the tractor as soon as it returned from the mechanics.

Did I mention that the sturdy old Massey Ferguson survived?

Yes, the farm insurance covered nearly all of the repairs and the tractor was able to be repaired and returned to work after a few weeks.


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William Dunlop

Ah yes, the indomitable Fergi; my nephew in law, John Mulligan, still has the family's black Fergi at Iluka near Moree, first purchased by his father for his farm in Kilkeel County Down in the mid-1930s.

Harry Ferguson Motors in Belfast used to borrow its radiator for their display Fergi for the Royal Agriculture Shows in Belfast whilst it resided in the auld sod.

Bernard Corden

Somewhat different from the John Deere forced service policy:

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