Buying an H

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So, you are ready to buy yourself an H. First, you need to answer three fundamental questions. The first, and most obvious, is "What am I going to use this thing for?".  This will tell you whether an H will do what you want, and what options and implements you need to be looking for. The second,  is "How mechanical am I or do I feel like being?".  If you feel like being pretty mechanical, almost any H will do. If not, you'll have to be picky. The third is "How soon do I need to be using it?". If the answer is not that soon, then you can take some time to find needed parts, repair things, even rebuild the engine. Otherwise it had better be ready to go. Good luck!

Will a Farmall H Do What I Want?

Farmall Hs were designed as general purpose farm tractors, primarily for people raising row crops. They were used for plowing, disking, planting, cultivating, and harvesting, as well as for mowing, raking, and baling. It is perfectly reasonable to expect to use them for those activities today, as long as you are willing to invest the time and effort.  However, you'll need to either invest in a 3 point hitch adapter (a relatively expensive addition which was not available when Hs were new), or find vintage implements that were either designed to mount on an H (like cultivators), or to be pulled by the drawbar. You'll also need to consider that a lot of modern safety features like roll-over protection systems were unheard of when the Hs were built; a newer tractor will likely have a number of additional safety features. Still, for someone that wants a low cost tractor with great parts availability to occasionally plow, disc and seed more than 5 but less than thirty or so acres, pull a hay rake or wagon, cultivate row crops two rows at a time, or many other things, the H is a gem. It is a joy to drive - comfortable and very satisfying to work. It won't leave you with sore muscles from steering or clutching, and it has good road speed.

Here are a few things that an H is not a good choice for:

Mowing lawns or other work where you need to work under trees a lot
Storing in a garage or other building with a door not much higher than a car
Using with a front end loader (although some people do it, the H is not the ideal tractor for this)
Using on steep hillsides - for this a lower-to-the-ground wide front tractor is a better choice
Using by people who are not physically agile - the great view that the H seat offers takes a climb to achieve

Spencer Yost's book "Antique Tractor Bible" has an extensive and very useful discussion of the issues and opportunities in using an antique tractor and is worth a read.

Where Can I Find One?

Hs were very common in most parts of the country, and if  you start watching the classified ads in nearby newspapers (particularly if you live in or near farm country) you are likely to find one before long. Other good sources include Thrifty Nickel and regional papers like Lancaster Farming. You can often find them for sale on eBay. You can also try the classified ads at Yesterday's Tractors or ATIS.  You might also check Old Iron Auction.

How Much Should It Cost?

This is a hard question, as it varies widely with region and with condition. Here in Central Texas I have seen running Hs in more or less usable condition sell for as little as $400 but that is not very common. A more likely price is around $1200 for a usable one. There is a list of sale prices around the US which might help, but these seem low to me - probably this is actually a list of lucky people bragging about what great deals they got!

Major price factors include tires (figure at least $800 if you have to replace them all), sheet metal (reproductions are available but expensive), fenders (optional and desirable, will cost you at least $300 to add), 3 point hitch (not original but makes it possible to use many more modern implements). 

H-specific implements like mounted cultivators or a sickle mower are very desirable and are getting harder and harder to find.  Getting an H that includes a set of usable implements of almost any kind is a plus, and it will almost always be cheaper to get them with the tractor rather than later.

What Should I Watch Out For?

Before You Start It

You might want to start by looking at the serial number and figuring out the date. This isn't critical though, as there weren't too many differences between years on an H with the exception of the 1939 models. These have differences in seat, steering supports, and other things. For a collector this makes them more valuable, but for someone interested in just using the tractor perhaps a little less valuable as some parts are harder to find.

Take a look at the engine; examine the block, head, and manifold. Any visible cracks? Look also for evidence of past cracks that have been repaired - this doesn't necessarily represent a problem if properly repaired but could be a weak point. Manifolds are relatively easy to replace but will cost you $100 or more. Also check the transmission casing and other cast iron parts for cracks - these are unlikely but possible, especially on the bottom of the transmission.

If you are able to do a compression test, do that now (assuming that the engine turns over). The specific numbers don't matter as much as them all being even. If you're seeing 80 or 90 across all four cylinders, that's a good sign. If one or more is significantly lower, you'll probably need rings or worse.  Take a look at the spark plugs, too. Do they need replaced? This article has more about compression testing and spark plugs.

Does it have battery or magneto ignition (battery will have a coil similar to a car coil). Magneto ignition can be a little harder to work on, but has the advantage of being able to run totally without a battery.

Is it multi-fuel? If so, it will have two gas tanks, a small starting tank and a bigger one. The idea was that you'd start it on gas, then when it warmed up, switch over to lower grade stuff. For collectability purposes, this setup is nice, especially if you have the complete setup including radiator shutters. For usability, the straight gas setup is probably better as you got a little higher compression. If the serial number ends in X1 then it was originally gasoline.

Wander around and look at the sheet metal. Is it all there? The little access panel on the grill where the cultivator steering mounts is almost always gone, and those are really expensive ($50) to replace. Look for dents - which usually aren't that hard to fix unless big, and holes - which are more of a problem. Sometimes people cut holes in the hood for strange reasons, like mounting an alternator where the generator goes or the like. This kind of butchery really reduces the value of the tractor.

Look at the drawbar. It should at least have the standard wide U shaped drawbar. It is a plus if it also has the swinging drawbar which pivots along the U shaped drawbar.  Both of these might be missing if it has a 3 point hitch mounted - some require that the original drawbars be removed, others allow you to retain them.

Check the tires. Any big cracks? "Weather checking", which is a set of small cracks due to hardening rubber is usually not a problem for most use.  It is common to see non-standard sizes of tires, including too-large-for-the-rim rears. You can get by with pretty worn tires for most uses, but if you really want it to look nice for a restoration you might need to replace them. This can be a really major expense, and it is a judgment call based on your need and how they look.

How about the seat? There were a couple of different seats; the "deluxe" had a big spring in the back, and a shock absorber in the front. These typically need all the rubber bushings replaced, which isn't expensive. Also be sure and replace the spring (around $20) even if it looks good, because if the spring breaks in operation you will fall off the tractor and possibly be run over by your implement. Several people have died as a result of this, don't take chances!  Anyway, look at the seat pan. If it is sound, you can add a cover and be in good shape. If it is rusted through, you'll want to replace it, probably $80 or so.

Next, climb up on the operator's deck and check the steering for play (how far does the steering wheel turn before the wheels start turning). It is normal and no big deal to have a little play, but if it is more than about 1/8 turn you're going to need to fix it. What about the rubber on the steering wheel? If it is all there you can make it look good with Armor All or the like, but if some of the rubber is missing or the wheel is bent you're looking at $60 or more to repair or replace.  While you are up there, check the governor control - there's a sawtooth on that top disk that the governor lever ratchets in. Usually the tooth on the handle that engages the sawtooth is worn out - a good welder can build that up for you inexpensively, otherwise you'll have to replace it as it'll pop out at the most inconvenient times.

Take a look at the gauges - there should be an amp meter on the "dash", and an oil pressure and a water temp out on the hood. You really don't want to run without these, and they'll cost you about $40 each to replace. Lots of Hs have non-IH replacement gauges they've picked up through the years - these are fine if you want the tractor for using, but if you plan a restoration you'll want to replace them with the correct part.

After You Start It

First and foremost, does it start?  Hs came with either magneto or battery ignition; with a magneto, you don't need a battery to run as long as you're willing to crank or pull start it.  If the engine won't turn over at all, it is stuck, meaning that the pistons are frozen in the cylinders. This could be a pretty serious problem - if you're not prepared for a total engine rebuild, leave now. If you are prepared (it isn't too bad, Hs have removable sleeves so even badly rusted engines can usually be salvaged), you may be able to make a good deal if the tractor is in otherwise good condition.

Speaking of crank starting - this is a pretty dangerous procedure and can kill you under certain circumstances. If you are not sure what you are doing, pull start it instead, or get the owner to show you how to crank start it safely, if he or she knows.

An H in good shape should start pretty easily, even if it has been sitting for a while. It shouldn't need much choking, they usually aren't particularly cold natured. Let it warm up for a bit and then listen. It should run smoothly at both idle and full throttle. Listen for a miss now and when you're putting it under some load. This is a good time to check the gauges again; you should see some charging on the amp meter. The light switch usually has 4 positions, lights bright, lights dim, high and low charge. Set the switch all the way counter-clockwise, then take one click clockwise. This should be high charge. If the engine is running above idle and you don't see a charge in this position, then there may be a charging system problem. Check with a volt meter across the battery when the engine is running. You should see at least a little above 6 volts if it is charging.  By the way, this is also a good time to check the lights. It doesn't really matter if they work, as long as you have complete housings and lenses. These are available in repro now but they're very expensive (about $50 per light). Lights were an option, but most Hs tend to have them, and they can come in handy. But because they were optional, don't panic if there is no evidence that the tractor ever had them - some came that way, and in fact, some even came without electric start.  You should also see oil pressure on that gauge, and after it warms up, some motion on the temp gauge.

After it warms up, take a look to see if it is smoking. Black smoke is a clue that it is running too rich, this is usually just a carburetor adjustment problem. Blue smoke may mean that you've got a ring problem and it is burning oil. White smoke means that water is getting into the cylinders, possibly through a bad head gasket but it might be more serious like a cracked block. A little blue smoke at startup is normal, especially if it has been sitting for a while.

Before you actually drive it very far, check the brakes. They should be able to stop it reasonably quickly.  If they don't, don't worry too much, as brake repair on an H is pretty easy and doesn't require any major dismantling. But do be careful in further testing if you don't have brakes.

If the tractor has a PTO (power take off), which most Hs do, check that to be sure that it engages. With the tractor running and in neutral, push the clutch and then pull up on the rod sticking up behind the seat. It should click into place, and when you release the clutch pedal, the PTO shaft should start turning. If you are really lucky and the H has its PTO shield in place, you won't be able to see it turn from the drivers seat and will need someone else to look at this for you. Depress the clutch again and push the rod down, it should easily disengage. You really should have a PTO shield - it is an important safety device. You might find one at a salvage yard but reproductions are about $90.

Drive it around in the various gears and listen. Second gear was commonly used for plowing and is likely to be the most worn; so if the transmission is worn you'll probably hear a whine in second gear. This might or might not be a problem depending on what you want to do; for occasional use it will probably last a long time yet.

The next thing is to try to check the governor. What you're looking for is whether the governor will adjust the throttle to maintain engine speed in the face of load. The easiest way to check this is to go down and up a small hill in 4th or 5th gear (be careful in 5th, as it'll go up to 15 mph and if the steering, brakes or tires are questionable this might not be a good idea). As you start downhill from level ground, you should hear the engine quiet down as it the throttle backs off, then when you start back up, it should get enough gas to maintain speed up the hill. If you want a more elaborate test you can hitch up a plow, and drive along and then drop the plow. But you get the idea. Governor rebuilds are not trivial but not that hard either - figure around $75 for parts.

Hs are really fun to drive; don't get so caught up in the fun that you don't pay attention to little bumps, grinds, and other noises. Lots of these will turn out to be normal but investigate as best you can.

If you think you are serious, now would be a good time to find out what kind of oil the owner has been running in it. The key question is whether it is detergent or non-detergent. You'll need to know this later.

So at this point, you have to think about whether this is the right tractor for you - you're on your own there, I wish you luck and will be glad to answer any questions I can via email but this is a pretty personal choice!  See also this article on Tips for Buying a Used Tractor, from the Cooperative Extension Division of Agricultural Sciences, University of California

Hauling It Home

Ok, if you gave in and got it, you'll need a pretty serious trailer with brakes on it to safely haul an H. You can figure that it weighs around 3800 lbs, more if there is fluid in the tires (it was common to fill rear tires with a mixture of water and calcium chloride for additional traction). Implements will add some to that too.  Be extremely careful loading - an H has a pretty high center of gravity and if a wheel slips off a ramp it would be quite easy to flip it over.  Also, if the rear wheels are set wide you may need to move one or both of them in so that it will fit on your trailer If they haven't been moved recently this can be an adventure. Loosen the four clamp bolts (2 inside, 2 outside) on the wheel. Squirt some lubricant (Liquid Wrench or your favorite penetrating oil) all around on the axle. If the axle is a little rusty, a bit of sanding will make your task easier. Now, jack the tractor up and try to work the wheel in some. It helps to have two people, one in front and one in back of the wheel. And be sure you're letting gravity help and that you've jacked it so that downhill is where you want to go. Tighten the clamp bolts again once you've got it where you need it.

See the ATIS trailering FAQ for more information about transporting your tractor.

Once you get it home, be sure to follow the basic maintenance procedures before using it much.

Thanks to Chuck Bealke for additions to this page!


1999-2002 T.W. Cook - All Rights Reserved. Operating and repairing antique tractors is an inherently dangerous activity. In particular, Farmall H's predate many modern safety enhancements such as roll-over protection systems. Please, be aware of the proper safety procedures and take all possible precautions - be careful out there!

Some words, model names, and designations, such as "Farmall", mentioned herein are the property of the trademark holder, and are used for identification purposes only. This is not an official website.

This page last updated: September 27, 2003