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Shifty Boys

Those who contribute stories to Yesterdays Tractors often express fond memories of growing up on a farm. It was no different for my four brothers and me who worked hard and played hard on our east central Saskatchewan mixed farm. We all seemed to have mechanical aptitudes and all eventually ended up in engineering and technical careers. And as boys we were budding “gearheads”. This showed up in our tractor driving. Before we were old enough to drive cars, we got our driving experience on tractors like so many young farm boys.PDad had a succession of tractors starting, before most of us were born, with a Case LA on steel (in partnership with an uncle), then a John Deere B, a Massey Harris 44 and, in 1956, our big thrill, a Case 400 diesel Western Special. We were ecstatic. That tractor was a quantum leap in technology with 15:30 tires, live pto, built in hydraulics, diesel power, two tone paint, auxiliary foot throttle and, for the piece de resistance, an EIGHT speed transmission. It was that transmission and foot throttle that made the new Case a gem to drive. As the hours started to add up and the transmission got more ‘broke in’ having all 8 speeds on a single shifter was an open invitation for young hot rodders to perfect shifting on-the-go.

That Case 400 was Dad’s only tractor at the time and one job for it was hauling grain from the combine. In those days we used a hopper wagon pulled by the tractor and since some of the hauls were a couple of miles and the hopper wagon fairly small, it was a matter of urgency not to keep the combine waiting. With Uncle on the combine and Dad usually swathing it was up to us boys to pilot that Case. Now with an empty hopper the Case had enough torque to pull out of the yard in 8th gear using the typical farmer technique, which would be easing out the clutch at part throttle and then, once rolling, gradually opening the throttle. Under the guise of being easy on the clutch and to demonstrate our prowess we developed a hot rod style, the antithesis of the disdainful farmer technique. The Case 400 had all eight speeds on one shifter with two separate H-patterns plus reverse, one low range and one high range, joined through a neutral gate. Hauling grain only needed the high range so driving through the yard in fifth gear was akin to being in first gear in a hot rod. It was also imperative to have the handle throttle set only part way so engine speed above that could be controlled by the foot throttle.POf course, we had to leave the yard in fifth gear (although sixth or seventh would have worked fine) and as soon as the outfit got straight on the road the foot throttle was hammered down. When the tachometer peaked at 1450 rpm in went the clutch and simultaneously off came the foot throttle and the shifter slipped out of gear. Here is where the skill came in and it was a matter of pride to wait for the precise moment when sixth gear could be selected without grinding gears. As soon as the shifter hit home out came the clutch and the throttle hammered down again. This process was repeated through seventh and eighth gears. Of course, through all this the outfit kept rolling with exhilarating increases in speed through each gear along with a beautiful smoke plume from the exhaust. Top speed was 18 miles per hour and we felt we were flying. For adolescents and young teenagers it probably was pretty serious speed when one thinks back to some of our rough farm roads or trails through the fields.PBut thats not all. Even more of a skill test was downshifting. In order to conserve brakes (at least that was the excuse) it was paramount to utilise engine braking. When approaching the turn off into a field or coming back to the yard with a load, to reduce speed we felt it necessary to do so by downshifting. When cruising in 8th (road) gear, just before the approach the hand throttle was set back to begin slowing down the outfit. At the right moment the clutch was depressed, the shifter pulled into neutral, the clutch re-engaged and the foot throttle used to blip the engine to a “feels about right” rpm. The clutch was again depressed, the shifter slipped down into 7th and the clutch re-engaged thus producing further engine braking. As with upshifting, the skill to do all this without grinding gears or missing the shift entirely was part of a competitive sport. This sequence was repeated again if circumstances required further downshifting to 6th or even 5th gear if the trails got really rough.

This fun all eventually came to an end as we started to grow up and move away but a bit of a disappointment was, believe it or not, Dad’s trading in that 400 for a new Case 830. Of course, the 830 was a beautiful tractor with more masculine styling and more power and still 8 forward speeds but gone was that slick shifting transmission. Instead, Case went to a dual shifter arrangement and, we suspect, lighter oil in the transmission. Even though the main shifter still had the H-pattern (plus reverse) it just didn’t shift like the old 400. What was frustrating was having to wait for those heavy gears to stop spinning after depressing the clutch then trying to shift into gear from neutral. Needless to say, we’d usually get impatient and “grind a pound or two”. Shifting on-the-go could still be done but ended up being more trouble than it was worth. And shifting between the two ranges on the other shifter also was usually accompanied but much grinding if you didn’t take your time. But a new challenge soon arrived at the farm. Dad bought a good used 1952 John Deere AR at an auction sale as he felt we needed a second tractor. Of course, we didn’t argue and it wasn’t long before we started experimenting with different driving techniques.PPerhaps we weren’t inventing anything new but we developed a technique for shifting on the go with the AR. Of course, with a hand clutch, handle throttle only and a ‘back and forth, in and out, up and down’ torturous path for the shifter, our hands were a blur. Upshifting was usually done from 4th gear on up but it was that “long and winding road” the shifter had to take from 4th to 5th (up, back, down, forward then down again into 5th, if my memory is correct), then a similar path back up again into 6th (road) gear that required accuracy, dexterity and a fast hand. The process of going up through the gears meant working the throttle, then clutch, then shifter then clutch and finally throttle again for each upshift. If timing was off in the slightest and the shifter wouldn’t go smoothly into gear it usually meant coasting to a near stop and trying again. While the AR didn’t have near the road speed of either of the two Cases, it was still fun to drive and our constant attempts at improving our techniques added to the entertainment.PDownshifting added more complication but we eventually learned how to double clutch using a hand clutch and hand throttle. The process was basically the same as for the Case 400 but all the movements were, of course, by hand. Before the approach we would back off the throttle, pull back the clutch, pull the shifter out of gear and frantically, with much clinking and clanking, position it at the next gear slot. Then we would push in the clutch, open the throttle to what felt like the correct synchronous speed then simultaneously pull back the clutch and throttle and lastly slip the shifter into gear just before re-engaging the clutch. It would have been nice having three hands for this exercise but we learned how to do it with two. We didn’t always get it right but we were always careful not to force a shifter into gear if we hadn’t timed things exactly. To my knowledge, we never had any clutch or transmission problems with the Case 400 or the John Deer AR but the Case 830 did require a clutch replacement later in its life. I doubt if that had anything much to do with the 830’s transmission foibles or the way it was driven but one never knows.PTo this day, my brothers and I have always been able to drive anything with a manual transmission be it motorcycles, trucks or cars and our days spent driving and shifting those tractors and learning clutch, throttle and shifter control has helped us to be better drivers. At the very least, it was a lot of fun and a way of adding a bit of interest to the routine of farm work. If I had ever been in a position to collect or restore tractors the first one I would have looked for would be a Case 400 diesel. It sure would be fun putting one through the gears again. However, that was never in the cards but it’s all right to dream once in a while, isn’t it.

Tim Wrubleski, SK, entered 2008-07-16
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