How To Buy: A Ford N-Series Tractor 1939-1952

Dave Erb(This article originally appeared in Volume 28 Number 1, Winter/January 2013) In this series of articles, N-News contributors share their lessons learned and observations in buying a used Ford tractor. Here, longtime contributor Dave Erb writes about his personal checklist for looking at a 9N, 2N or 8N to purchase. While all N models are fairly dependable, Dave says, as production continued into the fifties improvements to the tractor were undeniable. What follows are some pointers that will prove helpful for anyone pondering the purchase of one of these faithful tractors.

Generally speaking, early N production represented a major breakthrough in tractor design. The 3-point hitch system for plowing and implement attachment was a major achievement invented by Harry Ferguson and adapted for production by Ford Motor Company. It remains, even now, the industry standard. This is why you could purchase a sixty-year-old Ford tractor and a brand new brush cutter and mate the two with little adaptation.

In order for this material to make sense, a few basic things must be discussed first – like the important differences between the earlier 9N, 2N and later 8N models. Even from a distance, it is possible to spot the differences between these models by looking at the rear wheels. 9Ns and 2Ns have a large flat center nearly 24 inches in diameter while the later production 8N displays a dished rear wheel with a large two-inch nut in the center. The 9N and 2Ns all have 3-speed transmissions plus reverse, while 8Ns have 4 speeds forward plus reverse. Compare the 2N and 8N for example:

Differences between 2N and 8N illustrated

The top image shows Peter Liese’s 1947 2N that he has owned since 1979. Note the large, flat rear hub with six bolts spread out. Also, the front hubs have a similar, wide set five-bolt pattern. The bottom image of Kim Reany’s 1951 8N shows the dished rear hub and small set, eight-bolt pattern with a six-bolt on the front. Other major differences are the shape of the dash & steering box, a 3-speed (9N-2N) versus 4 speed (8N) transmission, factory running boards (8N) and draft control lever on 8N. AND, just to make it interesting, many parts are interchangeable. So, you could have a 4 speed transmission and rear end, but 9N-2N type hubs on the front.

Production of the 9N began in 1939 and continued until about 1942, when the 2N was produced during WWII. In their original form, most 2Ns had no distributor, but used a magneto instead. These units had no starter or battery and consequentially, no generator charging system. Since most of us like our creature comforts, most 2Ns now have starters, batteries and charging systems, just like other models. 9Ns and 2Ns originally did not have running boards – just foot pegs. If they have running boards now, they were added later. In 1947, following a protracted legal battle between Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson, 8N production began. These were the first Ford tractors originally painted red and gray.

The pinnacle of N model achievement was represented by the late 1951 and 1952 models that displayed a star prefix and suffix to the unit serial number. It is this writer’s opinion that the later the production of N models, the more valuable and useful the units are today. Note that all the N models have minor differences as the productions lines continued to make improvements – but it is the 8N that had one major change in 1950 with a move from the front mounted distributor (the placement on all the 9N, 2N and earlier 8N models) to a more accessible side mounted distributor. More on that later.

Things To Look For When You Shop

1. Loose rear hubs on 8N units.

How to check you 8N for rear hub play

By grabbing the top of the rear tires and rocking back and forth you could assess if there is play in the rear hubs. This test only works for 8N rear ends, not 9N or 2N. Tim Eakins’ 8N pictured.

This condition can be checked with no tools whatsoever, by simply grabbing each rear tire at the top and shaking the wheel in and out sideways. If you feel any play during this test, a hub is loose. Hubs are soft cast iron, and axles are hard steel so we all know which parts will wear first. Rear axle splines are tapered, so when a hub becomes loose, it will quickly wear out in the splined area. Loose hubs are almost always accompanied by leaking grease seals, which usually indicate the need for brake shoe replacement. At this writing, new hubs, seals and brake shoes retail for about $300 – $350 plus labor if you cannot do the repairs yourself. Early production 9N and 2N units use an axle/hub/drum unit that is one piece in design, so this tip only applies to 8N units.

2. Worn Steering Boxes in 9N and 2N units.

The design of these gear boxes is such that the upper worm gear bearing receives little lubrication after initial assembly. Once this bearing dries out, it is prone to wear and can eventually come apart. When this happens, the balls fall down between the worm and sector gears and JAM UP TIGHT. If a strong operator tries to make the tractor steer when this happens, (a perfectly normal reaction) the box can actually break. These parts can be very expensive, and are usually available only from salvage yards. Worn steering boxes often exhibit a tendency to shimmy at road speeds. Estimated value of a good used box is $500 plus labor. 8N steering boxes are of improved design and do not usually exhibit these issues.

3. Worn Hydraulic Pumps – All Models.

Ns employ a Scotch yoke design hydraulic pump that is pretty reliable, but over time these do eventually wear out. A faulty pump is most noticeable when lifting a load, and usually shows up as a pulsating lift as opposed to a smooth, even lift. Some pumps can be rebuilt, while others are too worn for this option. New pumps run about $600 plus labor.

4. Worn Hydraulic Piston Seals and/or Cylinders – All Models

The best test for these components is to get the tractor up to operating temperature and then shut it off with a heavy implement attached, like a plow or brush hog. Worn piston seals will leak down in a few minutes. Good tight hydraulic cylinders will hold a 2-bottom plow off the ground for 5 to 7 days. Behind the operator’s seat is a heavy spring that helps control plow draft. Under this area is the hydraulic cylinder and piston. Unless you have experience with these components, this is one area you might consider hiring an expert to do repairs. The labor will likely cost more than the parts.

5. Engine Wear – All Models

It is nearly impossible to perform a compression check in an N with the hood and fuel tank in place, unless you have a 90-degree elbow with plug threads to use with your gauge. While a compression test is the most reliable test for any motor, there are some other signs you can look for. Pull the breather cap off (oil fill point) and drive the tractor at low engine speeds in high gear, after the engine is up to operating temperature. Any sign of blow-by means compression escaping past piston rings. Engine overhaul kits start at around $500, plus any machine shop work and related labor. And, while the engine is warming up, pay close attention to the oil pressure gauge at idle. It should show a minimum of 20 psi, hot idle with normal weight oil. Average cost to perform an engine overhaul is around $2000 or more, depending on how much work you can do yourself.

Other General Considerations

Many tractors were subjected to calcium chloride in the rear tires to add ballast for better traction. This solution is highly corrosive and can play havoc with rear wheel rims in a few years time. N rims cost $100 each at most places. While no longer common, original hat-style rims are very desirable – and increasingly rare.

Tire tread is always important. Rear tires wear rapidly when driven on paved roads. New rear tires cost from $250 to $400 each. New inner tubes are about $30 each, plus related labor. American-made tractor rubber costs even more than this – if you can find it.

N engine design with right-mounted generator and front distributor

9N, 2N and early 8N engine design with generator on the right and a front mounted distributor.

8N example with a side-mounted distributor

8N engine design showing side-mounted distributor.

The last three years of 8N production used a side-mounted distributor that replaced the original monkey-face unit above the crankshaft used in earlier production. This improved design makes these later units more valuable, since they are infinitely easier to service.

Always check all fluids for appearance and the possible presence of water in gear or engine oil, and oil in radiator coolant. Any of these signs usually carry steep associated costs. The only exception to this is water present in the gear oil of tractors that sit out in the weather, a fairly common problem that can be remedied with 5 gallons of fresh oil.

Finally, cosmetic items like sheet metal quality, head and tail lights, exhaust systems and the like rank way down the ladder of importance, since they can be remedied without too much expense incurred. Having said all that, I remember that I spent a total of about $600 on new lights and brackets and switches and wiring, front and back.

Normal Wear Items

Up to this point in our story, we’ve talked only about excessive wear points, but even these fine tractors wear out eventually. Except for the last two years of production, N models were not equipped with hour meters. I wish they were, for it would amaze most of us to see just how many hours some of these tractors have been in operation. I knew one small Pennsylvania farmer who used his 8N for 25 years of light service, and never did any major repair work. A neighbor of ours used an N to power his silo filler and did a major overhaul nearly every season. No two N’s are identical.

Here then, are the major places to look for wear on N tractors:

  • Throttle quadrant – when the notches are all polished off
  • Clutch pedal – 8Ns – the diamond tread is polished off from use
  • Lower draft lift arms –the ball sockets on each end show lots of slop or play
  • Steering arm, tie rod and box wear – indicated by excessive play at steering wheel

Bottom Line

Perusing the two main N web discussion sites, here is the real skinny on N dollar value today by reader consensus. If it doesn’t run, maximum value is about $500, unless it has new rubber or some pretty special redeeming feature. If it runs okay with no major issues, $1500 to $2000. Tractors that are show quality, both cosmetically and mechanically are usually worth somewhere north of $4,000 depending on paint quality, parts originality, etc.

Example of an 8N with a Sherman transmission

Timothy Knutson’s 8N (before it was restored) with Sherman transmission. Note the extra shifter sticking out the side of the transmission housing.

Extra points should go to any N with original style hat rims or an original style front bumper. A Sherman transmission is worth an extra $500 – $1000 if it’s a combination hi/lo unit. Howard or Everett gear reduction units are usually worth an extra $1000.

The real bottom line is this: tractor restoration is downright FUN! It’s just too bad that spending money to restore them can easily get us upside down financially – where we’ve spent more on them than they’re worth. I’ve done it many times. That said, many of us will do it again and again. It isn’t all about money. But, for this reason, it may be prudent to pay a little more for a field-ready unit, especially if you are new to the restoration business.

Serial Numbers

9N 1939 – 1942
1939 9N1 – 9N10275
1940 9N10276 – 9N46017
1941 9N46018 – 9N88933
1942 9N88934 – 9N99046
2N 1942 – 1947
1942 9N99047 – 9N105411
1943 9N105412 – 9N126574
1944 9N126575 – 9N170017
1945 9N170018 – 9N198766
1946 9N198767 – 9N258539
1947 9N258540 – 9N306221
8N 1947 – 1952
1947 8N1 – 8N37907
1948 8N37908 – 8N141369
1949 8N141370 – 8N245636
1950 8N245637 – 8N343592
1951 8N343593 – 8N442034
1952 8N442035 – 8N524076

Dave Erb is a regular contributor to the N-News. Watch for the next in this series – pointers for Buying a Hundred Series machine.

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