My Fieldside Classic: 1978 International Harvester Cub: America’s Mechanical Mule

There seems to be an abundance of Cornbinders on this site lately. Is it harvest season? Well, I’m all for that, and would like to contribute further to that glut.

Now there are two things to consider as you read this article. The first is that tractors are a breed unto themselves.  They are not just slow moving cars with big back tires.

The second is that there is no fool like an old fool. I’m going to prove that here. I think you might get a little enjoyment hearing something  of my misadventures with a Cub.  Hopefully, if you’re considering becoming a rookie with agricultural equipment (as I was) you might learn something, and avoid lightening your retirement account as I did. If not, just don’t snicker too loudly.

The International Cub was built for some thirty years, and is a bit of an icon.  So let’s go through a little history before we visit one particular 1978 model. Probably some of you (Scoutdude?)know more about IHC than I do.

If you know anything about farm equipment you may have heard the names McCormick/Deering, Farmall, and International Harvester Corporation.  IHC was the major player in that field during most of the last century.  International Harvester Corporation had the right to use all those names.

After several years of trying to kill each other, JP Morgan managed to get the McCormick and Deering companies to merge with some smaller players into what became known as the International Harvester Corporation.  You might find a McCormick dealer and a Deering dealer across the street from each other.  In 1912  antitrust legislation forced IHC to reduce that to one dealer per town.  McCormick and Deering became IHC model names.  In the 1920’s Farmall joined them.

The original Farmall was built for row crop work, unlike the Fordson of the times.  That is to say they were built with narrow front wheels and high ground clearance.  They were built that way as part of the plan to replace horses and mules on farms.

To replace equines, it had to be cheap, dependable, and go just about anywhere.  Internationals were all of that, and the manufacturing was said to be the equal of Ford’s Fordson and the John Deeres.  They sold like hotcakes, and farmers bought into the mechanization idea.  IHC, particularly with the Farmall, became the country’s largest seller of farm tractors.

What it didn’t do much for, however, was the guy who had one to five acres and one horse or mule.  There had been some efforts at building small tractors, but for the most part, he had to wait until the business of WW2 was over.

The Cub:

Ever since the 1870’s, due to the increased use of mechanized equipment, farms have consistently become larger. More successful farmers bought smaller ones out. Corporation farms replaced many family farmers, especially in places like California. Tractors became ever larger, and today they may have eight or more wheels or rubber tracks, and an air conditioned cab.

For the really small farmer, however, things didn’t change all that much, and for them International developed the Cub. First built in 1947 with a whopping eight horsepower, it was marketed with the intent of taking the place of the horse on the one horse farm.  In its life it has been called the Farmall Cub, McCormick/Deering Cub, and the International Harvester Cub.  They used decals until they were gone so one might see any combination of those names.

Late 1940s Farmall Cub

They uniformly used Farmall red until the latter years as a means of not-so subtle advertising.  The color changed to yellow as the emphasis shifted away from small-scale farming to industry and landscaping in 1960.  There were over 245,000 Cubs sold from 1947 to 1981.

The EPA’s control over certain pesticides, along with the concept of sustainability with small farms helped sustain the long-term use of the Cub.  I have a cousin in Kansas who owns  more than one.  Parts are available all over the internet.  Enough history. Lets go to one particular 1978 International Harvester Cub.

#1 Son playing cowboy on Dad's new tractor

First of all, there is very little practical reason for me to own a tractor.  I use the handle wstarvingteacher, but in reality I am now neither starving nor a teacher.  I was a teacher but retired the summer before last. We bought the tractor because either my wife thought I needed a tractor badly as a retirement gift or because the yard (all five acres) looked like this.

Our lawn before tractor, donkeys, or llamas

We had a population explosion with our little herd of donkeys, and mama wanted and got two llamas.  We should have waited.  However, our yard was overgrown so we looked for tractors on ebay, and there it sat.  It looked for all the world like a real farm tractor but smaller with a belly mounted brush hog.  We had to have it.

We paid too much.  The man delivered it in a large horse trailer and unloaded it.  He did a demo for us before we paid and accepted delivery.  We encountered major problems very quickly, but I bought it from an honest man.  At least, he refunded $500 of the purchase price very quickly when I told him about some of the immediate bills.

The engine on the Cub is offset to the left. The driver is offset somewhat to the right.  This allows for a lot better visibility and keeps you from running over chickens and/or grandkids.  It was even given the a name  “Culti-Vision” by International. Please note the epoxy bandaid on the water sump.  You will hear more about that later.

The engine block is a flathead four.  This tractor was made two and a half decades after Ford quit making flatheads for cars.  It is approximately 60 cid, and the engine serves as an integral part of the frame.  You can see that pretty clearly in the late 1940s model above.

I viewed this fact with a great deal of chagrin very early in our relationship.  The pressure plate disintegrated and changing the clutch was fairly expensive.  Who knew.  I worked the adjustments but no go. I could put it in gear and start.  It would immediately start out but you had to turn it off to stop it.  It could be used in an emergency with planning.  To split the frame and change the clutch cost about a thousand dollars.  I was not happy;

The sump

There was no sign of a water pump.  There is a sump directly under the radiator.  This is a thermosyphon system. Shortly after the clutch blew up I experienced radiator problems. Do not listen to the cruel, sadistic, expletive deleted, idiots experts who advise you that you can put a pressurized cap on the system for improved performance.

The internet found the radiator in Kentucky and it was the first thing that I fixed.  It gave rusty a whole new meaning in my mind.

With the clutch and radiator fixed, it worked pretty good.  Loved the brush hog.  Then I broke my leg.  I guess because of sympathy pains, the cub decided to break again as well.

Despite it’s age-related infirmities, I can hardly describe how tough the Cub is.  It takes a Timex-style licking and keeps on ticking.  Somehow, in the process of doing too many things at the same time and recovering from that broken leg, the cooling system managed to explode.   I don’t really know if it was a pressurized cap or if it just got caught in a freeze.  Probably the latter.  You become pretty inattentive to the great outdoors when you are on  a couch with your leg in a cast.

When I was well enough to walk normally, I started up my tractor.  I found water pouring out from under the hood when I tried to fill the radiator.   When I opened the hood I found a large opening in the head.  This is a cellphone picture but the crack is obvious

cracked flathead

Since there was no water in the oil or oil in the water I bought some JB weld.  I cut up a landscape nail, shoved it in the wide parts of the crack and cemented it in with JB weld. Seems to work fine. I drilled a small hole in the radiator cap to relieve any pressure.  If it quits, I’m stuck looking for another head.  I think this rig will be working when I am dead and gone.

The precision engineered threadall is the lever that starts and stops the PTO.  In my case it is permanently rigged to make the belly mounted brush hog operate.  There are systems available to expand its capability.  However, I am content with the brush hog and its ability to pull trailers.  That PTO control is located directly to the right of the non-synchronized three speed transmission and to the left of the “one size fits all” battery box.

You are advised by the owner’s manual to pick a gear and stay in it.  I may try Paul’s trick of double clutching and going up a gear if the trailer is too heavy to start in second or third.

The ingenious use of the vice grip is to immobilize the hydraulic actuating lever.  One could very easily attach a blade and with this system manage the elevation.  I have thought about how to do that, but, as the song goes:  We don’t have white Christmases in Houston.

This thing has a short wheelbase.  Although it’s good with a trailer, that’s just going forward.  Backing up gives one with a spatial relationship problem the shivers.  That would be me.  However, going forward it turns on a dime, and if that were not enough, the brake pedals (brake the inside wheel) make it turn even sharper.

The carburetor is an updraft.  I had not seen one of those in years and this one doesn’t seem to work very well.  This carburetor may sell me on an LPG system.  The fuel is gravity flow. I do not remember ever having an upflow carburetor.  Did I mentioned that I am not impressed with the fuel system?

Since I was a young boy growing up in farming country, I have known that a trailer hitch was dangerous on a tractor.  That’s why Ferguson invented the three point hitch.  On the Cub, however, it is mounted low and directly attached to the hubs.  I could be made to believe that the effective attachment was forward of that.  For whatever reason, this thing is stable.

I don’t think I can easily get stuck in the mud but one must consider the luck I have had to this point.  I have become conservative but this rig goes everywhere. I may as well keep it. I sure can’t sell it because I could never find a sucker as big as me.

I started out to tell you of an anachronism with a special niche.  I hope you got a few laughs.  I’m sure some of you have encountered situations where you were over your head from the start and somehow came through, even if it wasn’t a tractor.