Backyard Classic: 1955 Oliver Super 88 Diesel Tractor – I’ve Got the Biggest Garden Tractor In Town!

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(first posted 7/8/2013.  The quite elderly owners have since moved out and the Oliver too)  It’s all about the boy toys, and when it comes to backyard garden tractors, this one takes the prize. Now if this scene had been shot out on the edge of town, no biggie. But this fine Oliver Super 88 lives just a couple of blocks down the alley from us, and is very much in town; rather close in actually (Friendly Street and 27th). It’s been there for at least the twenty years we’ve lived here, and it comes out of its big garage to play in the backyard once in a while. I rather assume the owners are retired farmers, and just couldn’t bear not bring their favorite tractor to live with them. I can relate, especially for a vintage Oliver.

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I’ve always had a soft spot for older Olivers, preferably even older than this one, which is sadly missing its distinctive bright yellow grille. Why? They were some of the best looking tractors back in the late thirties through the early fifties, and many of them sported six cylinder engines. What a winning combo.

Oliver Super-88_9

Here’s how this one is supposed to look. At least I I think that’s what the featured tractor is, but it’s possible that it’s an earlier 88. But the really fine-looking Olivers date back a ways further, when they were some of the handsomest tractors in the land.

Oliver 70

If I remember correctly, Oliver was pretty much the first of the major tractor manufacturers to embrace Streamlined Moderne styling in the thirties, which was quite a revolution down on the farm, given how utilitarian tractor were back then. Tractors were a bit late to the streamlined party, but Oliver embraced it fully, with a sleek now hood, grille, and even full engine covers. Oliver had three main models: the 50 and 60, both four-cylinders, and the 70, which sported a 201 cubic inch six cylinder by Waukesha. This is in a class of tractor size  where sixes were almost unheard of. Governed to a rated 1500 rpm, the six churned out all of 31.52 hp at the belt.

Oliver was also a pioneer in diesel engines for main-line tractors such as these. Diesels generally didn’t become common on the family farm until the very late fifties or well into the sixties, but since Waukesha was a diesel engine pioneer itself, it obviously made sense to offer them on the Olivers too.

Oliver 77

The next generation looked a bit less delicate, with a slightly chunkier grille and body. As I mentioned earlier, what really set Oliver apart was its use of in-line sixes in classes of popular field tractors that were dominated by four cylinders and the two-cylinder John Deeres. This gave the Olivers a very distinct feel and sound, and I thoroughly enjoyed my one day in the saddle of a 77 like this, on a neighbor’s farm when I used to spend part of my childhood summers as a tractor driver intern.

Compared to the thumping Johnny-poppers and the big fours on Farmalls (and Allis Chalmers and Case), the Oliver’s Waukesha OHV gas six ran as smooth as the proverbial turbine. Well, relatively so. Of course, these fairly small sixes weren’t quite as torquey as the fours, or especially the JD twins. But the sound of a six working through a minimal muffler was music to my ears on a long day spent raking hay.

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Admittedly, these folks have the biggest back yard in my neighborhood, given that their house (dubbed “The Pluggers’ Mansion” by us), but the big Oliver doesn’t really have much to do, except maybe spread some fresh gravel every few years. It’s not like they’ve used it to bust their sod.

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Here’s the throne, and no, it’s not original. But it looks mighty familiar to me. I’m sitting in a very similar vintage steel chair right now (with its legs intact), a high quality vintage model that will still be around after the Apocalypse. This one had some added padding.

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Here’s a closer look at the helm. The steering wheel’s hub is a bit different; I’m not sure what to make of it. The “throttle” is of course that notched lever sprouting out on the right. Since tractor engines are governed, this doesn’t really open the throttle, but changes the engine speed, which the governor then tries to keep consistent, regardless of load. Cruise control, if you like.

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The Oliver has a rather unusual transmission shift pattern, although with tractors, not really anything is standard. Perhaps the Farmall five -speed was the closest to that of a typical car’s pattern. Obviously Oliver used a three-speed forward transmission with a two-speed auxiliary, all of it shifted by one lever. That is a bit unusual.

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If this is a Super 88, then its Waukesha diesel six has now grown to 265 inches (4.3 L), has a governed rated speed of 1750 rpm, and a tested output at the belt of 55.77 hp (Nebraska Tractor test). The Super 88 wa sbuilt between 1954 and 1958, and would have competed with the Farmall 450. These were essentially the most powerful standard field tractors of their time.

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Nothing less would do for this backyard tractor owner.