Phil on his Power Fordson Major.

‘They go on the sniff of diesel’

The Ford Capri looks like it has rolled off the showroom floor and into Phil McGauran’s via some wormhole in the space time continuum. With chrome Harley Davidson-esque wing mirrors, metallic emerald paintwork and the sleek angles striking an air of defiance, it looks as dashing as it must have when first built in 1969.

Out in the yard there’s a DeLorean imported from the States with its distinctive shape still discernible from beneath its protective car onesie. But the Celt’s at the outskirts of Ballinagh on farming duty, so vintage tractors are the order of the day.

However, having seen these cars it’s natural to suppose Phil is someone who takes his collecting hobby to obsessive lengths. And that he’s a founding member of Ballinagh Vintage Club only reinforces such suspicions that his vintage collection - including six tractors - is his pride and joy.

I’m braced for a barrage of data on horsepower, torque and original paint colour reference numbers, all gleaned from a manual (the original obviously, kept in a sealed plastic covering). But far from it.

In his easy going way, Phil warmly chats about tractors without cold figures punctuating every sentence. Asked for a date of manufacture, he’ll guestimate; asked for horsepower, he’ll proffer an apology. That’s not to say Phil doesn’t possess great knowledge on the vehicles - he’s just more attuned to the aspects that interest him.

Reared on a Mullahoran farm, Phil enjoys reflecting on his youth when he drove tractors - like his Massey Ferguson 135 - with a more tangible purpose than nostalgia.

“The first pound ever I earned was with a tractor, doing jobs for people in the country. I don’t know what the colour of the driver’s licence was at that time - it wasn’t the most important thing,” he says with a laugh.

Phil struck a deal for delivering meal with a local pig man whereby he earned 10 shillings for every half tonne of meal delivered.

“That was the deal - that was one of the first jobs I did.”

He proceeded into full time agricultural contract work for years until he landed a job in the milk plant in Killeshandra.

“It was a lot easier I tell you than working tractors on the country,” he says never regretting the switch of career.

Now stored in a friend’s shed the far side of Ballinagh, Phil bought the 135 around the turn of the millennium and put it to work for a decade or more.

“I used it for a good few years bringing turf from the bog, and doing little chores around the farm,” he explains of the tractor that dates from the early 1970s.

Made with a Perkins engine this model succeeded the 35X, and to Phil’s mind was “a big step up”.

“They’re a very useful tractor - people with no land has them for clearing rubbish from about the house, doing little chores and going for a drive on them if they wish.

“And they go on the smell of diesel,” he marvels. “You’d forget to put diesel in them, honest to God you would forget, compared to these big horsepower fuel guzzlers now.”

Phil recalls putting the reliable 135s to use doing rotary mowing and working the hay bobs.

“I bought another one - as you do if you’re at vintage and you’re mad in the head - and I said I’d do this one up.”

A new cab brought in from Poland, a paint job and a minimum of mechanical work had the old 135 back in fine fettle.

“All it needed was a clutch - the engine was perfect in it,” he lauds.

Ragged condition

A second of Phil’s tractors - Power Fordson Major - is parked at another spot further on up the road. His son - also Philip, and who is handy at maintaining them - had it hooked up a power-washer to run off it.

This Power model came between the standard Major and the Super Major models.

“It was fit to do a lot more than the Masseys were at the time,” Phil recalls of the sturdy looking tractor. Dating from 1958 they were often employed for rotovating and cultivating.

“They did hard work - they were more made for the field than the road because they were heavy,” he says, pointing out a pulley behind the seat which enables it to drive a thresher.

With a white fender on the front, a grey body and orange wheels it’s eye catching. Tractors are more attractive without a cab, the Celt suggests.

“They are, but you’d appreciate the cab when there come a shower of rain. In this country it’s hard to get a day you wouldn’t get wet on them.”

He bought this one around 20 years ago, and unlike the Massey, it took much more than a change of clutch to get back into working order.

“It was in ragged condition. The man who did it up for me, he had the divil’s bother. It nearly tricked him as to know what was wrong with it.”

Phil isn’t the sort to insist on original parts if he needs a replacement.

“You take what you get,” he says without hesitation.

Admiring the Fordson Major he says: “I do like driving that on a good day.”

Is it a passion, or an addiction for Phil?

“I wouldn’t see it like that,” he says, politely dismissing the notion. “It’s just an interest.”

Phil likes how vintage vehicles retain their value, they don’t have to be treated too carefully beyond being housed and took out for a spin now and then, but his interest was truly ignited for personal reasons. Phil and his wife Anne have four adult children Lupita, Philip, Olivia and Matthew.

“Matthew is our pride and joy,” he beams of his son who has Down Syndrome.

When Matthew was young the couple benefited from the help of a specialist teacher.

“He was taught at home - little basics. And she was able to advise us on things to do with him - because in the beginning you don’t know what to do or where to go. She was very helpful.”

With no government grants, and having to cover a huge region the teacher could only offer limited help.

“An hour every two weeks - that was all we were getting, but that meant so much,” recalls Phil. Even so, budget constraints meant she was “within weeks” of being let go.


Cornafean Vintage Club came to the rescue by organising a fundraising tractor run which generated enough donations to fund the teacher’s post.

“Only for the vintage club in Cornafean,” he says, still grateful for their help and generosity.

Buoyed by the success, neighbours suggested Phil start a vintage club closer to home. And that he did.

“Like bringing the soldiers into Belfast - it’s easier starting it, than it is getting out of it,” he jokes of Ballinagh Vintage Club.

Phil served his time as chairperson, and is still a loyal member of the club which has John Tully as chair, Billy Reilly, as treasurer and Phil’s wife Anne as secretary.

“We’ve raised a lot of money since we started. I think the biggest cheque we ever handed over was €36,000 to Aware,” he says from the annual Sam Bennett Memorial fundraiser.

Their latest event saw them donate “something over €13,000” to Cavan Palliative Care. A fine achievement for the handful of people involved in organising it.

“People are very supportive of charities in this country - you wouldn’t believe it till you’re doing it. You might get ate now and again - you have to bear that and keep going. People are very generous.”

It is this sense of community that’s the real driving force behind Phil’s interest in these old tractors.

“The people who are involved in vintage are salt of the earth. They put the diesel in the tractor first and they go and put their hand in their pocket for whatever the charity is when they arrive.”