Mechanical donkeys

Massey Ferguson tractors from the 1960s are still the star attraction at a monthly auction in England.

Old Massey Ferguson tractors might not be on everyone’s wish list, but they are certainly the stars of the show at the monthly second-hand machinery auction that takes place every month in Cambridgeshire in Eastern England. The auction, which features rows and rows of second-hand farm machinery, is the biggest of its kind in the world and attracts more than 35,000 buyers.

It’s the Massey Ferguson tractor models 135 and 165, which the venerable manufacturer assembled in the hundreds of thousands during the 1960s, that have the greatest star power at the monthly event. The 135, and especially the 165, were the most popular new models of their day, says Bill Pepper, director of Cheffins, the house that runs the monthly auction.

That is most likely because those machines, which many call mechanical donkeys, just keep putt-putting along. “[T]hey're so basic, but they're incredibly reliable and they just keep going on and on. Providing they've got a bit of fuel, a bit of water and there's oil in the engine they'll keep on going, probably until they're 100 years old," said Pepper to the BBC. “We've had examples where they've literally been sitting in a hedge for 10, 12 years, people have put a bit of diesel in them, they've tow-started them and boof! – off they go – just like that.”

Buyers for these “donkeys” come mainly from less developed countries where such engines represent a huge upgrade to the previous practices of ploughing with cattle and carrying loads with donkeys. Dealers know the value these machines represent and that’s why Harsha Dharmawardene, from Sri Lanka, has been attending the auction for 30 years. He exported more than 100 Massey Ferguson tractors a year between 1993 and 2003. Another dealer, Kenyan Barnabas Sawe, comments: “A good tractor can transform a village, helping in any number of ways – getting water from a river, for example. It transforms a community.”

Listen to the latest BBC World Service radio documentary - Follow that Tractor - currently available on the BBC World Service website