SCHLESWIG — It’s not quite the time-traveling DeLorean from “Back to the Future” movie fame.
But a meticulously restored 1987 Case IH Magnum 7140 tractor offers a unique glimpse into the past.
“When you jump in the cab of this tractor, it’s just like you’re sitting in a time capsule back to 1987 again,” said Mike Joas, owner of Joe’s Auto Body Tractor in rural Manitowoc County.
“It looks just like it came off the assembly line 32 years ago, if not better. It’s like stepping into a time warp for everybody who loves Case IH tractors.”
Joe’s Auto Body Tractor recently completed a painstaking four-month, top-to-bottom restoration of the tractor, even scrubbing hard-to-see spots with a toothbrush.
The Magnum 7140 is historically significant since it was the first off the assembly line in 1987 that ended up getting sold to the public. Case IH showcased the tractor and its state-of-the-art technology at farm shows across the country in 1987 and 1988 before shipping it to a dealer in Nebraska, where a farmer bought it.
Gerald Forsythe, an Illinois businessman with deep agricultural roots, began searching for the tractor about eight years ago and finally bought it last year when the second owner put it up for auction. He was determined to add the Magnum 7140 to his collection.
“I was going to buy that tractor no matter what,” said Forsythe, of the Chicago suburb of Inverness, who savored his upbringing on the family farm in Marshall, Illinois.
Forsythe reached out to Joas shortly after the auction, and soon thereafter the tractor was en route to Joe’s Auto Body Tractor for restoration.
“I thought I’d give Mike an opportunity,” Forsythe said. “I did some checking on him, and he has a good reputation. So I said, ‘Mike, I want that tractor to look like a new one when it comes back to the farm.’”
The Magnum 7140 turned out to be the biggest and longest project in the history of Joe’s Auto Body Tractor, which dates back to 1971. Stretching more than 12 feet wide, the tractor barely fit through the shop’s large garage door.
Mike’s father, Joe, founded the shop across the road from his father’s Holstein dairy farm near Kiel. After the first 24 years, the shop transitioned from working on cars and trucks to solely restoring tractors. Mike became the owner in 2001, making it the country’s oldest second-generation, full-time tractor restoration shop.
The Magnum 7140 project required several hundred hours of expert work by Mike, his father, employees Jim Plagemann and Floyd Voss, and even a helping hand now and then from sons Ethan and Cody.
“It was a huge, huge undertaking,” Joas said. “I knew it was going to be a big project. I knew it was going to be a challenge. I knew it was a large tractor, and I knew it had duals. So I knew what I was getting into.
“But the cab was a lot more than I thought. So many small pieces that added up. It took a lot of time for every detail, but I think it turned out really well. (Forsythe) wanted this tractor to look like it was in a time capsule all these years. He wanted it looking brand-spanking new like it just came off the assembly line. So that’s what we did.”
Using an original piece of sales literature as his blueprint and a neighbor’s 7140 for additional reference, Joas and his team brought the tractor back to its original glory.
“The most time-consuming thing was the cab,” said Joas, noting that while the tractor overall was in above average condition when he received it, only two plastic pieces in the cab could be saved.
He searched inventories at 12 salvage yards to find the necessary plastic components, and then reconditioned them to look uniform and new again.
“When you sit in the driver’s seat, you’d think you’re back in the ’80s sitting in a brand-new tractor,” Joas said.
“Let me tell you, when Case IH came out with the Magnum, that was a heck of a flagship. They were really well-built, good tractors without a lot of problems, easy to repair. But when it comes to finding good used parts for a complete restoration, a lot of the salvage yards are boned out. Guys kept bringing them back from the dead and rebuilding them. So it was a bear to find good used parts.”
Symbols, numbers and emblems in the cab were carefully hand-painted to look like new.
“Even every screw inside the cab has a little plastic cap for a trim piece, so it’s so much more labor intensive,” Joas said. “It just had a lot more electronics, a lot more levels, a lot more buttons, a lot more switches. And then you have all the glass. So all the weather strips were taken out and cleaned up.”
An aftermarket radio had been installed, so Joas “went back to the 1987 time capsule again and got the proper radio. I did some digging and, lo and behold, I found a new old-stock Case IH radio.”
The engine had 4,500 original hours and the body was in decent condition.
“The fenders, hood and roof are all made of fiberglass, which is a good thing because fiberglass is easy to repair,” said Joas, noting a new coating of urethane paint provided a nice gloss.
Meanwhile, six new Firestone radial tires were put on, secured with new lug bolts and nuts.
“We had to replace a left rear axle seal, because it was leaking,” Joas said. “But other than that it was a pretty nice tractor. You could tell it was taken care of over the years.”
In places where new tractor components arrived labeled as CNH, instead of Case IH, Joas worked with a local business to create new decals so everything appeared as it did in 1987. That attention to detail even included elements like the shifting pattern and hydraulic lever pattern.
“I was lucky, because Jerry wanted me to go all out,” Joas said. “He wanted me to make this tractor precisely perfect. He didn’t give me a leash. He just wanted this immaculately perfect.”
Thousands of tractors have been restored at the shop over the years, including four or five that were unique experimental pieces or No. 1 tractors off the line. But the Joas family and their employees say they treat them all the same by giving 100 percent effort.
“Every restoration we do in this shop I do like it’s my own,” Joas said. “I want these tractors to last for years.”
His father, Joe, added: “There’s not any more pressure with this one. Like our business card says, ‘Perfection and authenticity is our goal.’ That’s how we approach all of our jobs.”
Tractors restored at Joe’s Auto Body Tractor can be found in 26 states from coast to coast as well as in Europe.
The Magnum 7140 will remain at the shop for a few more weeks, and as the weather improves it will get shipped to Forsythe Family Farms outside Marshall in east-central Illinois. Forsythe and his four daughters own the operation, which is where the tractor will be displayed and available for the public to see as part of his collection of 40-plus tractors.
“Mike is very proud of the work he does, and I’m very happy with how it’s worked out for me as well,” Forsythe said.
Forsythe, 78, serves as chairman and CEO of Indeck Power Equipment Co. and Indeck Energy Services Inc., and has investments in numerous real estate properties, resorts and other entities.
But his passion for agriculture remains strong. At the age of 9, he began helping his father on the family’s 140-acre farm in Illinois’ Clark County. He fondly recalls his father owning a Farmall H and his grandfather getting him a Farmall C when he was younger.
“I grew up on a farm, and I farmed,” he said. “We had a typical small family farm. We raised hogs, cattle and sheep, and we had corn, soybeans, wheat and hay. … I developed a good work ethic, and I thank my father for that. … I’ve never relinquished my feelings for farming.”
In about 1985, Forsythe bought a 200-acre farm in Clark County. Over the ensuing years, he accumulated another 28,000 acres; he still maintains about 5,000 acres now.
Among the tractors in his collection is the 100,000th Magnum (painted gold) and 150,000th Magnum (painted platinum). He drove both off the assembly line.
The tractor renovated at Joe’s Auto Body Tractor “will be a wonderful addition to the collection that everyone can see,” he said.
For more about viewing the tractor at Forsythe Family Farms, call 217-251-8282. And for additional details about Joe’s Auto Body Tractor, visit www.joesautobodytractor.com or call 920-894-2134.