A Norfolk farmer has put 185 tractors up for sale

Paul Rackham's children sadly have no interest in inheriting the collection

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Proud master of all he surveys, Norfolk farmer Paul Rackham takes us to Shed 9. From the outside, Shed 9 looks like just another grain store.

Inside it’s different. Inside, Shed 9, of Camp Farm, Roudham, near Thetford, is a cornucopia of tractor delights.

Filling nearly all its 55,000 square feet, tractors – veteran, vintage and classic – stretch as far as the eye can see.

There is a 1916 Saunderson Universal G, a 1941 Fordson N with row-crop conversion, a 1925 British Wallis (flat bonnet version!)

Who wouldn’t thrill to behold such a vision?  Who wouldn’t rejoice to be told by Mr Rackham, “Some day, daughter (or son), all this will be yours”?

Mr Rackham’s four children and seven grandchildren, it seems. “I wish I knew why,” he says, but for some reason the boys were far more interested in “cricket, crumpet and beer”.  The girls preferred horses.

And so, with no-one ready to inherit his 185 tractors, Mr Rackham, 79, has decided it is time for The Sale.

Saturday, September 26 2015, auction day, will, the catalogue says, “go down in history... in the world of tractor collecting.”

Encompassing tractors from 1916 to a 1978 David Brown 885, who knows when such diversity and quality will be seen on offer again?

Among the 800 punters packing into Shed 9, said auctioneer Oliver Godfrey, “There will be people coming just to say they were there.”

Mr Rackham’s collection will fetch a total of at least £1 m – much more if bidders including up to 200 online from America to Australia, get really excited, as well they might. But Mr Rackham, a thatcher’s son who built a rural business empire that now includes 2,000 acres spread over four farms, insists this is just business.

A man of his age can’t keep clambering over farm machinery, and, once you tot up lost rent, business rates and paying someone to keep the tractors in working order, Shed 9 costs £100,000 a year to run. “I am not emotional or romantic about it at all,” he says.

With Mr Rackham and tractors, it certainly wasn’t love at first drive. “I was 16 or 17,” he says, “on my first day at North Farm, Barnham in Suffolk. Mr Reeve, the farmer, put me on a tractor – Fordson Major E27N – and I was so busy looking at the cultivator behind me, I forgot about the bloomin’ hedge. Drove straight through it. Mr Reeve came and had a look.

“’Rackham,’ he said, ‘I don’t think you are ready for tractors yet.’”

How things change. Starting some 20 years ago when he paid £250 for a 1951 International Farmall BM, Mr Rackham has spent, at a very rough estimate, £1m acquiring his collection, and “many hundreds of thousands” more on restoring his tractors.

“Relentless in the pursuit of victory”, he has even been prepared to pay over the odds for some of them – including £40,000 in 2006 for a 1953 David Brown 50D. “I don’t regret it at all.”

He takes pride in every one, whether polished to a shine more brilliant than when they left the factory, or “in their work clothes”, as they came off the farm, with characterful rust patches, or as Mr Godfrey, of Cheffins auction house, prefers to call them, “a nice patina”.

When it comes to his “flagship”, the 1918 Holt 75, pride seems mighty close to love.

Believed to have seen service controlling barrage balloons at Dover, it is the last surviving Holt 75 veteran of the First World War.

Narrowly avoiding the scrapyard on demob, languishing for decades in a tin shed, it was bought by Mr Rackham for £50,000, and now stands fully restored – at a further cost of £100,000. In olive drab paint, the letters BWD (British War Department) once again adorn its cylinders.

Yours to drive away for a six-figure sum, with optional extra eight-inch Howitzer, the kind of gun that would have been towed by many of the 1,810 Holt 75s that served in the Great War.

“It’s as rare as the Crown Jewels,” purrs Mr Rackham.  “You can find a few more diamonds in the world, but you’ll never get another one of these.” He pauses. “I hope it goes to a very special home.”

Like so many of his tractors, he adds, the Holt 75 is also a monument to a bygone age, when men were men and stood through all weathers on the back of their Baker 22-40.

“No seats,” says Mr Rackham, showing us his 1926 model. “You can see where the old boy has worn away the floor with his heel.

“Tractors nowadays,  they’ve got air conditioning, fridges, Bluetooth – they’re like hotel rooms!”

His tractors, he adds, also recall a golden era when British engineering and British tractors were the envy of the world. “We had firms like Marshall, Saunderson, Turner. We had men like Harry Ferguson, whose three-point linkage system [for towing agricultural implements] is an invention that hasn’t been bettered in about 80 years.

“We used to have tremendous tractors in this country. Now I can’t think of a single big UK tractor manufacturer that’s still going. It’s very sad.”

We pause by the 1948 David Brown Threshing Model VTK1. Because childhood memories also enter this  mix.

“A wonderful example of an original tractor,” says Mr Rackham.  “I remember watching them drive threshing drums, before the combine harvesters became common. There are nostalgic memories with these tractors.”

Not that he is getting sentimental, you understand.

The sale of all that he has bought, rescued and restored, is just business, “Time to say ‘Goodbye, mission accomplished, move on.’”

You almost believe him. Almost.