Midwest farmer says it’s time to pass on the joy of her mammoth antique tractor collection ahead of sale

Midwestern farmer Sue Illingworth was stunned when her husband, John, suggested they start a hobby together a few years after their marriage.

But rather than join a sports club or volunteer at a local charity, the couple decided to spend their weekends restoring tractors that would otherwise rot.

At the time, Mrs. Illingworth had no idea that the hobby would become a 50-year labor of love and culminate in a collection of more than 150 objects.

Mr Illingworth was one of the first farmers in Lancashire in the UK to own a tractor and demonstrated an uncanny talent for troubleshooting the machine.

A man driving a green tractor through a wheat field
John Illingworth in his element on one of his vintage tractors. (Delivered: Sue Illingworth)

The couple married in 1978 and established a sheep and wheat farm in Arrino, near Three Springs in Western Australia.

After completing the week’s work, they got into the truck and pulled discarded tractors out of the ground.

From trash to treasure

Ms Illingworth said farmers were often only too happy to get rid of the machines she would hire to do the cleaning.

“I blew them up and it was incredibly fun; I was covered in mud,” she said.

“We’ve been doing this for years and I got a better angle with the jet so I didn’t have half the paddock on me.”

After cleaning, Mr Illingworth disassembled the tractor’s parts before oiling them and reassembling the machine.

A woman sits on top of an old red fire truck with a brass bell and a ladder above it.
Ms Illingworth says the 1928 Denis fire engine is one of her favorite pieces in the collection. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Phoebe Pin)

Ms Illingworth says everything in the collection has character, but one of her favorite pieces is a 1928 Denis fire engine.

“That [owner] would only let us buy it once we drove it down the street through his neighborhood… and only if my daughter rang the bell,” she said.

“It was because all these ladies were gardening in his area … and they were so focused on the garden that he wanted her to ring the bell to make them look up.”

Ms Illingworth said they have often encountered strange inquiries when tractor hunting, with one man saying he was willing to sell his machine but would not deal with Mr Illingworth.

“He just talked to me, and my husband had to be at the door,” she said.

“He just wanted to tell me why he felt he had been mistreated… he felt like he was selling tractors but people were cheating on him.”

A brown military tank
The Stuart M3 Fort Knox military tank is one of the more whimsical items in the collection. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Phoebe Pin)

After persuading him, Mrs Illingworth said he would sell her the tractor if she could have the money ready in cash the next morning.

“We reached out to him and he was as happy as anything … he just didn’t have anyone to talk to,” she said.

“They don’t feel like men when they have to talk about it.”

The couple were generous with their collection, and Mr Illingworth would spend hours showing off the tractors to friends, tourists and motorists who drove through town.

Before his death, Mr Illingworth proposed that the collection be sold and all items auctioned off on Sunday.

A man pretending to drive a dark blue vintage tractor
Robbie Richards says Illingworth tractor collection is rare. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Phoebe Pin)

Robbie Richards of Donington Auction said one of the tractors – a 1904 Ivel agricultural power tractor – could sell for a record-breaking price.

“The last Ival sold two years ago was in the UK … and I think one went for around $580,000, which set a new world record for it,” he said.

“We see no reason why the tractors we have wouldn’t set an Australian auction record.”

The Ival tractor is one of only nine known to still exist.

Mr Richards said Illingworth’s vintage tractor collection was the largest he had ever seen.

“This is a real specialty… these things don’t come out very often, and when they do, collectors come from all over to watch, realizing they may never get the chance to purchase any of these in her life,” he said.

A woman and a toddler are sitting on a red tractor on a farm
A young Mrs. Illingworth rides a tractor with her daughter. (Delivered: Sue Illingworth)

end of an era

Despite the lifelong memories associated with the tractors, Ms Illingworth says she will not be sad when they go.

“That’s no problem at all. We had the joy of it, we worked really hard on it…but it’s too much,” she said.

“Well, it’s about time someone else did, and there are a lot of collectors like John who like to go and tinker with it and have a lot of fun with it.”

A woman stands in a shed full of vintage tractors
Mrs. Illingworth and her husband John collected and restored more than 150 tractors. (ABC News: Phoebe Pin)

Ms Illingworth said her husband loved nothing more than passing on his skills to others, a legacy she hopes to continue by starting a charity to help people overcome adversity.

“We were a good team and the girls and I will carry it forward,” she said.

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