Triple-Nickel
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1956 Massey-Harris 555

The ’55 Diesel debuted in 1949 as the big diesel tractor in the Massey-Harris lineup. Despite some teething problems, it established a reputation as a gutsy tractor, and by the mid 1950s, many thousands were at work in the wheatlands of the Northern Plains of the United States and Canada. Then came the merger of Massey-Harris (M-H) and Harry Ferguson Inc. and the notorious Two Line Policy.

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Daren Meyers’ 1956 555 Western was built in the early part of the production run and spent most of its working life in South Dakota. While it’s largely original and in good original cosmetic condition, Meyers reports this tractor was the poster child for “rode hard and put away wet.” The engine had been run so hard there were 3/16-inch cracks in the block between the sleeves… and it still ran! The fuel screw in the PSB pump was turned out to the last thread. Meyers built one engine out of three to get this tractor 100-percent back in the game. He planned a full cosmetic restoration as well, but the tractor’s patina drew so many positive comments he decided to run it as-is. He still rides it hard but doesn’t put it away wet.

The merger was a mutually beneficial move designed to counter low profits from a post-WWII market saturated with tractors. For a brief time after the merger was fully complete in 1954, the new Massey-Harris-Ferguson organization became the second biggest farm equipment company, just behind International Harvester and a squeak ahead of John Deere, in North America. It made sense at the time to keep the two as separate companies, since brand loyalty is always a factor and both M-H and Ferguson had legions of fans.

Both companies brought a lot to the table and, in theory, it was a good match. Each had a good dealer network and a firm grasp of farm equipment technology and marketing. Massey-Harris was more broadly based in farm equipment manufacturing, while Ferguson was further ahead on the tractor technology side, but didn’t offer a big tractor. Still, the Two Line Policy created problems because it pitted two brands within the same company against each other, at both the dealer and corporate levels.

Out of this mess emerged the Massey-Harris 555, commonly called the “Triple-Five” or “Triple-Nickel.” Production started in 1955 (for 1956) and it was a refresh of the Model 55 (see DW, February 2018) that added some chrome bling and a fair number of styling changes, but not much else. The small tractors like the 33 and 44 got lots more upgrades in their transition to the triple digit line, most notably two-speed range boxes in the transmission.

Like the 55s, the new 555 variation was offered with a choice of gasoline, distillate, butane, LP, or diesel powerplants that were variations on the same Continental 382 cubic-inch, four-cylinder block. They could be purchased as a Standard fixed-tread general purpose model, a Riceland, or a Western (a.k.a. “Hillside”). The latter two variations featured much larger tires, an arched front axle, and a full operator’s platform. The difference between them was the rice special had single-ribbed front and deeply lugged rear rice tires. And, believe it or not, you could still get a 555 on cleated steel wheels.

The styling changes included altering the hood lines to cover more of the engine, putting the screen chaff guard behind the radiator shell (plus painting it yellow), and putting the radiator cap inside a cover on the hood. Very noticeable was the bronze paint used on the engine and the silver painted rear wheel rims. The optional lighting system was updated with more powerful lamps.

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The JD382 engine was a long-stroke powerhouse from Continental with a modest 1,350-rpm redline and a torque peak at 700 rpm. The wet-sleeved four-cylinder weighs just under 1,000 pounds and features a Lanova Power Cell combustion chamber. Continental commonly rated them at 72.5 hp and 278 lb-ft at the flywheel, and there were versions that made 100 horsepower at 2,000 rpm. In the 555 with the PSB pump, torque was 255 lb-ft and flywheel power was around 56 horsepower. This engine was later enlarged to 403 cubic inches with a 1/8-inch bore increase, and production continued well into the 1960s.

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Chris Dauer shows what the old Triple-Nickel can do with a four-bottom Massey Harris 4-14 Model 28 plow in very tough NW Ohio clay. The 555 was rated as a “4-5 plow” tractor, but that very inexact period rating depends on the ground conditions, and baked NW Ohio clay is notorious for bringing even the toughest tractors to their knees. The Riceland and Western 555s featured very large tires. Originally the rears were 18-26 but Meyers has upgraded to a 23.1-26, which is more easily available. The original South Dakota owner had the old beast well-weighted and Daren left it that way, with 1,800 pounds on the rear wheels (6×150-pound weights). The tractor was photographed at the 2017 Alvordton Plow Days.

On the technical front, the list of upgrades came from the very last part of the Model 55 run, but were highlighted as “new” for the 555 models. Power steering was available in the 55 at the very end but was more common in the 555 tractors. The drawbar was beefed up and the hydraulic controls updated, as well as the plumbing and fittings. The final drive housings were also beefed up, along with internal improvements that included better hardening on the countershaft, stronger axle shafts, and differential upgrades.

The engine saw improvements, though all of these were introduced in the ’55 era. This started with a new magnafluxed and Nitrided high-alloy steel crankshaft touted as being three times stronger than the old breakage-prone piece. The main bearings, main bearing caps, and studs were beefed up. The injection pump was upgraded from a Bosch APE to the new Bosch PSB pump. This resulted in about a 2.5-horsepower increase at the 1,350-rpm peak, but more substantial increases at the lower part of the curve. Low-end torque was significantly improved from 238 at 700 rpm to 252 at the same speed and the line held higher all the way to the 1,350-rpm redline. The cold-starting gear changed from a fifth injector and spark plug in the intake to an electrically heated coil manifold heater.

The 555’s production continued into early 1958, with a total of 3,794 built, but was halted around the time management discontinued the Two-Line Policy. The internal fighting over resources, plus very unhappy and insecure dealer networks, created a highly negative effect that became very public. After some difficult management changes, the company went into a more unified direction, reorganizing in December of 1957 as Massey-Ferguson (M-F). It would be a top-to-bottom overhaul that put the company on a more even keel. Unfortunately, it would also kill off a large portion of the Massey-Harris tractor DNA.

Historians have noted that when they killed off the Massey-Harris tractors, they killed off all the big tractors in the lineup, notably the 444 and 555. To fill this gap, they re-badged Minneapolis-Moline tractors (see DW, June 2018) until M-F could fully develop its own big tractor. A Jimmy-powered Oliver was also re-badged to make the M-F 98. There was probably some underlying wisdom to these moves, but Massey-Harris fans don’t understand them and still hold a grudge.

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Meyers’ tractor has some anomalies. For whatever reason, M-H made a hand clutch standard for the Western and Riceland tractors. You could order a foot clutch in either if you preferred. The tractor serial number reflected which type, with an “H” for hand clutch (the lever seen to the left in this pic) and “F” for the foot clutch. Not only is this tractor marked both “H” and “F” on the serial number, it has both the linkages in place, though only the foot clutch is hooked up at present. The 555 was never tested at Nebraska and the 55 diesel only once in 1950.

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One of the big differences in the Western and Riceland models versus the Standard was the extension to the platform. The seat tilted to the side for driver access and flipped back to allow the operator to stand. A shaft-type PTO was optional in place of the cover just below the hydraulic remotes.

Specifications
1956 Massey-Harris 555 Western Diesel

Engine: 4-cylinder, JD-382 Continental
Displacement: 382 ci
Bore & Stroke: 4.5 x 6 in.
Flywheel Power: 56 hp @ 1,350 rpm
Flywheel Torque: 255 lb-ft @ 700 rpm
Compression Ratio: 15:1
Transmission: 4-speed
Tires: Front—7.50-18
Rear—18-26
Weight: 5,125 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 27.5 gal.


SOURCES

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