Rebuilding a BCS two-wheel tractor

We decided to buy a tiller this year in the hopes that we can spend less time preparing garden beds by hand and more time working on the house. Yes, this goes against my enthusiasm for digging hoes, but time vs. money trade-offs are a fact of life on a homestead. Last summer we were definitely short on time.

After reviewing the usual big box store tillers, I was kind of disillusioned with the available machines. I’m always a fan of buying quality equipment once, and most of the products out there doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. I’m also prejudiced by having grown up around an old cast iron Troy Bilt Horse.

I started researching tillers online and I discovered that what I was really looking for is a called a two wheel tractor. Two wheel tractors were once extremely common in the U.S. and sold by many companies including Gravley, David Bradley, Bolens, Wizard, and Troy Bilt. Two wheel tractors are not just tillers. They are basically a mobile PTO shaft and can mount many implements just like a full sized tractor. They are still widely used in Europe and Asia, working the soil in market gardens, haying small fields, and towing carts. This Dutch site has some great pictures of two wheel tractors and implements in use.

Unfortunately, here in the U.S. our taxpayer-subsidized agricultural system favored larger and larger farms while home gardens got smaller and smaller. The market for a heavy-duty two wheel tractor basically disappeared, and all U.S. brands have either gone bankrupt or sold out to conglomerates producing inferior products.

Although the U.S. brands are gone, you can still buy a rugged agricultural grade tiller by turning to an Italian import. BCS (which owns Ferrari) has been producing farming equipment for about 60 years, and importing them into the U.S. for about 35 years. Their designs rarely change. A new BCS tiller can mount any implement built in the last 15 years, and even older ones with an adapter. They are pretty amazing pieces of engineering and have only one downside: price! A basic model with a tiller implement starts at around $2500 and prices run up to $4300. Obviously, that was a little more than I wanted to spends, so we started watching CraigsList. BCS tractors are fairly popular in our area and we have a local dealer. About two weeks after I started looking, I found one for sale an hour away. I should have talked the guy down a little more I suppose, but I got carried away in my enthusiasm and bought it. I’m now the proud owner of a fine piece of Italian engineering. Kind of like a Ferrari … only practical … and reliable.

This particular tiller is a BCS 830. It was built in the early 2000s, and has similar features to their current 853. It was used on a market garden here in Oregon, and then locked in a metal shed for a few years and forgotten. It’s in pretty good shape overall. The motor is a Briggs, which is bad, and it’s seized, which is unsurprising. BCS has since switched to Honda across their whole lineup, and I plan to swap out this one for a Honda too. I’ve ordered a new motor, cables, and other replacement parts from Earth Tools, which is an importer of BCS tractors and implements based in Kentucky. A series of posts to follow this one will provide pictures and tips for the benefit of anyone else who happens upon one of these amazing machines and wants to restore it.

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22 Responses to Rebuilding a BCS two-wheel tractor

  1. Ali says:

    I’ve never seen one of these, but have heard a lot of great things about them. I will be curious to see how this project progresses. A few years ago we reached a similar conclusion, so purchased a Honda mini tiller. It has made things a lot easier.

    • lee says:

      Yes, Honda brand products are always a safe investment. I admired the Honda tillers, but the multiple implement options for the BCS really got me. They make everything from potato diggers to stationary generators that fit on the BCS. Glad to hear the tiller has been worthwhile for you too.

  2. Lynn says:

    Ok, Lee, I know nothing about farm equipment, but I know we have a tiller. I have no idea of the brand, though. It’s red. It’s an invaluable tool for Randy. I have never touched it. I’m such a girl! I think it’s so cool that you have a Ferrari tiller. And it’s a pretty color of blue. Back when we were looking for a used tractor I told Randy he should get a blue one. I think blue ones are New Holland, but I could be wrong. I just liked blue. We ended up with a yellow Ford tractor because it was cheap and available.

    Randy’s farm equipment is always breaking, it seems. I don’t understand, really. Farm equipment isn’t cheap, I’d expect it should only need a tune up every year. But no, Randy’s ALWAYS out there fixing something. Our one and only riding lawn mower broke down yesterday. We have a second one that doesn’t work, too. Our cool little Mule ATV thing broke down last year. I loved that Mule. It sits outside, waiting for Randy’s time and extra money for parts.

    Good luck on restoring your BCS tractor. I’ll have to drag Randy in from his outside work to read this post.

    • lee says:

      Ha ha! That’s so funny. Robin was quick to comment on the nice blue color too. There’s a second brand of Italian import two-wheel tractor called Grillo, and their most distinctive feature is that they are green.

      I sympathize with the broken down motors. My Ferguson tractor (gray) is always an adventure to get started each spring. At the moment it’s completely dead as I inadvertently flooded the crank with gas. Our old leaky shed rusted out a used lawn mower and chain saw after the first winter, so now when I buy anything new it has to stay in the house or I know I’ll never be able to start it in the spring.

      • Lynn says:

        Ha, I’m never gonna let Randy see you’re response about bringing equipment inside the house! We have an ongoing argument because he brings his farm equipment into the house. I’m always saying that stuff needs to stay outside, I don’t care where, just not in the house. I always tell him that no one else has equipment in the house. Now I know that I was wrong! For quite a while a chainsaw was in the living room, I have no idea why. Maybe he was sharpening a blade and then it got put aside, I don’t know. Our problem is with lack of storage space.

        • alvin james says:

          If your stuff’s hard to start in the spring, try getting better gas. Sometimes airports have gas stations near them with jet fuel, which doen’t have ethanol etc and won’t break down over the winter.

  3. Ann says:

    Sweeeet! That was a nice find. I’m with you on the philosophy of “buy right and buy once”. Good luck with the repairs. Can’t wait to see it up and running!

    • lee says:

      Me too. We really bought this with the idea that it would become the “reliable” farm tool vs. my tractor which has more power but can’t always be counted on to start right when you need it.

  4. Leigh says:

    This is exactly the kind of thing Dan has been wanting. He’s gone to look at a couple of Gravleys he found on craigslist, but they were in pretty bad shape for the asking price. He had trouble finding a garden tiller he liked too. They are all so lightweight nowadays. He killed one breaking ground for our big garden two years ago. I think the time versus money issue is an ongoing one. And then we always seem to be second guessing ourselves. Anyway, congrats on your BCS! I’ve never seen one around here. Yours looks like it’ll do the job and do it well.

    • lee says:

      That’s so cool that Dan has been looking at Gravely tractors. The people that own those seem to be really big fans of them (actually, many two wheel tractor owners seem to turn into collectors). There’s a saying about Gravely’s that you test them out by driving them into a tree and if they don’t climb the tree they need a little more adjustment.

      I think BCS is more common out here than Gravely. I have yet to see a Gravely on Craigslist, but just a couple days ago there was a brand new BCS 722 at 2/3rds the new price.

  5. Ron says:

    I love the walk behind… why don’t they make such things anymore? Limited market, I suppose. Most are too busy watching “American Idle.” ­čÖé

    I’ve only seen a few Gravely’s show up on Craigslist, and they were 100 miles away. So I opted for a big-box tiller. It works pretty good, so far, but it sure would be nice to use the frame and engine for more than one purpose.

    • lee says:

      Yeah, I think it’s the lack of market combined with competition from the cheaply made foreign products. Most of the box store tillers are all made by the same conglomerate. When someone wants a tiller for their garden, will they buy the sheet metal and tube box store model for $500 or the cast-iron Italian import starting at ~$2000? That cost trade-off is different in Europe, where these machines still get used for serious commercial gardening.

      Yeah, I’m very excited about the single powertrain being less work to maintain and more reliable. I bought a Honda GX390 which seem to be well liked.

  6. Pheobe says:

    I will most definitely be keeping an eye on you and your BCS. We have been bandying around the idea of an ATV for hauling things in a trailer and pulling a brush hog (50 acres feels very large during mowing season) I would love to take advantage of our lovely crop of grass without buying a tractor and it is not enough hay (because of noxious weeds) right now to make hiring someone worth it, so I really like the idea of the interchangeable functions on one drive train.
    I’m right there with you on the reluctant tractor, and I thought my British sports cars were a pain (that’s where I learned how to rebuild an engine) but old tractors are just as bad.

    • lee says:

      Wow, yeah 50 acres does sound really large! It’s probably a little beyond the capabilities of a BCS, not so much in power but in the time and walking required. They do make sickle bar mowers up to about 5′ across. In fact, there’s a complete set of hay raking and baling equipment but I think it runs over $10K for the set.

      I’m still working on the tractor. There’s a cone clutch at the heart of it which I can’t get to break loose. When I get it all back together, I will put together a couple posts as a postmortem.

  7. Woody says:

    I have been looking at buying a BCS for a while now. Funny that I would google ” bcs tiller reviews” and ya’ll would show in the results.
    Are you happy with your tiller? It is quite an investment but I do believe that good tools aren’t cheap.

    • lee says:

      I wish I could give you an opinion! Ours is in pieces in the barn. It had a few more problems than I expected. I have almost all the parts I need to fix it, but the clutch is siezed beyond my ability to release it. I need to take that in to be fixed (or replaced) and that has been holding up the process. It does seem really well made. Ours only has issues because it was left in a leaky metal shed for years. I am looking forward to have ours in working order (hopefully for this garden season).

      I wish the implements were more common around here. I have this ridiculous vision of getting pulled around on a riding sulky by the tiller while cutting hay.

  8. Pingback: Adding to the BCS family | Farm Folly

  9. larry says:

    I’ve owned a BCS tiller since 1985 and have always loved it since I was able to use it on a 1.5 acre garden. The only problem I’m now having is that it’s getting harder and harder to get parts for the engine since it is a ACME motor. I currently am fuming at the dealer that I took it to for service work because I paid for a carburetor repair and what I got back was a carburetor with a dead engine governor. I’m wondering what they did wrong since my tiller/tractor now doesn’t have the power to blow snow or do anything else since it is not operable. Would appreciate anyone who has a diagram of the ACME 8hp engine so I can fix this tractor myself instead of taking it to somebody who claims to be an ACME mechanic but doesn’t know how to fix the motors. I still love my tractor and will eventually resolve the engine problems because in the long run you can’t beat these 2 wheeled beasts for reliability and work. TOO BAD JOHN DEERE OR SOME OTHER US BRAND CANNOT BUILD A TRACTOR OF THE QUALITY OF BCS.

    • lee says:

      Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. Hopefully you return at some point to check on your comment.

      EarthTools seems to be a good bet for most Acme motor parts online. The older of my two BCS tillers has an Acme engine, so I’m counting on them as a supplier too if I run into problems. I’m not sure about engine diagrams, but if you write down the required info listed on that Earth Tools page and call their help line, I’ll bet Joel will find what you need.

      Who knows why John Deere doesn’t try to compete in the two-wheel tractor space (perhaps because it’s such a small market), but new BCS and Grillo machines are still built with the same focus on quality and use modern Honda motors with readily available parts.

  10. Orion says:

    I am about to buy this same model for the purpose of building trails for the USFS. Please let me know what the engine replacement job was like and what model you purchased. I’d really really appreciate it.

    • lee says:

      The replacement job was pretty easy–largely a case of disconnecting wires, unbolting and sliding off the engine, installing the clutch on the new engine and reconnecting everything. The clutch is attach to the engine and slides out with it. Depending on what existing engine you have, you may need to buy a different adapter/clutch kit. This Briggs had the right adapter, but the clutch was totally frozen and I never could break it loose, so I just replaced it too. I ordered a GX390 (13HP) as part of a set with the adapter/clutch and other parts from Earth Tools. I recommend giving them a call to ensure you’ll have the right parts for the upgrade. He was also cheaper than my local shop. At the time they had a surplus of GX motors because of converting BCS units to diesel.

      Unfortunately, I still don’t have the tiller running, mainly because it had other issues and I’ve had too many other projects. I’ve already mentioned the clutch, but you should also check that the brake actuators still engage, the handle column and gear shifts can be rotated to the opposite position, and the various hand controls work, including their cable tension adjusters. I’m going to finish fixing our BCS this spring so I can mount a flail on it and begin clearing brush. Oh, and the crash bar isn’t compatible unless you have access to a welder, so I bought a new one of those as well. It was not a cheap project. ­čÖé

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