Reverse Engineering: The Farmall BN forklift

This week’s Interesting Iron is a tractor that took “reverse engineering” quite literally, and became a Farmall BN forklift! It sells on Saturday, October 10, 2020 in SW Michigan! Click the photo to see the auction listing! Click the photo to see the details and a bunch of photos!

Weird things come from Michigan. I’m from Michigan, so this should come as no to surprise to any of you. At the same time, though, amazing things also come from Michigan! This little Farmall BN forklift is where those three circles intersect!

(See below for a highly scientific representation of this relationship.) ?


Honestly, these little forklifts aren’t all that weird. Like most products, they were developed to meet an emerging need. In this case, fruit and vegetable growers in West Michigan needed a small, highly maneuverable forklift for loading wooden boxes on trucks out of the fields and orchards.

Here’s a panorama from the back of my family’s farm. Those apple boxes are about 40″ tall, for frame of reference. They weigh nearly a thousand pounds when they’re full (they’re empty in this photo)!

Enter John Syzmanski (I think I got his name spelled right, but don’t hold me to it – information is a little sparse on with some of this stuff), and his company, John’s Manufacturing. The company was located just east of South Haven, MI and they literally “reverse engineered” and turned them into forklifts during the 60s and 70s. I’ve been told that they started with Allis Chalmers WDs, but later learned that it was lot easier to reverse a Farmall than anything else.  From an internals perspective, all you’d need to do is crack the rear axle open, flip-flop the ring gear and carrier assembly, and put it back together. Once the innerds were reversed, John’s would essentially rotate the driver’s position 180°. This put the seat on top of the gas tank, and all of the controls basically sticking out of the back of the platform.

John’s built these in both narrow-front as well as wide-front models. Options included 8, 10, and 14-foot masts, with the bigger models having a bit more lifting capacity. They’re pretty darn handy, and they work great for moving 1000 lb. apple boxes around, too! We actually have an identical Farmall BN forklift on our farm to use in the orchard. I don’t know if we bought it new or not, but I know we’ve had it since the mid-late 70s…maybe earlier. We still use it all the time, too! This particular tractor lived on a South Haven blueberry farm, and it’s in a LOT better shape than ours.

This is a better photo of one of our apple boxes. We don’t paint the apple on all of ’em, but this one looks pretty nice, huh?

John’s Manufacturing converted somewhere in the neighborhood of 2200 of these, give or take a few. Most of them were BNs, and the narrow-front tractors are a fair bit less common than the wide-fronts. It’s often said that it’s hard to find small Farmalls in West Michigan because John’s bought them all and converted them! Here’s the craziest thing, though. There’s a ton of them that are still in active service!

Because of that, they don’t change hands very often either; I’d be surprised if any have been up for auction in the past 5 years! As I’m writing this right now, the bid is sitting at $1100, but I’d be surprised if this doesn’t sell for somewhere between $4-6000 when the hammer falls! There’s still about 2 days left on this auction, so it’ll be fun to see where it ends up.

(Incidentally, that whole ring gear flip would be a hilarious practical joke to play on a buddy with an old tractor; you didn’t hear that from me, but if you do it, I want to see video.)?

Do you know what YOUR equipment is worth?