General-Purpose Row-Crop Tractor: The Farmall Debuts
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Countering the Fordson
In July 1921, IHC’s legendary general manager Alexander Legge called a meeting of his top executives to find a way to counter Henry Ford’s rapid takeover of the tractor market. Edward A. Johnson, head of Harvester’s engineering department for 30 years, and his chief tractor engineer, Bert Benjamin, pushed for further development of the row-crop tractor. Even then, their machine was called the Farmall, and they assured Legge it was much better than the Fordson.
Commercial birth of the Farmall didn’t come easily, though. An industry insider wrote: “No development in the industry was regarded with more distrust and wholesale opposition than the suggested general-purpose tractor.”
Opposition even came from within the company, and the first Farmalls were released almost in secret, with no advance publicity. Under normal circumstances, the highly conservative Harvester management likely would never have gambled on the experimental new tractor, but they believed something drastic had to be done to meet the Fordson threat. At the time, Henry Ford was selling almost three quarters of all new tractors on the market.
Testing the Farmall in the field
Even though the new Farmall was a well-kept secret, 22 were built in 1923 and put into farmers’ fields for extensive testing. The Farmall worked. Two of the machines were operated for 15,000 hours without trouble, and Texas farmers who tested them were so pleased that IHC decided to release the new machine on the commercial market.
One improvement adopted as a result of the initial field tests was the “Triple Control Feature,” a system of cables and pulleys that allowed the operator to use the steering wheel to steer the tractor, shift the cultivator gangs and apply either individual rear wheel brakes. This feature provided for both close cultivation and short turns at row ends.
The new Farmall was tall with large rear wheels that gave 30 inches of clearance beneath a wide rear axle that could straddle two rows. The small front wheels were set close together to allow short turns and to run between the rows. Cultivators were mounted in front and to each side so the operator could watch the plants he was cultivating.