Birth of the Fordson Tractor

Odd-named Fordson tractor ushered Ford onto the farm.

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The first of 6,000 tractors built for the British Ministry

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Fordson is certainly a curious name for a tractor, but what a tractor it was. Its introduction in 1917 helped change the American farm tractor from the hulking, steam engine-like prairie breakers to what we think of as 'normal' farm machines today. In fact, the tractors were so popular that almost a million Fordsons were built by Ford Motor Co. before the name was finally dropped in 1964.

Why the name Fordson? The answer is found in the tractor's fascinating history. The Ford Motor Co., founded in 1903, was originally a stock-based company with several hundred stockholders. It was actually the third company founded on Henry Ford's automotive genius, and the same firm still exists.

The other two companies were also stock-based businesses, but Henry always chaffed under the control and limitations imposed by stockholders. In fact, stockholders suspected Henry withheld his best efforts in order to extort a bigger share of the profits.

Ford was actually fired from the second Ford firm, which then changed its name to Cadillac Motor Co. Meanwhile, the third Ford incarnation - called Ford Motor Co. and its stockholders did quite well making the famous Model T automobile.

In July 1917, Henry Ford organized another corporation under the name Henry Ford & Son Inc. The company's mission was to manufacture tractors, equipment and 'self-propelling vehicles of every description.' Stockholders of this corporation were limited to Henry, his wife, Clara, and their son, Edsel, then only 24 years old.

While Henry intended to manufacture tractors under the new firm and had worked on developing a farm machine for some time, the new company was part of his gambit to encourage Ford Motor Co. stockholders to sell out to him at reasonable prices. The trump card that Henry held was the fact that stockholders feared Henry Ford & Son would begin building cars and directly compete with Ford Motor Co.

Before the gambit succeeded - which it eventually did - World War I had strained British agriculture to the breaking point. Lord Percival Perry, head of British Ford Co., knew of Henry's tractor experiments and encouraged the designer to mass-produce a low-cost tractor for sale to British farmers.

The British Ministry of Munitions placed an order for 6,000 tractors just after Henry Ford & Son was first formed. That move secured the tractor's market - and the future of Fordson.

At that time, the tractor had no name, but was simply called the Ford tractor. That, however, couldn't be the tractor's official name. A Minneapolis group - which actually included a man named Carl B. Ford - had already organized under the name Ford Tractor Co., in order to capitalize on Henry Ford's successful automobile business. The Minnesota-based company produced a few tractors, but both the firm and its tractor line quickly vanished from the overcrowded farm equipment market.

With the British Ministry of Munitions order, Ford also agreed to manufacture the tractor in Cork, Ireland, from which the Ford family had emigrated years before. In the ensuing transatlantic telegraph communications among the Ministry, British Ford and Henry's Detroit headquarters, telegraph operators shortened the name Henry Ford & Son to merely 'Fordson.' Henry liked it and thought it a suitable encouragement to young Edsel, whom Henry wanted meaningfully involved in the tractor company.

The first tractors built to fill the British government order didn't carry the 'Fordson' identification, but the name Fordson was later cast into the radiator tank when production started for the American market in 1918. The same was later done for tractors produced in Ireland.

In 1928, all Fordson production lines in the U.S. were transferred to Britain. Apparently, Ford needed the factory space in Detroit for his newly-designed Model A automobile. Fordson tractor production continued through 1964 with both major and minor changes.

For example, the original flywheel magneto was replaced with a high-tension impulse variety, which greatly improved its starting ability. Other changes included an improved air cleaner, while engine displacement was increased from 251 cubic inches to 267 cubic inches, providing more power.

Cast iron front wheels and a heavier front axle improved the machine's balance, and some late-model Fordsons were pioneering diesel-burning tractors.

The final Fordson tractor rolled off the line in 1964, but the Fordson legacy lingers in the hearts (and sheds) of old iron collectors across the globe.