The Delights of Diesel Tractors

A 1954 Ferguson TEF diesel tractor enters the annual Anglesey Ploughing Match.

tractor

Things soon began to get a bit, ahem, messy in the furrow department …

Photo by Josephine Roberts

Content Tools

On July 6, 1946, the first Ferguson TE-20 tractor rolled off the assembly line at the Banner Lane factory, Coventry, England. It was a big day for Irishman Harry Ferguson, and it went on to become a landmark moment in the history of tractor design.

Ferguson had already worked with David Brown on the production of the Ferguson Brown tractor, and he had famously made the “handshake agreement” with Henry Ford (which had ended rather messily), but the TE-20 was to be Ferguson’s big solo step into mass production of a little grey tractor that was to become a British icon and all-round success story.

Ferguson had long since patented his famous Ferguson System, and with it he now created the near perfect farm tractor, as his genius was also to supply a vast range of implements to accompany the tractor, all marketed to make the farmer’s life easier. Suddenly the farmer could plough, cultivate land, saw logs, lift loads, bore holes, spray crops and trim hedges like never before, all with the one tractor.

Diesel an important alternative in the UK

The Ferguson TE-20 was nigh on perfect in design, but it did have one small downside: It ran on petrol. In the U.K., petrol was heavily taxed and it was expensive. Paraffin, however, was not taxed, and was therefore seen as a good substitute for petrol, which is why Ferguson went on to bring out the TED-20, which was designed to run on Tractor Vapourising Oil (TVO) in 1949. This fuel was produced from petrol and a type of paraffin. Paraffin was untaxed, and therefore less expensive.

But as people became increasingly reliant on tractors, even the costs of TVO began to add up. It wasn’t long before an innovative UK company called Perkins began offering conversions that allowed Ferguson tractors to run on diesel. Agricultural diesel, considerably less costly than petrol, was clearly the way forward.

Harry Ferguson, though, was known to be opposed to any fuel other than straight petrol. Like many, he saw diesel tractors as noisy and difficult to start, but he couldn’t allow other companies to gain the upper hand on sales, so in 1951 Ferguson brought out the TEF-20, which ran on diesel.

These days in the UK most people who want to use vintage tractors around the farm still prefer to use a diesel tractor. Not only are our old diesel tractors reliable, but they remain to this day far cheaper to run than their petrol (gas) or even their TVO counterparts. Here, petrol costs £1.17 per litre (the rough equivalent of $5.70 per gallon in the U.S.), whereas agricultural diesel (which is permitted for farm use but not for road use) is about 50 pence per litre. Consequently, diesel-powered Ferguson tractors are that bit more expensive to buy, not only because they are cheaper to run, and don’t require starting up on one fuel and switching to another, like the TVO models, but also because fewer were made. Any variant of the Ferguson tractors is always going to be more collectable, simply because it is something that is a little bit different.

The Ferguson TEF diesel

It’s brilliant having a family of tractor enthusiasts. Between my brothers and my nephews, there are plenty of quirky old tractors coming and going, and I’m often invited to “come and have a look at what I’ve bought” by various family members.

All the same I was a little surprised when my eldest brother, Bob, showed an interest in a 1954 Diesel Ferguson TEF that was for sale just half a mile away. Bob already owns a 4-wheel drive Zetor 5545 dating to 1971, which he uses for topping and for various odd jobs. At 55 hp, the Zetor is quite a bit beefier than a 1954 Ferguson, so I must admit I struggled to imagine Bob driving something as quaint and dainty as a little grey Fergie.

The Ferguson TEF had been residing on a smallholding just up the lane since 1981. Before that it had worked on a little farm 5 or 6 miles away. The tractor therefore had a nice connection to our local area; it was close enough for Bob to drive home (providing he could get it running), plus it was a diesel tractor. What more could one ask for?

Never worked very hard

Bob took a walk with his cairn terrier Mille, and went to have a better look at the tractor. As a local mechanic, he had been called upon to service the Ferguson occasionally over the years, so he knew it reasonably well. “It’s never worked very hard, as far as I know,” says Bob, who is coincidently the same age as the tractor: 63. These days, both man and tractor are the same colour too (I can get away with saying that because he is my brother).

After deciding to buy the tractor, Bob walked up the lane to collect it. It’s a pleasant thing to be able to walk from home to buy something and then drive or ride your new purchase home. But coming through a gate in the lane, just above my house, the spluttering grey Fergie came to a halt. Bob walked down and knocked on my door looking for a few tools. “I’m on my way home with the Fergie,” he said, “and it’s conked out.”

Fifteen minutes later, he had cleared gloopy muck from the fuel line and the tractor fired up once again. A good service was well overdue, and over the next few days Bob busied himself cleaning, fettling and ordering parts. He changed the oil and filters, fitted a new clutch, a crankshaft oil seal and a gearbox input seal, and he fitted a new bearing in the tractor’s original 1954 dynamo.

A simple, well-made machine

This Ferguson is a classic example of a tractor that has never been restored, and has never had much need for a mechanic. It has been in action all of its life, with no known period of standing, and it seems to have had the minimum of care, with parts only being replaced when they’ve broken. Its needs have been simple by the sounds of it, which is a testament to Harry Ferguson’s great design. “When I look at it,” Bob says, “it is such a simple, well-made machine. There’s nothing ostentatious about it at all. It is what it is, and I quite like that.”

Bob’s Ferguson comes with the single front headlamp, which gives the tractor a peculiar “Cyclops” look. The lamp wasn’t attached to the tractor when he acquired it, but while I was looking at the tractor he fitted it on, just to see what it looked like in place. I think quirky is the word I would use. The light is sitting in position but still needs wiring in.

Originally the tractor would have had sidelights on stalks too, but there is only one of those with the tractor now. There would also have been rear lights and a plough light. The lights were available as an optional extra, and weren’t fitted as a matter of course on all new Fergusons. The tractor is relatively untouched and has aged naturally. It has clearly not worked very hard, and it must have been barn-stored for a good part of its 63 years, as there isn’t too much rust and rot.

Putting the Fergie to work

Bob doesn’t plan to restore the tractor; he only wishes to maintain and preserve it. Most of all, he wanted to get it running in time for the annual Anglesey Ploughing Match. Bob is no champion match ploughman; he ploughs for fun, and only competes in the occasional local ploughing match.

The day of the ploughing match dawned dull and wet, and I began to wonder if I had made a wise decision in agreeing to go along for the ride. Snug in the Land Rover, with the tractor behind on a trailer, we drove along the pass between the mountains of Snowdonia with the rain was lashing us sideways, and I knew that once we crossed the bridge to the Isle of Anglesey, the wind would be even worse, as there isn’t much shelter to be found from the gales on the Isle of Anglesey.

When we approached the gateway to the ploughing match, the going didn’t look too good. The gateway was a mudbath and almost every vehicle was being towed onto the field by a vast modern Fendt tractor driven by a woman who looked like she was quite enjoying the task of having to rescue all of these bogged-in ploughmen.

In a class of their own – literally

Bob didn’t have a Ferguson plough, so he had fitted an old David Brown plough onto the Ferguson. He was entered into the Beginners Class, as opposed to the Ferguson Class, as those in the Ferguson Class must use not only a Ferguson tractor, but also a Ferguson plough. Ferguson ploughs are slightly different from an ordinary mounted 2-furrow (2-bottom) plough in that they lack a depth wheel, and the front furrow adjustment is manual. They were also specifically designed for Ferguson tractors and aren’t usually used on other makes of tractor.

If a Ferguson plough is all you have ever ploughed with, it probably seems fine, but for those who are used to other ploughs, the adjustments available on the Fergie plough will seem rather basic and limiting, and many say that it is hard to do a tidy piece of ploughing in a match with a plough like this. These differences are why separate classes exist in matches for Ferguson ploughs.

Bob’s ploughing plot was on a very slight slope, and it soon became evident that the tractor was quite content to plough downwards, but coming up the slope, it was spinning. When Bob tried to lift the plough slightly, to plough a bit shallower, the plough just kept coming out of the ground, missing sections, and it all began to get rather messy.

Tricks of the trade

Many of the smaller tractors were having similar problems. The little vintage tractors just did not like ploughing on this wet grassland, and even some of the expert ploughmen had a few kinks in their furrows where their tractors had slewed sideways slightly.

Bob, however, isn’t the most patient of people, and he was a little bit annoyed at getting stuck. After the first half hour, he decided that he had made such a mess that there was no point worrying about completing the plot in accordance with the competition rules, and that he might as well just have some fun ploughing one way – downhill – and to forget about trying to get the tractor to plough up the slope. So, he stopped for a cup of tea, and continued to plough in the one direction for another few furrows before giving up and loading the tractor back on the trailer.

The tractors competing in the Ferguson Class, with Ferguson ploughs, continued to the end and managed the wet conditions better than Bob’s tractor and plough had. These competitors were wise to the limits of the Ferguson tractor and they had reduced the pressure in their tyres, and of course, they had the right ploughs for their tractors. They had also had a great deal more experience (and patience) than Bob!

To be fair, the tractor had a lot against it that day – wet, heavy soil; a plough that wasn’t built for the tractor; an uphill slope, and a driver who was used to driving a much more powerful tractor.

So, the little Fergie might have its limits power-wise in heavy soil, but I still think it’s the best little vintage tractor that money can buy, and I still think that no British tractor collection is complete without one of these beautifully simple and well-engineered little tractors. FC


Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at pheenie@talktalk.net.