Mechanic, racecar driver and aviator – Harry Ferguson’s mechanical genius was endless. Inventor of the “Little Grey Fergie,” among the world’s most famous tractors, he was a workaholic with an almost childlike streak of idealism. Writer Jane Brooks looks at the life of Harry Ferguson, a man who was so much more than just a builder of tractors.
Although small in stature, Harry Ferguson was a giant in terms of mechanical genius. The fourth of James and Mary Ferguson’s 11 children, he was born at Lake House in the village of Growell in County Down, Ireland, 16 miles south of Belfast on Nov. 4, 1884, and christened Henry George.
James Ferguson ruled his family with a rod of iron. A member of the Plymouth Brethren, he held strong religious views. Although Harry and his sisters routinely smuggled in books and magazines, the only reading material officially allowed in the house was the Bible. Harry left school at 14 and worked on the family farm, but he was physically ill-suited to the rigorous demands of farm work. Regular clashes with his father over religious matters led to his decision to immigrate to Canada in 1902.
That plan, however, was derailed by his elder brother, Joe, who hired Harry as an apprentice at his car and cycle shop on Belfast’s Shankill Road. Harry’s natural aptitude for servicing, tuning and repairing car engines helped expand his brother’s business. But it didn’t all come naturally to the young Ferguson. The first time Harry drove a motorcar, he crashed, car and owner, through a shop window.
A need for speed
A talented sales promoter, Harry successfully entered Irish motorcycle racing events to publicize his brother’s business, earning him the nickname “The Mad Mechanic.” He was a prominent figure in the establishment of the Ulster Tourist Trophy (TT) motorcar races – the Ards TT – that ran from 1928 to 1936 on a 13-1/2-mile course linking Dundonald, Newtownards and Comber in County Down. The races ended tragically on Sept. 5, 1936, when a driver lost control of his car on a wet road and crashed into the crowd, killing eight spectators.
Fascinated by powered flight, Ferguson flew 130 yards on Dec. 31, 1909, the first Briton to design and build his own plane, and the first to fly a plane in Ireland. On one of his early attempts, a gust of wind caught the aircraft, causing it to somersault, resulting in both Ferguson and the engine falling out. He made the first Irish flight with a passenger on Aug. 23, 1910, but his flying days ended when he married Maureen Watson in 1913.
Also of the Plymouth Brethren faith, Ferguson’s in-laws were cool to their daughter’s new husband. Harry’s agnostic views were unpopular with the family, who saw his support of the Ulster Volunteer Force (where he assisted in gun-running activities) as his only redeeming feature.
Starting with the Overtime
In 1911, Ferguson started May Street Motors, Belfast, which later became Harry Ferguson Ltd., dealerships for Vauxhall and Darracq cars. In 1913 he launched his career as an inventor, registering two patents for carburetor improvements. During World War I, he sold the Iowa-built Waterloo Boy Model N tractor (known in Britain as the Overtime). No sales records have survived, but demonstrations conducted by Ferguson and his employee, Willie Sands, proved popular.
In 1917, the Irish Board of Agriculture asked the two men to tour Ireland to help improve tractor operation through educational efforts. During the tour, Ferguson’s quick grasp of the problems encountered by the tractor plowmen he met made him realize the need for a radical redesign of the principle of trailed plowing, and he began to formulate a new design.
Patented on Sept. 12, 1917, Ferguson’s first 2-row plow, the Belfast, was designed for the Eros-brand conversion for the Ford Model T car/tractor. Rear-mounted balance springs allowed it to be lifted and lowered by the driver, using a lever beside the seat. Unfortunately, its launch coincided with Ford’s decision to manufacture the Fordson Model F tractor, effectively killing the market for the plow/tractor conversion.
Meanwhile, two Fordson tractors underwent Royal Agricultural Society of England testing in 1917 and were judged well suited to the British World War I-era drive to grow more food. Manufacturer Henry Ford gave patent rights to the people of Britian for the duration of the war, and 6,000 Fordsons were immediately imported into the U.K. before production began in Cork, Ireland. Priced lower than the Eros conversion, the Fordson spelled doom for Ferguson’s Belfast plow. Undeterred, Ferguson designed a stopgap modification adapting the plow for use on the Fordson and started work on an entirely new plow design.
Birth of the Ferguson System
This plow incorporated Ferguson’s patented new system, the duplex hitch, which consisted of a simple top and bottom link that enabled the plow to become an integral part of the tractor. Pulled as if its hitching point was close to ground level at the center of the tractor, it was a vast improvement on previous trailed plows. The top link also applied downward force on the front of the tractor, making it easier to steer and preventing a rollover if the tractor hit an obstacle.
In 1920, Ferguson and Sands demonstrated the plow to Henry Ford in a field near Ford’s Rouge River Plant in Dearborn, Mich. Ford was so impressed he offered Ferguson a job, but Ferguson rejected the offer. Ford then tried to buy the designs, but Ferguson wouldn’t sell. The first meeting between the two men ended in stalemate.
Back in Belfast, the design was refined. In December 1925, Sherman Bros., Evansville, Ind., and Harry Ferguson formed Ferguson-Sherman Inc. to produce plows. John Williams, a friend dating to Ferguson’s early days in Belfast, and the Ferguson family spent a year in the U.S. promoting the business. The plows were successful and Ferguson settled into research with his team of Sands and Archie Greer, who had joined the company in 1917.
The trio worked on an improved hitch and development of a system of automatic depth control whereby the depth of the implement was regulated by the effort needed to pull it through the ground without the use of wheels on the implement. The draft control principle they named the Ferguson System was patented in 1926; it would form the basis of modern tractor hydraulic systems.
Ferguson patented a 3-point hitch in 1928. A third link was added, originally in addition to the top link. But it worked better with one top and two bottom links, so the design was changed. Draft control was operated through the lower link using a continuous flow pump. The two bottom links’ line of pull converged near the center of the front axle, allowing an implement to follow the front wheels, a principle followed by tractor and machinery manufacturers today.
Also in 1928, Fordson ceased tractor production in the U.S. With a large inventory of plows, Ferguson-Sherman Inc., faced disaster. Fortunately, Fordsons manufactured in Ireland were still being exported to the U.S. The remaining plow inventory was sold before Fordson sales ended.
Striking out on his own
In the midst of that upheaval, Ferguson decided to build his own tractor. Other manufacturers showed interest in his system, but none produced a tractor designed specifically to use it. Set against the turbulent period of the 1920s and 1930s, most companies were unwilling to risk investment in new technology.
In 1932, Ferguson began incorporating his designs into a tractor built in his own Belfast factory, resulting in the Ferguson Black (now displayed at London’s Science Museum) in 1933. Weighing 1,640 pounds (and named for its black paint job), the prototype had a 4-cylinder U.S.-made Hercules engine. Gears, transmission and steering were supplied by David Brown Co., located in Huddersfield, about 190 miles north of London.
With his tractor completed, Ferguson started a sales company named Harry Ferguson Ltd., changing his existing business to Harry Ferguson (Motors) Ltd., and searched for a manufacturer. Ferguson was convinced that an Ulster-produced tractor would boost the economy, but no one came forward and he looked to England. There he found a supporter in David Brown.
The Ferguson Type A
Brown, managing director of David Brown Co., was acquainted with Ferguson, having supplied parts for the prototype Black tractor. He agreed to manufacture the tractor and production commenced in 1936 at Huddersfield under the name David Brown Tractors. On this tractor, called the Ferguson Type A, the Ferguson name was cast above the radiator and a small plate above the starting handle bore the name David Brown Tractors.
The first 500 tractors had a Coventry Climax engine; later tractors had a David Brown engine. Draft control was operated by a hydraulic control valve on the suction side of the pump. The new tractor (painted battleship grey) had steering brakes, three forward and one reverse gear, and weighed about 1,850 pounds. The Ferguson family moved to Huddersfield and by March 1936, the first tractors rolled off the production line.
Four dedicated implements were offered, each priced at £26 (the equivalent of $130): a 2-row plow, a 3-row ridger, a 7-tine tiller and a 9-tine general purpose cultivator, as well as the Ferguson spanner, part of Ferguson’s policy of using just two nut and bolt sizes wherever possible.
Priced lower than the Type A, the Fordson (then being built in Dagenham, England) provided stiff competition. Although Ferguson was a skilled salesman, by 1937 the marketing company was struggling and the relationship between Brown and Ferguson had become strained. Brown favored a large, powerful tractor for use with more implements; Ferguson was convinced of the benefits of a smaller, lighter tractor. It was decided to merge the two companies, and Ferguson-Brown Tractors Ltd. was formed with Ferguson and Brown as joint managing directors and Ferguson a minority shareholder.
Marketed under the name Ferguson-Brown, the new company’s tractors sold poorly. Brown announced plans to improve the tractor and, much to Ferguson’s fury, gathered a design team at Huddersfield to develop a new, larger model. As the partners’ working relationship deteriorated, Ferguson began to investigate other possibilities, including an arrangement with Ford Motor Co. Ferguson was determined to meet with Henry Ford, who had been so impressed with his plow years before. Both Ford and Ferguson had experienced the drudgery of horse-drawn farm work and each had dreamt of building a tractor for the world’s farmers. Ford had already built the world’s first mass produced tractor when, on Oct. 8, 1917, the first Fordson rolled off his Dearborn production line.
Like Ferguson, Henry Ford wanted his own way. He often clashed with Ford Motor Co. investors, particularly over the Rouge manufacturing complex in Dearborn, home to the world’s first mass-produced, affordable car. By September 1919, Ford’s determination to succeed had driven him and his 25-year-old son, Edsel, to buy out the Ford Motor Co. Henry took charge of all company business and Edsel was company president as Ford Motor Co. took over Fordson distribution.
The Fordson was a good tractor for its time and Ford’s experience in mass production kept the price low. But tractors of that era suffered common flaws. Early tractors were designed to take the place of horses and used trailed implements. Because of the weight of the implement on the back, if the tractor was plowing and the implement hit an obstruction, the rear wheels would not slip and the tractor would tip over backward, often before the driver had a chance to react, leading to serious accidents.
The Fordson’s propensity to tip was well known. One magazine recommended each Fordson be painted with the somber message “Prepare to meet thy god.” Another published the names of about 100 people killed or seriously injured in roll overs. Ford tried to prevent such accidents by extending the rear fenders and installing a kill switch to shut off the engine in the event of a rollover.
By 1925, mechanized farming was established in the U.S. and Ford had built a half million tractors, but as the Great Depression took hold, farm incomes fell. In 1927, Ford’s U.S. tractor plant closed (although production continued in the U.K. until 1938). Over the next decade, the U.S. Ford tractor division was dormant except for experimental work. By 1938, three prototypes were being tested on the Ford farm by a small team led by Ford’s main designer, Karl Schultz, and field tester, Ed Malvitz.
Meanwhile, Ford branched out to the aviation industry. He pioneered the first regularly scheduled passenger flights between Detroit and Cleveland, the first U.S. airmail service and the first use of a radio to guide a commer
cial airliner. He also built the first all-metal, multi-engine plane, the Ford Tri-Motor (nicknamed “the Tin Goose”), designed by William B. Stout. But by 1937, Ford had left aviation to return to auto manufacturing.
Sherman plays matchmaker
With the end of U.S. production of Fordson tractors, Ferguson’s old partners in the Ferguson-Sherman plow business imported British-built Fordsons into America. Ferguson invited Eber Sherman to a demonstration of the Ferguson-Brown tractor. On his return to the U.S., Sherman told Henry Ford about the Ferguson System.
Sherman’s description of the Ferguson-Brown and its method of hitching implements, which prevented the tractor’s sometimes murderous habit of tipping over backwards, and the memory of their first meeting 18 years earlier, led Ford to issue an invitation to Ferguson to visit him in Michigan. Ferguson had already arranged for a Ferguson tractor (serial no. 722) and a set of implements to be sent to America via Ireland. Accompanied by John Williams, he set sail for America in October 1938.
At the demonstration, Ford quickly saw how the system of mounted implements stopped roll overs. He had a Fordson and an Allis-Chalmers standing by for testing on heavier ground, but the Ferguson-Brown outclassed both. The two men sat on chairs at a kitchen table in the test field. While Ferguson demonstrated the draft control principle on a model tractor he had brought with him, Ford again tried to buy Ferguson’s designs – and was again rebuffed. “You haven’t got enough money to buy my patents,” Ferguson said.
Instead, after some discussion, the two men reached a unique agreement. “No written agreement would be worthy of what this represents,” Ferguson said. “If you trust me, I’ll trust you.” The agreement was sealed by a handshake, personifying the trust and confidence between the two men. Harry Ferguson became the only man that Henry Ford ever went into partnership with.
The “handshake agreement” covered five main points. Ferguson would have total control of design and engineering. Ford would be responsible for the manufacturing process. Ferguson could sell the tractor wherever and however he wanted. The Ferguson System tractor would eventually be built at Ford’s Dagenham tractor plant. And finally, the agreement could be terminated at any time by either party. FC
Part Two: Strong wills of industrialists Ferguson and Ford collide in the post-war years, setting the stage for a bitter, prolonged court battle and the launch of another Ferguson enterprise.
Part Three: In the final part of Jane Brooks’ series on the life of Harry Ferguson, the genius inventor dabbles in international economic policy, courts a new business partner and continues to break new ground in evolving technology.
U.K.-based agricultural journalist Jane Brooks specializes in tractors and machinery. She is a regular contributor to enthusiast’s magazines such as Tractor & Machinery, Old Tractor and Vintage Tractor. When she is not writing, Jane finds time to get in a bit of tractor driving at home in Warwickshire, where she farms with her husband, Stephen. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.