In which Josephine Roberts introduces her brother Pete Roberts, a Fordson fanatic from the foothills of Snowdonia, who happens to own a range of very original-looking Fordson tractors.
My brother Pete lives in a little smallholding tucked away in the woods, and he’s lucky enough to have a bit of space around him and no neighbors – which means he can do what most of us would love to do: Fill his place with old tractors!
Some people collect a variety of tractors, but Pete is pretty firmly set on his Fordsons and now has 15 tractors, mostly Fordsons. The first of the Fordsons Pete fell for and started collecting was the standard Fordson, the Model N. Here in Wales we tend to call this tractor the Fordson Bach, which translates to the Little Fordson, as opposed to the Fordson Major (or the E27N) which came later and is much larger in stature.
I fully understand my brother’s enthusiasm for the Fordson Model N: It is a handsome little tractor with a charming and antiquated look. I think it’s the shape of the tank, the sprung metal seat and the sweep of the mudguards that does it. What’s more, they aren’t hugely expensive old tractors to collect, because there are still plenty of them around, and they are frequently seen at plowing matches used in combination with a trailer plow.
You could purchase a Fordson Model N in good condition for about £1,200 ($2,475 U.S.), paying much less for a rougher example. Like any old tractor they take a bit of tinkering with, and some people find them a wee bit temperamental – after all, this is a tractor designed to be started in the morning and left going all day. I’ve heard older people who remember them in regular service saying it was best never to turn them off, because you couldn’t be sure when you’d ever get them going again!
The Fordson Model N was manufactured in the U.K. from 1929 to 1945, when it was replaced by the larger E27N (the early Fordson Major). Whilst the Fordson Bach is small, compact and (dare I say it of a tractor) cute, the E27N is tall and leggy. The Irish sometimes call the tractor a High Nellie! In my mind it is one of the most attractive vintage tractors commonly seen in the U.K., especially when in original condition, because the archaic and slightly battered look seems to suit the model well.
One of the reasons my brother is drawn to Fordson is because our late father frequently drove Model Ns on the hill farm were he grew up. Crumpled old black-and-white photos show my father plowing steep hillsides with a Model N and a trailer plow, and I guess there’s always the feeling that history is somehow kept alive by continuing the tradition.
It’s a real shame our dad’s Fordson Bach didn’t survive. It went to the scrap man before I was born. Because these little tractors are extremely heavy for their size, a good few of them ended their days being carted off for scrap, undeniably a real shame. Pete can recall our dad’s tractor, but of course back then it was seen as outdated machinery, and at the time it would have been worth far more in scrap than as a tractor.
Every so often Pete phones to tell me he’s just bought something worth seeing. Last time it was a “super fast Fordson” – that is, a standard Fordson fitted with a P6 engine for use on airport runways. The standard Fordson is rather a slow tractor, but the one Pete acquired was capable of somewhere in the region of 40 mph – far faster than anyone would, or should, want to travel on a rickety old antique tractor! This tractor and others like it would have found work in the forces. The Royal Air Force in particular used them, as they could get up and down an airport runway in no time.
When it comes to plowing a large field, Pete finds this tractor quite handy as it will tear along the headland, making a truck-like noise that sounds rather out of place coming from this dainty-looking vintage equipment! However, the fact that low gear on this tractor is equivalent in speed to high gear on a standard Fordson means this tractor isn’t really suited to general farm work (or plowing matches for that matter). Having said that, it can be a lot of fun to drive. In a little road test last year, where a car followed Pete on the main road, we found it easily went up to 30 mph. It was capable of a lot more, but at 30 mph it began to bounce and Pete slowed down, sensibly deciding that a set of decrepit tires wasn’t the best thing to be bouncing around on at higher speeds!
Last year Pete rang me to say he’d just acquired his first-ever E27N. I’d been wondering how long it would take him to start collecting them. This particular tractor, the big brother to the Model N, is an extremely well-traveled tractor. Made in the U.K., probably in 1951 or ’52, it was immediately exported to Canada. There it spent its working life in Saskatchewan before being sent back home to the U.K. a year and a half ago.
Some E27N tractors were standard, some later received a Perkins conversion (giving them more power and speed), and some actually came out of the factory with a Perkins engine. Pete’s E27N is the latter – a factory-made Perkins – making it that bit more unusual, since few were produced that way. Perhaps it was the diesel Perkins engine that appealed to the Canadian farmer who initially bought the tractor.
It might even be that someone in Canada reading this remembers this tractor. Pete is hoping to track down the tractor’s background, because the story of it crossing the Atlantic twice is a large part of the history of this tractor. It also gives an insight into the agricultural links between the U.K. and North America.
Interestingly, the E27N is still wearing the U.K. factory’s original dark blue paint, but not quite everything is original. It has some dark red paint on it too, plus yellow on the wheels. Pete thinks at some stage in its Canadian life it may have been painted in Massey-Harris colors.
I know some people prefer to see vintage tractors fully restored and re-painted,as if they have just rolled out of the factory, but I feel these two layers of paint are a hugely important part of this tractor’s history, and to get rid of the admittedly out-of-place red paint would deny the fact that this tractor ever went to Canada! I like to imagine that perhaps the Canadian farmer who owned it had some leftover Massey-Harris paint in his shed and he decided to use it up on the Fordson, or perhaps more amusingly, he secretly wished this leggy Brit of a tractor was a Massey-Harris – and painted it these colors because they were the colors of his favorite make of tractor. Who knows?
I hope Pete hangs onto this tractor, as it will be a joy to see it in plowing matches. Pete cuts an interesting figure at matches: He tends to plough whilst wearing a bowler hat, and I think the combination of him and this handsome, well-traveled tractor will be eye-catching if nothing else!
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.