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Ford Motor Co. Ployed to Corner Tractor Market During World War II

Author Photo
By Sam Moore | May 14, 2013

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 The World War II War Production Board logo. 
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A 1942 magazine ad from Ferguson-Sherman Mfg. Corp. pointing out the steel-saving advantage of the Ford tractor with Ferguson System. 
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A 1943 ad placed by Deere & Co. touting the fact that women could and did operate John Deere Tractors. 
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 World War II poster urging all-out production to support the war effort. 

A largely forgotten bit of farm tractor history played out in 1942, during the depths of World War II, as a brash manufacturer tried to corner the tractor market in the name of patriotism. 

In May 1942, Donald Nelson, head of the War Production Board (WPB), made a speech about the shortages of vital war materials. It’s unclear if Ford Motor Co. (then run by Edsel Ford) or its distributing company (Ferguson-Sherman Mfg. Corp.) actually initiated the “plan to ease these problems,” which was sent to government officials and Congressional members. Likely it was both. 

In an elegant example of chutzpah and self-interest disguised as patriotism, Ford proposed that his company be authorized to build all farm tractors needed for the duration of the conflict. This included enough machines to replace more than 460,000 tractors built prior to 1930, which would be scrapped. 

Freeing up men and material 

Ford’s reasoning was that 1 million tons of vital war materiel would be saved by making the light-weight little gray Ford tractors. Also, because of their alleged greater efficiency, the Ford-Fergusons would save some 206 million gallons of fuel and 16.2 million gallons of oil annually. Ford also claimed older tractors needed strong men to operate them while the little Ford could be easily handled by women, children and elderly folks, thus releasing more able-bodied men to fight the Axis. Ford even somehow figured the exact number of men so released: 464,428 tractor operators, plus 139,328 supplementary laborers who wouldn’t be needed because of the increased efficiency of the Ford tractor with Ferguson System. 

Ford’s outrageous idea upset the industry a good deal. The Deere & Co. response was especially vigorous. Frank Silloway, Deere vice president of sales, asked that each branch gather data from farmers who had used both Ford-Ferguson and other brands of tractors in an effort to “definitely dispose of the insidious, incorrect and misleading statements” in the Ford proposal. He emphasized that they didn’t “want opinions  we want facts,” along with signed and witnessed statements from actual farmers. 

Competitors not amused 

Before long, Deere had prepared a reply to the Ford proposal, opening by insisting that, “If such actions were to the best interests of the war, we should let their proposal go unchallenged.” However, Deere, with its own display of self-interest and patriotism, was convinced that the opposite was true and that it was its “duty to present the other side of the case.” 

Deere’s reply took Ford’s claims and picked each one apart. Steel savings would be much greater, Deere said, if larger tractors and implements were made that could do more work per unit than the 2-plow Ford-Ferguson. 

They pointed out that the only way to calculate fuel usage is as the amount of work done per gallon, and they claimed that in several tests the Ford tractor compared poorly to a John Deere. In a 1940 test at Cherokee, Iowa, a Deere plowed 0.876 acres per gallon compared to a Ford-Ferguson that did only 0.594 per gallon. Also: “Of the 57 farm tractors of all types tested at Nebraska during the past five years, Ford ranked 56th in fuel efficiency, or next to the poorest.”   

Figures disputed 

Deere was really exercised about Ford’s claims of manpower savings: “We are unable to find the formula used by Ford mathematicians in finding the 139,328 unneeded laborers. As a matter of fact, the smaller-sized equipment which Ford proposes would require more units to do the same amount of work and consequently, more operators.” It was pointed out that four Model D tractors pulling 3-bottom plows would do as many acres in a day as seven Fords with their 2-bottom plows, saving three operators. In addition, the combined weight of the four Deere tractors would be 15,528 pounds compared to 16,968 for the seven Fords, thus demolishing Ford’s claim of huge steel savings. 

They went on: “According to Ford-Ferguson, every farmer with an old tractor would pack up and leave for a war industry job the day his new Ford tractor arrived. Who would operate the farm? His wife, his children, his grandmother  anyone can be a farmer according to these figures. Such a claim is preposterous.” 

“We don’t mean to minimize the importance of women, children and older folks helping out in this crisis. They are doing it every day. The point is, it is a gross exaggeration to suggest that 603,756 men would rush into ‘industrial or military operations.'” 

Cooler heads prevail 

Who knows how much lobbying went on behind the scenes in Washington, but both Charles Deere Wiman (who resigned as Deere & Co. president in 1942 to take a job in the Army Ordnance Dept. and later headed the WPB farm machinery division, rejoining Deere & Co. in 1944) and Harold Boyle of International Harvester Co. (also part of the WPB) undoubtedly had something to say on the subject. 

In the October 1942 issue of Farm Machinery and Equipment, under the heading “FLASH!,” new rules set by the WPB for 1943 were announced. These included quotas and a provision that small manufacturers would be given preference over the larger in production numbers. The flash ended with a statement noting that, “the proposed Ford-Ferguson Plan by which that company would make all tractors and ‘junk’ all models of the vintage of 1930 or earlier is OUT.” 

Frank Silloway sent a relieved letter to all Deere branch houses and factories telling them that the WPB had just informed him: “The proposal that arrangements be made to permit the Ford Co., or any other company, to conduct a pilot run of 10,000 tractors for exchange for old heavy tractors, has met with a negative decision.” 

So, Ford was foiled in its nefarious scheme, but in 1944 Joe Tucker at Massey-Harris succeeded in convincing the WPB that the M-H No. 21 self-propelled combine could, using the same amount of scarce raw materials, harvest more grain than any other machine then being built. The Board granted Tucker permission to build 500 more combines than called for in Massey’s 1944 quota and M-H was in a position to dominate the post-war self-propelled combine market. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.

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