William Ewing’s Ford Tractor

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Left side of the Ford showing the tractor’s short length and unusual position of the driver’s seat.
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 It looks lightweight, but the Ford weighed in at 3,800 pounds.
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Right view, showing the open gear inside the Ford’s drive wheel.
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The front – yep, front! – of the Ford tractor showing the model’s immense drive wheels.
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This unusual Ford tractor is owned by Bill Pride, Marion, Ohio. He believes it to have been built in the 1920s on the graveyard shift at the Marion Steam Shovel Co. The tractor has a Model T Ford motor and transmission but the remaining components (wheels, gears, cowling, etc.) were from the factory. Bill’s not sure whether the tractor was a factory-authorized project but thinks management was at the very least aware of the undertaking.
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A 1935 prototype Ford tractor, another buy from a Henry Ford Museum auction. The tractor has a 100 hp V-8 Ford truck engine and car front wheels complete with hubcaps.
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An experimental pre-9N Ford built in late 1938 at Henry Ford’s Fair Lane Estate in Grosse Point, Mich. Rocky Fowler, Bascom, Ohio, bought the tractor at a 1984 Henry Ford Museum auction.
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Rear view of the Marion tractor, showing drawbar and mechanical lift. The tractor has poured cast rear wheels with cleats. The front wheels were later filled with concrete to prevent the tractor from rearing up.

Ford was a big name in the automotive world in the days when Henry Ford’s Model T – the Tin Lizzie – was a huge market success. Ford wanted to do for farmers what he had done for motorists: Design an affordable replacement for the horse. He worked diligently to give American farmers a Ford tractor to go with his Ford car. But Henry Ford’s first production tractor would not bear the inventor’s name, for another Ford tractor was already on the market.

Californian William Baer Ewing marketed the first Ford tractor. He knew the Ford name would sell tractors. So, in 1916, he patented the Ford name for his tractor. A year later, when Henry Ford’s tractor was unveiled in 1917, it became known as the Fordson – in part because of Ewing’s maneuver, and in part because some Ford Motor Co. stockholders were opposed to experimentation with tractor development. The Fordson, then, was a product of Henry Ford & Son, a family-held corporation created in 1915 to launch the inventor’s newest venture independent of Ford Motor Co. stockholder opposition.

It is difficult to find advertising literature or factual information on the Ewing Ford, now commonly referred to as the Minneapolis Ford. However, Randy Leffingwell’s Ford Tractors and C.H. Wendel’s Standard Catalog of Farm Tractors 1890-1960 give data on this particular tractor and its place in the development of early gas-powered farm tractors.

In 1915, Ewing obtained the rights to a tractor designed by Maurice Hartsough. Looking for a name for the tractor, Ewing knew he had to have a moniker both easily recognized and strong enough to pull in buyers. He decided the success of the Ford car could work wonders for his new venture. As fate would have it, among his crew of shop clerks was one Paul B. Ford. That was good enough for Ewing, who quickly devised a plan to use the shop clerk’s name on his tractor. In exchange for use of his name, Paul Ford was made director of Ford Tractor Co. in South Dakota and given stock in the firm.

Ewing then hired a Minneapolis designer, Robert Kinkead, to modify Hartsough’s machine. Kinkead protested that the machine’s design was seriously flawed, but Ewing overruled those concerns and directed the designer and the shop clerk to proceed with patent applications. Ewing knew the machine needed more work but was confident that the name would sell the tractor. He rushed the tractor to the market in 1916. Kinkead, reluctant to have his name connected with the venture, left the company.

Ewing housed production in a rented Minneapolis plant. The tractor’s engine, from Gile Boat Works, Luddington, Mich., was an opposed, 2-cylinder engine with 5-by-6-inch bore and stroke. Installed in the tractor, it was rated at 8 hp on the drawbar and 16 hp on the belt pulley.

The tractor was powered by two large front wheels and steered by a single rear wheel. Each of its two large drive wheels measured 54 inches in diameter with a 12-inch face. The single rear steering wheel measured 6 by 24 inches. The total package was 11 by 6 feet, 5 inches and weighed about 3,800 pounds with ground clearance of about 11 inches.

With only the driver’s weight over the steering wheel, the tractor did not have enough weight to keep it going straight. Kinkead claimed the machine would not plow in a straight line. When hitched to a load, it wandered from side to side, pulled by the load rather than by the tractor. The pivoting drawbar mounted just behind the front axle limited the operator’s ability to plow a straight line or pull a plow around a curve in a field for contour farming. Ewing, however, was little concerned by his tractor’s quality. Instead, he focused on his ability to patent and control the Ford name before Henry Ford had the chance to introduce the tractor he was planning, one that had been in development for several years.

In 1916, the Ford tractor sold for $350, fully equipped with magneto, carburetor, governor and coil. Company ads stated the tractor would do the work of six to eight horses and cost less than a good team. The warranty claimed the company would cover parts for one year from date of purchase and promised free replacement if the owner was not satisfied. The company was disbanded by the end of 1917.

It is not known how many Ford tractors were sold, but it only took one to make a monumental difference in the future of tractor manufacture. When Nebraskan Wilmot Crozier bought a Ford tractor, he got nothing but trouble. His attempts to win satisfaction through the warranty coverage were unsuccessful: The manufacturer would not stand behind his product. Crozier, a representative in the Nebraska legislature, didn’t just get mad, he got even. He proposed a bill allowing manufacturers to sell tractors in Nebraska only after thorough evaluations verified their claims. The bill was adopted and testing began at the University of Nebraska in 1920.

Manufacturers were quick to comply and most readily submitted their tractors to the testing process. The Nebraska tractor tests became the standard by which all farm tractors were rated, proving or disproving manufacturers’ claims. Results could go either way. More than one manufacturer legitimately upgraded his tractor’s ratings following the tests. Overly optimistic manufacturers headed back to the drawing board.

Henry Ford, meanwhile, continued to plug away at his dream of an affordable, reliable farm tractor. U.S. production of the Fordson was short-lived, ending in 1928 when Ford converted facilities to accommodate swelling demand for his Model A car. Another decade would pass before he would put his own name on a tractor. Even then, he shared billing with Harry Ferguson, whose innovative 3-point hitch system was installed on the new Ford-Ferguson 9N tractor in 1939. Only after Ford and Ferguson parted company in 1947 did the Ford Motor Co. finally use the founder’s name for its new red-belly 8N tractor.

A few Ford tractors are still around. When you see one at a show, take a good look. It could be a once-in-a-life-time experience. And keep your eyes peeled for a prototype Ford. Occasionally you’ll see one or more of these unusual pre-production tractors. And of course you’ll see a lot of Ford cars and trucks converted to tractors.

James N. Boblenz grew up on a farm near New Bloomington, Ohio. He now lives in Marion, Ohio, and is interested in antique farm equipment, particularly rare and lesser-known tractors and related items. E-mail him at Jboblenz@aol.com

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