Henry Ford's impact on the America landscape is inescapably linked to the Model T automobile. In a time when automobiles were available only to the wealthy, Ford's mass-produced cars answered the dream of auto ownership for many working-class Americans. Yet, many people overlook Ford's enormous impact on the agriculture business in this country and abroad. In fact, today's widespread agricultural mechanization can directly be traced back to Henry Ford's efforts to apply the Model T production principals to farm equipment.
Henry Ford was born July 30, 1863 in Dearborn, Mich., when Abraham Lincoln still lived in the White House. As a youth, he developed a dislike of horse-powered farming, and his deep respect and love for machinery blossomed. Ford's sense of mechanical design seemingly came natural to the man. He had no formal training beyond his rural schooling - and even in that Ford didn't excel, preferring to work on machines on the family farm rather than academics. According to Charles Sorensen, Ford's closest associate for 40 years, the automaker didn't read blueprints, nor was he able to make a sketch. Regardless, Sorensen wrote that Ford's mind held a repository of mechanical concepts.
Birth of the Fordson
After the Model T was introduced in 1908, Ford focused his attention on building a farm tractor. A deep dislike of farm drudgery fueled Ford's desire to create an affordable machine to ease the farmer's chores. Experimentation with tractors began as early as 1905, however, using parts from his early cars to build a quality machine. Then, in 1908, Ford directed part of his car design staff to switch to tractor development.
By 1915, Ford's experimental tractor began to look like the Fordson recognizable today. Because of a rift between some Ford Motor Co. shareholders about the company's new project, Ford decided that the tractor operation should be separate from the automobile business. As a result, Ford established Henry Ford and Son Co., which was abbreviated to Fordson in 1917. During that time, Ford also sent some of the prototype tractors to England for possible production to help European farmers regroup after the devastation of World War I.
Finally, in January 1918, the first Fordson tractors were sold to American farmers for about $750 each. The small, lightweight, compact design was so radically different from the large, heavyweight and cumbersome prairie-style farm machines of the day that it was difficult for farmers to imagine this little tractor would take the place of a team of horses or oxen.
As with any radical paradigm shift, the Fordson created new possibilities for farmers. They were no longer forced to plant crops just to feed the teams, nor did farmers have to include teams in the daily chores. Although $750 was a lot of money in 1920, the tractor was much more affordable than most other tractors of the day.
After the Fordson was introduced and sold widely, it was apparent that Ford did for agriculture what he had done for the auto industry: Just as the inexpensive Model T put many Americans behind the wheel, he made the tractor accessible to nearly all farmers. When U.S. Fordson production ended in 1928, more than 744,000 of the machines had been produced. Retail prices ranged from $800 to as low as $395 in 1922, when the River Rouge plant outside Dearborn, Mich., took over the final years of Fordson production in the U.S. The price dropped because the Rouge plant was an industrial monster, designed for raw materials to go in one side and finished cars, trucks and tractors to exit the other. The factory was larger than 1,000 acres and literally manufactured nearly everything that went into Ford products of that era. With production essentially under one roof, very few middlemen were involved and prices remained relatively low.
Fordson's U.S. production overwhelmed some other tractor manufacturers in sheer numbers, and it's a wonder that more Fordsons aren't around today. The number of add-on implements and odd, 'Rube Goldberg' contraptions made the little Fordson much more than just a blip on the radar screen of agricultural history. Noted Ford tractor authors Robert Pripps, Jack Heald, Larry Gay and John Ruff all suggest that the Fordson's disappearance from the tractor scene (and scarcity at antique farm equipment shows) may've resulted from the scrap-metal drives of the 1940s and the U.S.'s preparations for war, and not the result of faulty design or malfunction.
Fordson's dominance ended in 1928 when Ford decided to stop producing the tractor in the U.S. The exact reason for his decision is unclear, but some say there was a greater need in Europe for the farm machines, while others say Ford lost interest in the Fordson design. Henry Ford wouldn't build another successful agricultural machine until the 1930s. During the intervening years, Ford experimented with many odd tractor models and prototypes that never made it past the testing phase, including a strange, three-wheeled machine that one of Ford's engineers described as a 'row boat in a heavy sea.'
The Ferguson hand shake
Just when Ford seemed to be out of the farm machine market, along came tractor designer Harry Ferguson. Both Ford and Ferguson were cut from similar cloth. In a 2001 N-News article, Jim Dawson points out the many similarities between Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson, from their Irish heritage to their farming backgrounds, and even their mutual distrust of academia. Most importantly, both men were naturally gifted engineers and dreamers, and each man was strong-willed and highly idealistic. They also saw ways of improving on their own and others' -designs, an important trait in an ever-competitive agricultural machine market. In many ways, it's surprising that Harry and Henry agreed on anything because of their single mindedness. Yet, in February 1938, Ferguson demonstrated his three point hitch tractor to Ford in Dearborn, Mich. It wasn't their first encounter, however.
Harry Ferguson and Henry Ford first met in the late 1920s, after Charles Sorenson returned from England where he'd helped begin English Fordson production. Through his personal connection with Sorenson, Ferguson arrived in America to show the plows he developed for the Fordson. During that first meeting, Ferguson explained to Ford the advantages of mounting the plow directly to the tractor instead of trailing it. He explained that it produced greater plowing power and safer working conditions. Author Randy Leffingwell wrote in his book, Ford Farm Tractors that, 'Ford was intrigued. His interest, though, was greater in Ferguson than in the plow. Ford told Sorensen to hire him [Ferguson]. Ferguson declined. Sorensen raised the wage three times, each time Ferguson declined.'
After nearly 10 years of further design, Harry Ferguson demonstrated much more than a tractor and a plow at their 1938 meeting. Ferguson showed that a small, lightweight, nimble tractor could plow an even furrow in many different soil conditions. The key to the plow's success was the hitch more than the tractor. Ferguson and his designers concentrated their efforts on the hitch, and by using the geometric strength of the three-point design - with the plow mounted directly to the tractor - they achieved what before seemed impossible. The result was impressive.
Tests continued at Dearborn for days, and Ferguson's tractor and plow passed every challenge Ford and his group devised. Finally, on a November day in 1938, Henry Ford said he was satisfied and was ready to talk business. Because it was such a nice day, they borrowed a kitchen table and chairs from a neighboring farmhouse, and the two men sat down to seal the deal. Ford wanted to purchase the patent rights, but Ferguson refused. Ford dearly wanted to produce both the tractor and plow, and asked Ferguson what he suggested. Ferguson proposed 'a gentleman's agreement.' Since Ford had the manufacturing and marketing ability, and Ferguson had the design, neither could move forward without the other. 'I'll trust you,' Ford said, 'if you trust me, and I'll put my services at your disposal for future designing, education and distribution ... For your part, you'll put all your resources, energy, fame, and reputation behind the equipment and manufacture it in volume, at low cost. I will sell it.' The rest is agricultural history.
Later, in early 1939, Ford's design team began to redesign the tractor to make it even lighter, stronger and easier to manufacture, and most importantly perhaps, to make it more versatile for U.S. farmers. Ferguson also fulfilled his part of the agreement by correctly engineering the hitch system to fit Ford's tractor - no small feat. Dubbed the 9N, the tractor was physically very different from any other tractor marketed at that time, and its most outstanding feature was Ferguson's three-point hitch. Since longevity is a measure of design excellence, the three-point hitch speaks for itself, and maintains its place as the industry standard used today for most mounted implements. Like the Fordson tractor, the new hitch revolutionized mechanized farming. In fact, the 9N wouldn't be remembered in agricultural history without Ferguson's hitch.
The 9N and after
By the end of 1942, more than 99,000 Model 9Ns had rolled off the assembly line. During that time, multiple changes were made, but always in small details such as stronger parts. For example, Ford replaced cast aluminum parts with stamped steel. With World War II in full swing in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt created the War Resources Board, which controlled critical material for the war effort. Though farming was still crucial, those restrictions affected farm equipment production. The result was a redesigned tractor introduced in 1942, known as the 2N. The new Ford-Ferguson tractor came without a starter, generator, electric lights and was delivered on steel wheels instead of rubber. Otherwise, the 2N was essentially the same tractor as the final 9N version. In fact, 2N serial numbers begin where the 9N serial numbers left off. The 2N designation also appeared in numbers stamped on parts, as those parts were updated through the years. A total of 207,000 of the 2Ns were produced between 1942 and 1947.
Last of the N series
Though Henry Ford was still involved with the company, much of the day-today tasks fell to his son, Edsel. Early in 1943, Edsel succumbed to stomach cancer, and Henry returned to the helm, albeit briefly, at the age of 80. Henry had already suffered several strokes, and his ability to focus was seriously constrained. Finally, after pressure from other family members, Ford decided that Henry Ford II, his grandson, would take over the company while still in his late 20s. The young leader brought new blood to the company management, and in doing so discovered that Ford Motor Co. lost money on every tractor sold, while Ferguson made money. As a result, Henry II terminated the 'hand shake agreement' in 1946. Instead, Ford decided to produce a tractor built and distributed solely by Ford Motor Co. by 1947.
Though similar to the 2N, the 8N, introduced in 1948, was redesigned with a new paint scheme and 22 new features. It had a four-speed transmission; both brakes were moved to the right side leaving the clutch alone on the left. The hydraulic three-point hitch was redesigned to include a 'position control' setting in addition to the 'draft-sensing' position. A new steering mechanism was introduced along with a slight increase in engine compression, which resulted in a little more horsepower. The 8N was produced from late 1947 through mid-1952, with production numbers soaring to more than 521,000. Once again, the Ford Motor Co. proved it could compete in the tractor market.
End of the single-models
The 8N, called the 'red belly' by some, was the last of the true N-series machines. Though the NAA, as it was labeled, would have a very similar look and feel to the Ns, it had a completely redesigned power plant with the all-new, over-head valve 'Red Tiger' engine and a hydraulic pump mounted by the engine instead of under the seat. That placement allowed for a 'live' hydraulic three-point hitch, as opposed to the N series, which lost power to the rear hitch when the clutch was depressed.
The first NAA, introduced in 1953, was called the Golden Jubilee, in celebration of Ford Motor Co.'s 50th anniversary. The NAA represents the first of the new-engine design, but also the last of the 'single-model' tractors Ford produced. After it was on the market, Ford offered tractors that could be 'built' to a buyer's specifications. Buyers could choose engines types, transmission types and live PTO options just to name a few. The Hundred series (600, 700, 800, 501, 601, 701, 801, 901) machines continued to prove that Ford had a place on the farm, but the company would never again have the foothold it once did with the Fordson and the N series.
Small 'utility' tractors were designed to do many different chores on the farm, but, by 1969, the little gray Fords no longer solely owned that role. As competition grew from John Deere and Farmall, Ford's agricultural market share dwindled. By then, other manufacturers were using the three-point hitch that had once revolutionized Ford tractor designs. Likewise, other companies designed and built tractor implements that were formerly a hallmark of Ford engineering. Thus, Ford tractors lost their uniqueness within the competitive field. Some Ford innovations were still to come, such as the Select-O-Speed transmission.
Despite decades as a dominant tractor maker, Ford would never hold the same place it once did with the Fordson and the N series. Yet, Ford's innovations will always be remembered as long as old-iron collectors cherish the Michigan-born tractors.FC
- Robert Rinaldi is the publisher of the N-News magazine, a quarterly publication dedicated to vintage Ford farm tractors and machinery. Rob has been involved with old Fords since he was 8 years old. For more information about old Fords, contact him at N-News, P.O. Box 275 East Corinth, VT 05040, or visit the Web site at www.n-news.com
Further Ford Reading
Ford Farm Tractors by Randy Leffingwell
A Guide to Ford, Fordson, and New Holland Tractors 1907-1999 by Larry Cay
My Forty Years With Ford by C.E. Sorensen