During World War II, the decision was made to change the livery to green. The story is that this was to protect the factories (which had hundreds of orange tractors parked outside) from bombers, but it is likely that it made individuals using the tractors out in the open fields feel a little safer too.
Jo Roberts samples a pair of iconic orange tractors
I have several nephews, and it seems like no time since they were all running around covered in dirt, playing on imaginary motorbikes and pushing toy cars around as they made revving sounds. Now these mucky, noisy boys are all grown up, but all of them remain obsessed with machines, in particular old machines, preferably those with an engine. I’m a lucky aunty, as they have turned into good lads and I’m proud of them all.
One nephew, Mathew Roberts, is a welder who lives and works in the nearby market town of Llanrwst. Anyone who came on the Farm Collector tractor tour to the U.K. in August 2018 would have met him at the yard where he works, where we displayed a few of our family’s tractors for tour participants to see. Mathew, who is almost always known by his nickname “Ziggs” (I can’t begin to explain just how common nicknames are in Wales) has been collecting and tinkering with old tractors and Land Rovers from an early age, and it was a hobby that came easily to him since his father (Pete) is also, it’s fair to say, pretty obsessed with the same things.
The first model N tractors were painted blue. In 1937, the orange livery was introduced. This example is curious in that it has a “water washer”-style air filter, more typically associated with the blue tractors.
Since the Farm Collector visit, Mathew has acquired two “new” old tractors: a Fordson N and a Nuffield 4/60, which he bought together from a local collector. “I had really only gone to see a nice original-looking grey Ferguson that was for sale,” he explains, “but when I got there, the engine was in a bad way. But while I was there, I saw the Fordson and liked the look of it. Then, when I saw the Nuffield, I thought that looked interesting. I couldn’t choose between the two and I ended up buying them both.”
The Nuffield 4/60 (pictured here with a friend's homemade log splitter on the rear) is now at least a 90hp tractor.
Fordson Model N
- When Ford began producing the Fordson Model N in 1928, the company had already established themselves as successful manufacturers of tractors with their earlier Fordson F tractor.
- Ford established a tractor manufacturing plant in Cork, Ireland, in 1919, in order to build their Fordson F tractors. Tractors built here are often referred to as Irish Fordsons.
- In 1933, Fordson tractor production was moved from Cork, Ireland, to Dagenham, England, where it continued until 1964.
- The Fordson N was introduced in 1929. It went on to become the most popular tractor in Britain and is thought of as the iconic tractor of World War II.
- The earlier Fordson tractors were blue in colour. In 1937, the decision was made to change the livery to the light orange colour known as Harvest Gold.
- During World War II, the orange tractors were seen as an easy target for enemy aircraft, so a new dark green colour scheme was introduced. Some older Model N tractors were also re-painted green at that time, which can cause confusion.
- The Model N is often seen in old photographs being driven by members of the Women’s Land Army, who were given the role of working the land to increase food production while the male workforce was away fighting in the war.
- Model N tractors were also used by the military as aircraft tugs, with some being converted to run on tracks and half-tracks.
- The Model N featured a 27hp Ford 4-cylinder engine and in 1935 a PTO shaft was also available.
- The Model N was discontinued in 1945 and was replaced by the Fordson E27N.
– Josephine Roberts
Another unplanned purchase. This handsome Nuffield 4/60 was built between 1961 and '63.
No rubber stamp tractor
Having grown up with a father who owned several Fordson N tractors, all with their own little quirks and variations, Mathew has ended up becoming something of a Fordson spotter. He was immediately drawn to the fact that this particular Fordson N was slightly out of the ordinary.
To start with, there was the colour. British Fordson N tractors were painted blue initially, then the colour changed to orange, and later to dark green. The colour of the tractor can therefore help in dating it, but this quick method of aging a Model N isn’t totally foolproof. Take this orange Fordson, for instance. It happens to have some features generally seen only on the earlier blue examples, so that presents a question: Is this an orange Fordson, which, for some reason, had some older features, or is it a blue Fordson, which has, for some reason, been painted orange? Such are the questions that pique the interest of Fordson spotters, and it is these interesting features which make a tractor like this stand out from its contemporaries.
The Fordson N was mounted from the rear, and the seat could be made to swivel around to make things easier. This style of mounting is far easier for those with bad hips!
One of the unusual features on Matthew’s Model N is the water bath air cleaner, easily spotted by the header tank that is situated between the engine block and the steering wheel. Known as the “water washer,” this type of air filter, incorporated into the steering box, is generally seen only on the earlier (blue type) Fordson N. By 1937, when the orange paint was introduced, the water washer system was replaced with an oil bath air cleaner.
Earlier Fordson N’s had wide mudguards like this one, but in a bid to save on steel (which was in short supply later in the war) the later mudguards were made narrower.
Highly adaptable tractor available in countless variations
Another interesting point on this Model N is the presence of a handbrake. This wasn’t an original fitting, but rather an aftermarket option. It seems that a number of blacksmiths and engineers were issued with the patent for making these handbrakes for Fordson tractors, solely because some owners felt that the clip used to hold down the brake wasn’t adequate. The tractor is believed to have spent its life in hilly North Wales, which might explain why someone felt the need to pay to have a handbrake fitted. Farming on a hillside is, after all, a whole different story to farming on the flat.
Fordson N tractors are still a real favourite today with those who like to compete in ploughing matches with trailer ploughs.
So the Fordson N has a few unsolved mysteries, which makes it an interesting tractor to research and also to display at shows and rallies. Fordson tractors come in an array of variations and it is said that they are the most adapted of all tractors, with not only Fordson themselves offering variants, but also other companies adapting them for all sorts of different applications.
It is this variability that makes Fordsons so interesting to collect, as one can easily own several Fordson N tractors with each differing slightly from the other. Aside from the three colours (blue, orange and green), there are also wide-wing and narrow-wing versions (with the narrow-wing version built to save steel during wartime shortages), industrial versions, steel-wheel versions, and even examples that run on tracks and half-tracks.
This Fordson has been fitted with an aftermarket handbrake, possibly because it was used in hilly North Wales.
Homegrown conversions popular among today’s collectors
In contrast to the quaint-looking little Fordson N, the Nuffield 4/60 is something of a beast. Of course, built in the early 1960s, the Nuffield 4/60 is a larger tractor than the Fordson, but Mathew’s tractor appears larger still due to the fact that it was fitted with a bigger-than-usual engine in the early 1980s, and has been lengthened in order to accommodate the oversized engine. We’ve all heard of a stretch limousine, but this is a stretch Nuffield.
One might assume that a tractor like this, with its non-original engine and slightly butchered chassis, would be of far less interest to collectors than a “correct” tractor with an original engine, but that seems not to be the case. Perhaps it is because this tractor wholeheartedly represents a period in our rural history when farmers were desperately seeking more powerful tractors. Higher horsepower tractors were available at the time, but they were out of the reach of most ordinary farmers and contractors.
Purists no doubt prefer tractors with their original engines, but these “transplant tractors” do have a certain popularity with “petrol heads” and collectors who like the quirky, unusual tractors.
Nuffield Fact File
- The roots of vehicle manufacturer Morris Motor Co. go back to 1912. The company was founded by William Morris, who later became Lord Nuffield.
- During World War II there was a desperate need for farmers to increase productivity and the government persuaded Morris to divert some of the company’s energy into tractor production.
- In 1946, the prototype for the Nuffield Universal tractor was completed and tested.
- Post-war steel shortages delayed production of the tractor until 1948.
- In 1952, British Motor Corp. (BMC), was formed when Austin Motor Co. and the Nuffield organisation (parent of the Morris car company, MG, Riley and Wolseley) merged.
- In 1962, Nuffield tractors ceased to be built in Ward End, Birmingham, and were instead manufactured at a new factory in Bathgate in Scotland. This was a politically motivated move, designed to provide work for the vast numbers of people who had lost their jobs after closure of Scottish coal mines.
- Between 1961 and 1963, the Nuffield 4/60 with its BMC 3.8 litre 4-cylinder engine was produced.
- During the 1960s, Nuffield went on to manufacture larger tractors (like the 10/60 that featured a high- and low-ratio in the gearbox supplying 10 forward and two reverse gears), as well as a mini tractor, which never proved hugely popular as, at the time, the public had little desire for smaller tractors.
- Nuffield tractors never achieved the success that Ford or Ferguson enjoyed, but they did become a very well-respected brand with many loyal customers.
- In 1968, the company merged with Leyland Motor Corp. to create what was, at the time, Britain’s largest motor vehicle manufacturer.
- Under the new name British Leyland, tractors with a completely different look and a new blue colour scheme began to be produced and the days of the Poppy Orange Nuffield tractors were well and truly over.
– Josephine Roberts
Farmers and contractors were desperate for more power to increase their productivity. Since necessity is the mother of invention, many decided that the only affordable way to get their hands on a powerful tractor was to “improve” their existing tractors by fitting larger engines into them.
Such transplants were relatively commonplace, with some being better than others. By now, these funny “home” conversions are proving quite popular, as not only do they appeal to the “petrol head” type of collector who likes to have a big, beefy engine, but they also appeal to those who like to collect tractors that are a little bit different from the more commonplace originals.
It was quite commonplace in the late 1970s and ’80s for farmers and contractors to try to “improve” their tractors by replacing the original engines with higher power engines out of trucks. The high-powered tractors for sale in this era were few and far between, and many were too expensive for the ordinary people, so DIY upgrades were quite common. It’s plain to see where the bonnet (the hood) and the chassis have been lengthened to make room for the larger engine.
Desperate for increased power, owners take matters into their own hands
Various truck engines were put into tractors back in the day, but this particular tractor is fitted with a British Motor Co. (BMC) 6-cylinder engine taken from a Leyland Terrier truck (lorry!). Originally the tractor would have had a BMC 3.8 litre 4-cylinder engine, offering around 55hp at the PTO. This was a quite respectable amount of power for the time. As an example, The Fordson Super Major (which came out in 1961) offered 54hp.
Tractors were gradually increasing in power all the time, but some farmers felt that they couldn’t wait for these changes, so if you wanted a massive increase in horsepower quickly and cheaply, the only answer was to “do it yourself.” The farmer who owned the Nuffield 4/60 back in the day wanted to maximise output and to go out contracting, doing heavy work like baling and ploughing, and therefore he decided to fit an engine that could offer in excess of 90hp.
As well as having a fascination with old tractors, Mathew is also very fond of Land Rovers, especially his old Series 1 example pictured here.
It’s plain to see how the chassis frame and the bonnet (hood) have been lengthened to accommodate the larger engine, as there has been little attempt to disguise the joint, but this is to be expected. It was, after all, a utility vehicle and not a showpiece, and in some ways the home-made look is all part of the tractor’s rustic charm. There’s an element of Frankenstein’s monster with engine transplants like this, but unlike Frankenstein’s creation, this tractor’s surgery was a success, and the tractor has by now worked longer with the transplanted engine than it ever did with the original one, and it looks ready to go for another few years yet.
Nuffield tractors were painted a colour known as Poppy Orange, but those tractors that have never been repainted, like this one, have nearly 60 years later faded to a warm autumnal reddish-brown far less garish than the original colour. Mathew won’t repaint either of these orange tractors, as he prefers his tractors to show their age and he likes the warm patina that comes from years of use. The preference among collectors for unrestored tractors seems to be on the increase, and very often unrestored tractors fetch better prices than restored ones, so I think Mathew’s decision to leave the tractors as he found them is wise. One does wonder though, just how a chap who went out to buy a grey tractor could end up coming home with two orange ones! FC
Pete ploughing with his green Fordson. The Fordson N is seen as the iconic wartime tractor, because huge numbers of these little tractors worked the land during World War II.
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.