British Ford Motor Co. (England) Ltd., a semiautonomous branch of Henry Ford’s automotive empire, was established in 1909 under the chairmanship of English motor vehicle manufacturer Lord Percival Perry.
At first, the company sold imported Model T automobiles while an assembly plant was set up in an old tram factory in Manchester. Opening in 1911, the factory employed 60 workers building the Model T. In 1914, Britain’s first moving assembly line was initiated, producing 21 cars per hour. The Model T soon became the largest-selling car in Britain.
By 1915, the Model T was well established as the “universal car,” and Ford (as well as others) began tinkering with Model T–to-tractor conversions. Ford’s goal at that time was to use as many car parts as possible to keep costs down. Ford Motor Co., however, was owned by a small group of stockholders, some of whom did not share Henry Ford’s enthusiasm for tractors. Accordingly, using his own money, Ford set up a new, family-owned company, with his only son, Edsel. The company was named Henry Ford and Son, Ltd. A completely new tractor — the Model F — was designed using the unit frame concept pioneered by Massey-Harris.
Fordson wins hearts and minds
With the outbreak of World War I, Great Britain faced food shortages when able-bodied men and horses were conscripted for the war effort, leaving much land untilled. The British Ministry of Munitions issued a plea for all manufacturers of tractors, foreign and domestic, to supply tractors for food production.
Lord Perry, aware of Henry Ford’s progress with his new tractor design, called upon him to quit the experiments and start production. Ford not only agreed to that (and to export of at least 6,000 tractors to Great Britain as soon as possible), but also agreed to establish a factory in Ireland (from which the Ford family had emigrated). In 1917, a plant opened in Cork, Ireland, for manufacture of the tractor, now called the Fordson Model F. The Fordson (and others) went on to save the British people from starvation during World War I, and the Fordson endeared itself to the British population.
Peace time between World War I and World War II was limited to just 21 years. Mindful of the country’s experience during the first world war, the British War Agricultural Executive Committee stockpiled hundreds of upgraded Fordson Model N tractors in the intervening years. When German U-boats cut off overseas shipping, the Fordson was once again ready to go to work, further endearing the tractor to the British populace.
Replacing the Fordson
Meanwhile, in the U.S., Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson (another Irishman) had made their famous “Handshake Agreement” to manufacture the Ford-Ferguson tractor Model 9N (1939) and Model 2N (1942, a wartime version with modifications to save critical materials). It was Ferguson’s understanding that the Ford- Ferguson would replace the Fordson on the British assembly lines.
In 1945, with the end of World War II in sight, the British War Agricultural Executive Committee laid down requirements for a new farm tractor to replace the venerable Fordson. Specifications were sent to British tractor makers. Of course, British Ford was interested, as there would undoubtedly be a considerable market.
The new specification called for 3-plow capability, central PTO and higher crop clearance (or row-crop configuration). British Ford, having dealt with Harry Ferguson on several occasions during the war years, was more than a little fearful of a relationship with Ferguson, and saw the 3-plow and row-crop requirements as grounds for eliminating Harry Ferguson and the Ford-Ferguson tractor from consideration.
End of the handshake agreement
Ferguson believed that, with the end of the war, the Ford-Ferguson tractor would replace the Fordson and not only that, but there would be a seat for him on the British Ford Motor Co. board of directors. In 1945, Ferguson sent a letter to Henry Ford warning that if this agreement was not fulfilled, he would start building a competitive tractor in England. Ford never responded to the letter. In fact, he never saw it. An assistant filed it without showing it to him, saying, “We’ve got enough trouble around here without this!”
In 1947, the great automobile pioneer and magnate, Henry Ford, died at his Fair Lane Estate. Ford’s grandson, Henry II, took over the company. He soon recognized that the handshake agreement was not, and never had been, profitable for Ford. With that, he notified Ferguson that 1947 would be the last year that Ford would supply tractors under the agreement.
Harry Ferguson went on to launch his version of the Ford-Ferguson tractor, the Ferguson TE20, building it in an unused wartime factory in Coventry, England. In 1947, Ferguson also set up a Detroit factory to manufacture his tractor for the U.S. market. Ferguson’s company was later merged with Massey-Harris to form Massey Ferguson.
Rise of the Perkins Diesel
With the end of World War II, British Ford undertook the upgrade and modernization of the wartime Fordson Model N to meet the requirements of the War Agricultural Executive Committee. The new model’s designation was E27N Major. The “E” was for “English,” the “27” for the horsepower of the high-compression (gasoline) version of the existing Fordson engine and the “N” was for the heritage of the Model N. The commonly used name was “Fordson Major.” The E27N designator was not much used until it was necessary to differentiate between the E27N and later, larger Fordson tractors also called Majors, or “New” Majors.
In the summer of 1946, Henry Ford’s crack tractor designer, Harold Brock, was sent on a three-month assignment at British Ford in Dagenham, England, to help with the design of a new lighter-weight modern tractor to replace the venerable Fordson N. A full-scale wooden mock-up was built of Brock’s design, but remaining restrictions on materials and tooling prevented the implementation of a completely new design at that time.
In the late 1940s, the British were far ahead of the U.S. in the development and use of diesel engines for automotive applications. In 1947, Frank Perkins of Perkins Diesel, Ltd. converted a Fordson E27N for his own use to one of his diesel engines. When Ford heard of it, they sent two more Fordson E27Ns to Perkins for conversion.
The result was the 6-cylinder P6 (TA) Fordson Major. Some 23,000 were built before production ended in 1952. The diesel, rated at 45 hp, made the E27N a great tractor. Perkins also brought out a 4-cylinder L4 (TA) engine in 1953, along with a conversion kit for regular E27Ns and older Fordson N’s. With the advent of the diesel version, the rear axle was strengthened. The transmission and clutch were adequate for the increase in power.
Once the E27N was established in production, and wartime shortages were overcome, British Ford launched the “New Major” program in 1952. It was a larger, more powerful 4-cylinder tractor in the utility configuration. Three engine fuel options (petrol, Tractor Vaporizing Oil [TVO] and diesel) were offered using the same block and architecture.
Introducing the Fordson Dexta
At the same time, there were serious considerations of reviving Brock’s lighter tractor design. Perkins had come out with a 3-cylinder P3 diesel engine with 32 hp. One had been fitted to an 8N Ford tractor (1948 upgraded version without Harry Ferguson) for evaluation. After a period of satisfactory tests, an arrangement was made with Perkins to use a slightly modified version of this engine (now called the F3) in the new tractor, called the Dexta, based on Harold Brock’s design.
Interestingly, the Dexta, which had been designed to compete with the Massey Ferguson Model 35, shared the basic engine, gearbox and differential, as well as many other parts. Both tractors featured the Perkins 3-cylinder engine, with few differences. Early Dextas used a 144-cubicinch engine, whereas later Dextas and all MF 35’s had the 152-cubic-inch-displacement version.
The two tractors did have different fuel injector systems and other differences despite their common platform. The very rare gasoline version of the Dexta had the same Standard Vanguard car engine as the gasoline Ferguson Models TEA and FE 35, one difference being that the starter was relocated to the right side on the Dexta. Unlike the Fergusons, the gasoline Dexta used the same gearbox as its diesel version.
After 1964, the Fordson name was dropped and all Ford tractors were simply badged as Fords in both the U.K. and the U.S. FC
After 36 years in the aircraft industry, Bob Pripps returned to his first love and began writing about tractors. He has authored some 30 books on the subject and several magazine articles. Pripps has a maple syrup farm near Park Falls, Wisconsin. In harvesting the maple sap, he relies on a Ford Jubilee and a Massey Ferguson 85.