The Delights of Diesel Tractors

A 1954 Ferguson TEF diesel tractor enters the annual Anglesey Ploughing Match.

| June 2017

  • Things soon began to get a bit, ahem, messy in the furrow department …
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • The tractor ploughed downhill without much ado, but uphill was another matter. After persevering for a while, Bob Roberts gave up and ploughed one way.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • A dainty little vintage tractor like this isn’t Bob’s usual cup of tea, but because the tractor has been in the area all of its working life, he couldn’t resist buying the little Fergie when it came up for sale.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • One disadvantage of taking a small tractor to a ploughing match is that if you find yourself ploughing in wet, heavy soil, the smaller tractor is sure to struggle. Bob is used to more powerful tractors and was getting slightly frustrated with the limitations of a small tractor!
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • One advantage of taking a small tractor like the Fergie to a ploughing match or show is that it can legally be towed behind a Land Rover.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • The earlier Ferguson tractors ran on straight petrol. Later models used Tractor Vapourising Oil. Because petrol was, and still is, heavily taxed here in the UK, as mechanisation became widespread, people soon began to favour diesel tractors, because agricultural diesel (what we call here “red” diesel), is a fraction of the cost of petrol.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • Launched in 1951, the Ferguson TEF was designed to run on diesel, despite the fact that Harry Ferguson was known to far prefer petrol engines.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • A lighting kit was optional and it included this large “Cyclops”-style front light. The single front light gives the tractor a unique and quirky appearance.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • Another difference in the TEF model was the addition of a heavy-duty starter and 12-volt electrics with dual batteries beside each mudguard.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • Harry Ferguson’s genius was to produce a vast range of Ferguson implements for his tractors. Bob, however, doesn’t have a Ferguson plough, so he has fitted this old David Brown plough behind his tractor.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • The old-style Ferguson seat is a thing of beauty in itself.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • A Ki-Gass starting system and a decompression lever were provided to facilitate starting the diesel Ferguson in cold weather.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • The Ferguson is the simplest of tractors to drive: It has no high and low ratio, just four forward gears, a reverse gear and a starting gear, which can only be accessed by pressing your leg against a button – preventing the driver from accidently putting the tractor into the “start” position whilst driving.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • Bob’s Ferguson has never been restored and has only ever been repaired when something has gone wrong. It has been in use for the last 63 years with minimal attention, which is a testament to Harry Ferguson’s great design.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • Many Ferguson tractors were not fitted with footplates. Instead, they had just a simple peg footrest, which makes getting on and off the tractor trickier. This one, however, has been fitted with footplates.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts

On July 6, 1946, the first Ferguson TE-20 tractor rolled off the assembly line at the Banner Lane factory, Coventry, England. It was a big day for Irishman Harry Ferguson, and it went on to become a landmark moment in the history of tractor design.

Ferguson had already worked with David Brown on the production of the Ferguson Brown tractor, and he had famously made the “handshake agreement” with Henry Ford (which had ended rather messily), but the TE-20 was to be Ferguson’s big solo step into mass production of a little grey tractor that was to become a British icon and all-round success story.

Ferguson had long since patented his famous Ferguson System, and with it he now created the near perfect farm tractor, as his genius was also to supply a vast range of implements to accompany the tractor, all marketed to make the farmer’s life easier. Suddenly the farmer could plough, cultivate land, saw logs, lift loads, bore holes, spray crops and trim hedges like never before, all with the one tractor.

Diesel an important alternative in the UK

The Ferguson TE-20 was nigh on perfect in design, but it did have one small downside: It ran on petrol. In the U.K., petrol was heavily taxed and it was expensive. Paraffin, however, was not taxed, and was therefore seen as a good substitute for petrol, which is why Ferguson went on to bring out the TED-20, which was designed to run on Tractor Vapourising Oil (TVO) in 1949. This fuel was produced from petrol and a type of paraffin. Paraffin was untaxed, and therefore less expensive.



But as people became increasingly reliant on tractors, even the costs of TVO began to add up. It wasn’t long before an innovative UK company called Perkins began offering conversions that allowed Ferguson tractors to run on diesel. Agricultural diesel, considerably less costly than petrol, was clearly the way forward.

Harry Ferguson, though, was known to be opposed to any fuel other than straight petrol. Like many, he saw diesel tractors as noisy and difficult to start, but he couldn’t allow other companies to gain the upper hand on sales, so in 1951 Ferguson brought out the TEF-20, which ran on diesel.



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