The Delights of Diesel Tractors

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

| June 2017

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.