Until the flamboyant Duchess of York stole headlines across the globe, ‘Fergie’ meant only one thing throughout the British Empire: TE20, the gray Massey Ferguson tractor. Alas, like the British Empire, the sun finally set on the ‘Little Grey Fergie’ when the last British ‘Fergie’ factory in Coventry, England, closed July 30, 2003 after 56 years spent producing 3,307,996 tractors.
The first British ‘Fergie’ was born after Belfast engineer Harry Ferguson parted ways with Ford Motor Co. He’d revolutionized farming with the American-built Ford-Ferguson tractors and his three-point hitch design first devised in the 1920s. In a decade, no less than 517,649 of the first British-made tractors rolled off the Ferguson production line. Ferguson sold his company in 1953 to Canadian Massey-Harris, and the resulting Massey Ferguson Co. prospered for years.
The ‘Fergie’s’ reliability was legendary. If it did break down, most repairs could be done with a single wrench. By 1962, Massey Ferguson was the one of the world’s best-selling tractor makers and sold more farm machines than any other British company in more than 140 countries. The tractor’s impact on Britain is evident in the fact that the Welsh word for tractor is simply ‘Fergie.’
The farm industry giant, AGCO Corp., gobbled up Massey Ferguson in 1993. As the market for the mid-range tractors produced in Britain shrank, AGCO concentrated production in the company’s Brazil- and India-based plants, and British-made models were phased out. Even though the tractors are still made elsewhere, the last British-born ‘Fergie’ was built in December 2002. The old factory continued to produce spare parts, but not for long. Inevitably, the decline of heavy industry in the ‘old world’ finally caught up with the little tractor, which most British farmers claimed could help with nearly every farm chore.
The ‘Fergie’ has poignant memories for me, as well. At boarding school in the 1970s, each student was expected to participate in ‘useful work’ doing chores around the school. One summer, I was assigned to work with the groundskeeper. To my delight, he taught me to operate an ancient ‘Fergie,’ and I spent endless hours pulling a gang of mowers across the playing fields. Later, also under the groundskeeper’s guidance, I learned to use a plow and a host of other farm implements. Small for a 14-year-old, I found the tractor’s light weight and overall simplicity a delight to operate. Even though the ‘Fergie’ wasn’t exactly a sports car, I was the envy of my friends because I had the only wheels.
Far from the farm, ‘Fergie’s’ heroic feats fill the history books. In 1958, Sir Edmund Hillary – conqueror of Mt. Everest – drove a Massey Ferguson TEA tractor 1,200 miles across Antarctica’s icy wilderness to prove it was possible to establish a regular route between McMurdo Sound on the coast and the South Pole.
In 1956 in New South Wales, Australia, the town of Wentworth was surrounded by rising floodwater from the Murray and Darling Rivers. Residents banded together, and used Massey Ferguson TE20 tractors to build levees and saved the town from certain destruction. To show their appreciation for the ‘Fergies,’ townspeople even erected a monument to the tractor so future generations won’t forget.
With the closing of Coventry’s Massey Ferguson factory, the ‘Fergie’s’ heyday is now gone. Yet, farmers and old-iron collectors who loved ‘Fergies’ from Australia to America, Britain to Bangladesh won’t soon forget those famed tractors. FC
– Nat Bocking is a writer and photographer who lives in Suffolk, England. For questions or comments about the Massey Ferguson factory closing, write Nat at Pixlink, Holton House, Southwold Road, Holton, Suffolk, IP19 8PW, United Kingdom; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org visit his Web site at www.pixlink.co.uk