Josephine Roberts discusses the Fordson Major, one of the most popular tractors in 1960s Britain
Fordson tractors have been here in the U.K. for so long now that we consider them our own, though of course their roots belong in the U.S. with your very own Mr. Henry Ford. The first tractor that was widespread here in the U.K. was the standard Fordson, or the Model N as it was also known.
Although there are examples in the U.K. of the earlier Model F, those are rarities. Ask most farmers of a certain age what their first tractor was, and it will almost always be either the Fordson Model N or the later Ferguson. Here in Wales we affectionately call the Model N the “Fordan Bach” (the little Fordson). The Model N was such a success that it remains popular today amongst collectors and enthusiasts as a reliable and relatively affordable vintage tractor.
Wartime film footage and photographs of farm scenes always seem to feature the Fordson Model N. There were so many Model N tractors in the fields and lined up on the docks of Britain during World War II that it was considered a sensible safety step to change the colour from a rather lurid orange to a more subtle dark green.
Ford began shipping tractors to the U.K. by 1917, but the Model F (which preceded the Model N) didn’t catch on in a big way. Many farmers were simply not ready for mechanisation at that stage. The Model N (with production beginning in 1927) became the tractor that would persuade vast numbers of farmers to make that leap of faith toward mechanisation.
Many farmers, like my own grandfather, continued to use horses right up into the 1950s. That is when he was finally persuaded by my father to buy a second-hand Fordson Model N. My grandfather never took to the tractor, and I believe he only ever drove it the once, but by then most farmers either owned a Model N or a Ferguson, which had become popular too.
The Ferguson was a user-friendly little tractor and it had the famous 3-point linkage system, which is no doubt why it went on to become our nation’s most popular tractor. Some say that the Fordson Model N is a rather temperamental tractor. I’ve heard stories of old farmers who left their Fordsons running all night during busy times, as they were afraid they would be unable to start them the next morning if they stopped them. One farmer recalled having to get up in the middle of the night to refuel the tractor, for fear it would run out of fuel and stop by morning. Some of these problems might have resulted from the fact that the owners were not familiar with these modern machines and didn’t know how to handle them. Temperamental or not, the Model N has stood the test of time here in the U.K., and it is a firm favourite for those ploughmen and women who compete in the vintage classes with their trailed ploughs.
After the introduction of the Model N, Ford tractor development remained inactive for the next decade, mainly because Ford concentrated its efforts on automobiles rather than tractors. In 1928 Ford Motor Co. began manufacturing tractors in Cork, Ireland. Later it also established a manufacturing base in Dagenham, England. Up until 1939, Irish- and English-built Fordson tractors were imported into the U.S., but that arrangement came to an end when a line of Ford tractors was produced in the U.S. for domestic sale. By that time Henry Ford had made the famous “handshake agreement” with Harry Ferguson, which resulted in Ford manufacturing tractors using the Ferguson 3-point linkage system.
That collaboration resulted in the 9N, 8N and 2N in the U.S., but back in Britain the next model up from the Model N came in 1945 with the arrival of the first Fordson Major, commonly known as the E27N. This was essentially the same tractor as the Model N but with a new casing that allowed for optional PTO and hydraulic arms. Various specialist versions were available, but the most popular examples were those that were converted to run with a Perkins diesel engine. The E27N looks much like the Model N, except that it is a much taller tractor. That striking height difference led to the tractor being given the nickname the “High Nellie” in Ireland and “Stegamajor” in Norway (“Stega” translates to ladder).
After the E27N came another Fordson Major. That one went through a massive change in styling and looked completely different from the Model N and E27N. Perhaps the design of the E27N was a little archaic in appearance, so in order to keep up with the competition — which here was Massey Ferguson — it was crucial to update.
The Fordson Major E1A was born in the early 1950s and came neatly covered in modern rounded tinwork and a bright blue livery. The E1A soon became known as “the Fordson Major,” whilst the E27N was from then on commonly referred to as, well, just the E27N. The Fordson Major remains so well-known here in the U.K. that we usually just refer to it as “the Major” — a name that one has to admit gives those tractors a certain gravitas.
The Fordson Major E1A of the early 1950s was a popular tractor, and in its day it was a powerful tractor, with the diesel models proving especially desirable. Fuel-efficient diesel tractors gained a lot of popularity here in Europe. Whereas some diesel tractors were poor starters, the Major had a good reputation in that respect, and it soon became the tractor of choice for farmers who wanted a good, strong, reliable workhorse.
It’s hard to picture it now but the Fordson Major of the 1950s was seen as a big tractor here in Britain. Whilst that increase in size and power was clearly the way forward, there was still a massive demand for smaller tractors. Ferguson tractors remained hugely popular with market gardeners and small farmers, and in response to that, Fordson introduced the Dexta in 1957. With its 3-cylinder Perkins engine, the Dexta is the sort of tractor that people look at and say “ahhh,” because it is a neat, well-made little tractor that in today’s world of giants looks for all the world like a baby tractor.
In order to further widen its range upwards, Fordson also produced the Power Major in 1958 and the Super Major in 1960. Visually the look remained the same as the E1A, with the rounded bonnet, the bright blue tinwork and the orange wheels. It is a look that’s instantly recognisable, but Majors do appear in other, less recognisable, guises too. It is said that the Fordson Major has undergone more conversions than any other tractor. I’m not sure whether that’s true, but there certainly exists a vast array of variations and derivatives, and previously unseen conversions seem to keep popping up all the time.
Numerous companies and manufacturers have used the Fordson Major to produce their own specialist machines. Companies like Roadless, County, Doe, Chaseside, JCB, Matbro, Muir Hill and Bray have all taken Majors, or at least their skid units, and adapted these tractors for their own purposes.
For instance, Roadless Traction Ltd. converted Fordson Majors to run on tracks, and they also created a popular four-wheel drive conversion. Roadless Fordson Major conversions were popular with those in the timber industry, with high-capacity winches and cage cabs fitted. Some of those tractors still work in the forests today, because for the small operator the outlay for a modern equivalent would be out of the question. The fact that these Roadless Fordson Majors are something a bit different makes them quite sought after amongst the sort of enthusiasts who like a classic tractor that’s also tough and workmanlike.
Probably the strangest Fordson Major derivative is the Doe conversion. This at its most basic is a high-powered tractor created by putting two Fordson Majors together, one behind the other. Our 4-year-old son is forever dreaming up such notions with his toys and we laugh, but back in the mid-1950s George Pryor, a farmer in Essex, England, actually took the step and made Frankenstein’s monster out of two tractors.
Pryor took two Fordson Major tractors, removed their front wheels and axles, and joined the two tractors together by means of a turntable, which allowed the tractor to articulate. Bingo! He had made a four-wheel drive tractor that was double the power of any conventional tractor available in the U.K. at the time. He had also created a totally unorthodox and impossible-looking machine that probably needed a fair bit of tweaking to perfect.
Fordson dealers Ernest Doe & Son agreed to build an improved and neatly finished version, and in 1958 they produced the Doe Dual Power, which was soon changed to the Doe Dual Drive, which soon began to be known as the Triple D. These tractors aren’t easy to handle, but they are extremely collectible and they sell for, dare I say it, ridiculous sums of money. One hears of Triple D’s fetching £30,000, £40,000 and even £50,000 ($81,000). Some were exported to the U.S., and I’m hoping that readers might be able to let me know if they know of any Doe Triple D’s in their locality. I’d certainly be interested to know whether these tractors bring the sort of prices in the U.S. that they command here.
We see all sorts of unusual Fordson Majors here in the U.K., but it is the standard models — the E1A, the Super Major and the Power Major — that remain both popular and affordable. The strength and reliability of the Fordson Major led to its popularity, but such mainstream and widespread tractors rarely command the high prices that the more unusual machines do. Fordson Major tractors might be rather an everyday sight over here, but that means of course that they were a massive success and that’s something both we Brits and you Americans should be rightly proud of.
My partner, Alistair, bought his 1961 Fordson Super Major back in 1982 when he was just 16. He doesn’t know I’m writing this, but I think it’s fair to say that this tractor was his first love! He lived in a suburban part of Berkshire, England, and had parents who were not in the least bit tractor oriented, yet a tractor was what he wanted more than anything. He dreamed of working with a tractor and spent a great deal of time as a youngster trying to persuade his parents to sell their comfortable home on the outskirts of Wokingham, England, and move to a farm in some remote, far-flung location, but to no avail. Instead he saved his wages from his first job as a groundsman and was soon able to buy an immaculate 52 hp Fordson Major for £575.
After buying the tractor, Alistair enrolled in an agricultural engineering course where he was able to use the college workshops as a place to work on his new toy. The Major has since followed him to wherever he has lived, and when we moved in together he brought his tractor along, too, of course.
Alistair is currently giving the tractor a bit of a service. A slipping clutch had been nagging for some time, so he decided to replace it. The flywheel was good and the pressure plate seemed all right, but due to its age he decided to replace that too. The clutch wearing plate, thrust bearing and the flywheel bearing were also replaced. This particular Major is unusual in that it has a single clutch, and therefore doesn’t have what is known here as “live drive,” meaning that the PTO supply ceases as soon as the clutch is depressed. The next job Alistair has in mind is to paint the Major. He’s not a fan of natural aging when it comes to tractors; the faded, worn paintwork suggests neglect to him. He can’t wait to get the tractor sorted out with a new paint job.
Ford stopped producing the Fordson Major in 1964. From then on, Ford tractors were simply badged as Fords. It was the end of an era, but these tractors are still very much with us. I’ve seen Fordson Majors with crazy engines, spiced up by speed-mad teenagers who wish to create a big, bad load of smoke at tractor pulling events. I’ve seen rusty Majors; black Majors; pink Majors; Majors sporting high-capacity winches, battered from a life of timber extraction; and Majors with tracks and bulldozer blades. At the other end of the scale there are the much-cherished, much-polished showpieces that adorn our shows and rallies. It does seem that there really is a Fordson Major out there for everyone! FC
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.