Farm Collector

Fordson Major: The Tractor of Choice

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.

Stood the test of time

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.

The
Fordson Major years

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.

Countless
variations

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.

The
Doe conversion

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.

Our old Major

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.

Tender
loving care

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 pheenie@talktalk.net
.

  • Published on Jan 28, 2013
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