Lifting the Burden of Farming with the Fordson Tractor

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A portrait of Henry Ford in about 1919.
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Disassembly of the original Fordson tractor, showing the unit-frame construction and how the tractor can be taken apart for service, with blocks of wood inserted to support the separated parts.
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Ford on his first car, the Quadricycle.
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Henry Ford driving his “Automotive Plow.”
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A cutaway view of the original Fordson tractor.
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Fordson tractors were converted for all sorts of uses, such as this Trackson crawler conversion.
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An early Fordson Model F with the “ladder side” radiator.
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A later, restored Fordson Model F.

The first couple of decades of the 20th century were a time of great creativity in the automotive and agricultural fields, so it seems the 100th anniversary of some automobile, truck or tractor now comes along regularly. This time it’s the once ubiquitous and infamous Fordson tractor.

Charles Hart and Charles Parr built their first tractor in 1902 and became the first commercially successful tractor company. They were soon joined by the newly minted International Harvester Co. in 1906 and Rumely in 1909, while Aultman & Taylor, J.I. Case, Fairbanks-Morse and Minneapolis Steel & Machinery and several smaller firms soon took the plunge, some with strangely designed contraptions, as no one yet quite knew what a tractor should look like. An engineer named C.M. Eason wrote in 1916 that there were some 150 different tractors on the market and that “no two of them (were) alike.”

However, “freak tractors,” as Editor Raymond Olney of Power Farming called them, began to disappear, and by 1920 a more or less standard design had evolved. Four wheels, including two large drive wheels at the rear, 4-cylinder engines (with a couple of notable exceptions), and automotive-type, sliding gear transmissions were features of most 1920 tractors.

Gear trains were usually enclosed and running in oil, and magneto ignition replaced the old make-and-break type, while roller and ball bearings began replacing babbitt metal. Much credit for these improvements was given to the 1917 merger of the Society of Tractor Engineers and the Society of Automotive Engineers, which resulted in automotive practices being applied to tractors.

Improving the farmer’s life

A prime example of the application of car-building expertise to tractors was the Fordson introduced by Henry Ford in 1917. For several years prior to the U.S. entry into the war then raging in Europe, rumors about Ford building a tractor had been making the rounds. It’s not so surprising when one thinks about it – a “farm motor” or tractor was certainly a lot more like an automobile than the binders, threshers and plows being cranked out by McCormick, Case and Deere.

Henry Ford was the son of a farmer and hated the drudgery of farm work. Legend has it that 12-year-old Henry, while riding with his father in a wagon behind a team of horses, saw his first steam threshing rig. This supposedly sparked the boy’s abiding interest in improving the life of farmers through mechanization.

The mechanically gifted Henry left the farm in 1881 to work in a Detroit machine shop and later learned electricity at Edison Illuminating Co., while tinkering with both steam and gas engines. Another legend says that on Christmas Eve of 1893, Henry tested on the kitchen sink (Clara Ford must have been an understanding wife) a 1-cylinder engine he had built.

Launch of a legendary line

In June 1896, he finished building and drove his first car, the 4 hp, 20 mph Quadricycle. After three false starts, in 1903 Henry launched Ford Motor Co. with $28,000 in borrowed cash, two lathes, two drill presses, a planer, saw, grinding wheel and forge. In 1919, when Ford bought out the original stockholders, a woman who had reluctantly risked $100 on the venture received $335,000.

The first Ford car was the Model A, with a 2-cylinder, 8 hp engine and a two-speed transmission. The 1905 models included the Model B, with a 4-cylinder engine mounted out in front of the driver and a price tag of $2,000 (roughly $51,800 today), along with the Model C, which sold for $950. 1906 brought the $2,500 Model K, a big touring car with a 40 hp, 6-cylinder engine, and the Model N, a little two-passenger runabout that cost just $500. The N, with a 15 hp, 4-cylinder engine, was Ford’s first attempt at building a good, inexpensive car.

Finally, on Oct. 1, 1908, the famous Model T was announced. Lightweight and mechanically simple, with a 20 hp 4-cylinder engine, the Model T could run 40 mph on good roads. Easy to drive, simple to maintain and repair, and able to negotiate the rough, rutted and muddy roads that were normal outside the cities, the popular “Tin Lizzie” sold more than 15 million copies before production was halted in 1927.

In the red to the tune of $600,000

Based on his early farm experience, Ford later said that he wanted, “(T)o lift the burden of farming from flesh and blood and place it on steel and motors.” To that end, he experimented with a small steam tractor, but soon abandoned that idea. In 1907, after becoming firmly established in the automobile business, he built the “Automotive Plow,” using the 4-cylinder, 20 hp engine and 2-speed transmission from a Model B car, while the radiator, steering and hubs were from the big Model K. The rear wheels were bull wheels salvaged from grain binders.

By 1915, several tractors had been built from Model T components and tested at Ford’s Dearborn farm. Photos of these show the familiar Model T radiator, hood, steering wheel and controls atop a frame that has been bent upward between the front and rear wheels to provide clearance. The steel rear wheels have a wide face with spud-like or angled cleats and the fronts have steel tires on specially built-up wheels.

Two large round tanks are mounted above and on either side of the hood, one for gas and the other for water. Two of the tractors have what appear to be padded seats with side and back supports, while the other has a conventional spring-mounted implement seat. In two of the pictures, the tractors are pulling double disks that look to be 6 or 7 feet wide, while the other is pulling a plow.

By 1916, Ford had spent $600,000, and much time, on his pet tractor project. During that summer, several models were presented to the public that were nothing like the modified passenger car versions of the previous year. These new tractors had large radiators, Ford-designed and Hercules-built engines, selective shift transmissions, and heavy, worm-driven rear axles. The engine, transmission case and rear end were bolted together to provide rigidity without the need for an external frame.

While not a wholly new concept, Wallis tractors used a variant of the same design; the Ford tractor’s unit construction eventually became the standard for all farm tractors. Most of the 1916 prototype tractors had hoods, one with louvered side panels, as well as fabricated steel wheels that look a lot like the ones used later on production Fordsons.

Love the Fordson; hate the Fordson

The Fordson, which went into production in October 1917, was light (2,500 pounds) and maneuverable; with a wheelbase of only 63 inches, the tractor would turn inside a 21-foot circle. A 1921 Fordson sales booklet claimed the 4-cylinder “engine develops 18 horse-power running at 1,000 revolutions per minute, using kerosene.”

The low-tension ignition system used the same flywheel magneto and buzz coils as the Model T, and starting was sometimes difficult, while the thermo-siphon cooling system often let the engine overheat. The initial cost of $750 was more than Henry’s earlier boastful estimate, but prices later came down dramatically, reaching a low of $395 in 1922.

Farmers who bought Fordson tractors, and there were lots of them, seem to have had love-hate relationships with the things. On the one hand, the tractor was small, maneuverable and inexpensive. On the other, it was often hard to start, the seat grew hot from the worm drive right under it, and the tractor was prone to tipping over backward. Nevertheless, the Fordson made power farmers of many who couldn’t afford one of the other tractors then on the market. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email

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