I could write a book about Steve Watts’ wonderful tractor collection, but today I’ve just come to look at one little grey tractor. From a distance it looks rather ordinary, but it is actually, on closer inspection, probably one of the biggest oddities in the Watts stable. It’s not a Ferguson, which is what one would expect to see here in the U.K.: No, it’s a Ford 9N with a Funk conversion, and it is only when Steve fires up the little Ford tractor that I realise replacing a roughly 20hp engine with a 95hp one was actually quite a crazy thing to do. However crazy an idea it was, it worked – well, mostly.
Curious conversions and fascinating versions make excellent fodder for those tractor enthusiasts who want something a little more unusual in their collections, and the Ford Funk conversion is, on British soil at least, a rarely seen little gem. I was lucky to find one of these curiosities in Steve’s collection, just an hour’s drive from where I live in North Wales.
As rare as hen’s teeth
Steve heard about the Ford Funk in 2006, when a good friend told him that he had seen it for sale on the internet. The fact that Steve was based in Wales, U.K., and the tractor was in Ontario, Canada, was a mild inconvenience, but not something that couldn’t be overcome. Steve knew full well that Ford Funk tractors rarely come up for sale in the U.K., so he was quite prepared to have one shipped over if that was going to be the only way he could get his hands on one of these unusual tractors.
For Steve, the tractor was ultra-desirable because it encompassed so many different ingenious examples of engineering history. “I was drawn to it because of all its modifications,” he says. “It’s a Ford tractor, with the Ferguson System, it’s got the Funk conversion and all of the differences that entails, plus a Sherman gearbox, and it’s even got a Monroe E-Z Ride seat!” Steve bought the tractor and had it shipped to the U.K. While the tractor made its journey over the ocean in a shipping container, Steve waited, desperate to see this wonderful blend of period engineering talent for the first time.
It’s probably safe to say that each Ford 9N we see in the U.K. is unique in that some will have modifications and adaptations that others won’t have. Steve was interested to find that his example had a steering damper added. This was an “optional extra” offered by dealers to prevent shock to the hands and arms whilst driving on rough ground.
Conversion offered affordable power
This tractor, with all of its extras, represents an era when farmers started to demand more. They wanted more horsepower, a bigger range of gears and better driver comfort, and if Ford couldn’t provide all of those things, then other companies would fill the gap in the market. That mishmash of engineering history is what makes this little tractor such a fascinating machine. It has been repeatedly adapted for practical purpose in the past, and it’s those alterations that now make it special.
Today, collectors are drawn to tractors on account of their rarity, but at the time, the Funk tractor conversion was a purely practical solution to the problem of power, or rather, the lack of power. From the perspective of a 1940s American farmer, it might have gone something like this: The little Ford 9N you bought a few years ago is still going well, but you need more power on the farm. Do you splash out money you can ill afford and buy a larger tractor from a different company, or do you buy another Ford?
Ford tractors were reliable and affordable, but they were small tractors, whereas other companies were producing more powerful machines. Another much more affordable option was to choose a Ford Funk conversion, allowing the owner to stick with the Ford brand whilst getting a massive increase in power, all for a fraction of the cost of a new tractor.
We see that the same ingenious ideas were developed to get around the problem of power in the U.K. too, with numerous companies offering conversions to boost power, all promising that they could upgrade your tractor without you having to buy a whole new machine.
Funk brothers make the leap from aviation to tractors
Born into a time when an ambitious person with a lot of imagination could really go places, twin brothers Howard and Joe Funk grew up dreaming of building aeroplanes. The pair spent their early years honing their engineering skills by mending Ford Model T cars in back of an Ohio grocery.
Eventually, the brothers progressed into flying and building gliders. In 1933, they designed the Funk Model B, a two-seat cabin-covered monoplane. The plane was powered by an engine developed from a Ford Model B automotive engine, and the prototype flew for the first time in 1933. Some 380 planes were built by Funk Aircraft Co., which operated in Coffeyville, Kansas, in 1941-’42 and 1945-’47.
Ollie Glover, of Glover Equipment Co. in Illinois, became interested in supplying the extra power that the farmers of the day were desperate for, so he approached the Funk brothers and asked them to convert Ford’s 95hp 6-cylinder engine so that it could be fitted into a Ford tractor.
The Funk brothers promptly designed, engineered and developed parts to adapt the engines to fit the little tractors. Several significant modifications and extra parts were required to make the larger engine fit. The tractor’s chassis had to be lengthened, along with the steering rods and the hood (or bonnet as we quaintly call the hood here in the U.K.).
Earlier examples of Funk conversions had large, rather crude-looking rails running underneath the tractor which helped to support the weight of the heavier engine, but later, cast iron oil pans were fitted to the underside of the tractors, eliminating need for the iron supports.
“Conversion does three days’ work in two!”
Kits were available to convert the Ford 9N, the 2N and the 8N, and a 6-cylinder (or a V-8 engine) was available right up until 1952-’53. A fire in the 1950s destroyed Funk records, but it is thought that about 5,000 6-cylinder kits were sold (including 100-200 V-8 kits). Many converted tractors were sold new, straight from the dealer, though it was also possible to convert used tractors.
Ford Funk conversions are easily spotted due to their raised bonnets, which allowed for the larger engine. Before Funk conversions became collectable, some Funk conversions were converted back to their original form, meaning that the Funk conversions are now even more rare and sought-after.
Funk conversions were marketed as an easy and affordable way for a farmer to jump from using a two-furrow plough to a three-furrow plough, and it was claimed that one-third more land could be ploughed in a day using one of these upgraded tractors. It was also claimed that the conversion would cost one-third of the price of the purchase of a new tractor, which again was an excellent lure, especially for the less affluent farmer.
Those who owned a Ford tractor but were unhappy with it might switch brands, but many farmers were loyal to Ford and preferred to stick to what they knew. For the poorer farmer wishing to gain more horsepower, often the only option was to opt for a conversion.
The adverts made claims like “Double the power and you double the use of your Ford tractor with a Funk conversion kit,” and “This 6-Cylinder Funk conversion does three days work in two!” In purchasing a Funk conversion, farmers could “up their game” whilst still being able to use a tractor and a brand name that they were familiar with.
The downside of power
Funk first used a 6-cylinder Ford industrial engine for their conversions. While the Ford company was quite happy to sell Funk Aircraft Co. their engines, it seems that, deep down, they didn’t actually approve of Funk’s conversions.
It’s easy to see that Funk conversions put Ford in a rather awkward position. Ford engineers claimed that the extra power provided by the conversion was unnecessary. To admit that it was necessary would have been to have found fault with their own tractors – so Ford no doubt felt they had to disapprove.
Ford was also concerned, quite rightly, that the larger engine (and the resulting extra workload placed on the converted tractor) could strain or damage their tractors. Understandably, Ford didn’t want customers holding them responsible for faults incurred on tractors that had undergone conversions, problems which might include flip-overs due to massively increased power, or damage to the tractor due to strain on the drivetrain. This led to a lawsuit, which was later dropped.
If you had a tractor that was powerful enough to work hard, then who wouldn’t work it hard? However, all that extra horsepower must have put the rest of the tractor through quite a workout. It is probably fair to say that many of the surviving Funk converted tractors will have had an extremely hard life and be rather worn out.
The engine was beefy enough to take the extra work of course, but the rest of the little 9N tractor was working far harder than it would have with a standard engine, and that must have taken its toll. Still, Ford Funks remain in use today, so it was a conversion that has stood the test of time. Today however, most Ford Funk tractors do not have to work to earn their keep, as their rarity means that they are highly collectable and sought-after. If you own one of these interesting tractors, then you really are in possession of a wonderfully fascinating little hybrid.
The Ford 9N was born out of the famous handshake agreement between Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson, and it was the first American-made production model tractor to incorporate Ferguson’s innovative three-point linkage system. Ferguson’s hydraulic linkage system revolutionized tractors and the way in which they worked, and the legacy lives on today, so Ferguson’s innovation, combined with Ford’s genius and the Funk brothers’ can-do attitude, makes the Ford Funk 9N quite a special tractor.
Delicate parts demand a deft touch
Steve is well aware of the fact that nothing on this tractor would be easy to replace if something went wrong. The downside of working on an antique from a country far away is that parts are often hard to find. Restorations can be slow and expensive. Some parts of the tractor are delicate and nigh on impossible to replace, and Steve has had to be extremely careful when removing, repairing and re-fitting these fragile parts.
“When I bought the tractor in 2006, the engine, gearbox and hydraulics were all good,” he says, “but the electrics, the cooling system and the starter motor all needed attention.
“The starter motor is original and very special,” he adds. “I took it to a specialist to have it repaired and serviced, and I told him to be very, very careful with it as it is, like the radiator, pretty much irreplaceable!” Apart from some of the more delicate parts which Steve handed over to experts, the majority of the tractor was restored by Steve’s son, Luke Watts, an avid collector in his own right. 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.