Henry Ford’s Revolutionary Farm Tractor

Ford’s passion to mechanize farming paid off in revolutionary farm tractor

| August 2011

  • Fenders became available for the Fordson tractor in 1924
    Fenders became available for the Fordson tractor in 1924. The long rear skirts were said to help prevent the tractors from rolling over backward, a trait for which the Fordson was notorious.
    Photo by Sam Moore
  • The first U.S. production Fordson tractor
    The first U.S. production Fordson tractor, which Ford presented to his friend Thomas Edison. The tractor is now part of the Henry Ford Museum collection.
  • Cover illustration of a Fordson tractor plowing
    Cover illustration of a Fordson tractor plowing.
    From a 1921 Fordson Farming catalog
  • Ford’s earliest tractor patent from 1912 laid out his innovative design
    Ford’s earliest tractor patent from 1912 laid out his innovative design: The horizontal engine block at the front, along with the hollow, cast transmission and differential housing are bolted rigidly together to form the supporting frame of the tractor. The round tank above the engine was the cooling radiator, with a fuel tank grafted onto the rear.
  • A 1917 Fordson with ladder-side radiator and six-spoke rear wheels
    A 1917 Fordson with ladder-side radiator and six-spoke rear wheels at the Heidrick Ag Museum in Woodland, Calif. The black box on the left side of the engine contains the trembler coil ignition identical to that used on Model T Ford cars. The gray, box-like affair behind the coil box was the water washer air cleaner that the Fordson used until 1937.
    Photo by Sam Moore

  • Fenders became available for the Fordson tractor in 1924
  • The first U.S. production Fordson tractor
  • Cover illustration of a Fordson tractor plowing
  • Ford’s earliest tractor patent from 1912 laid out his innovative design
  • A 1917 Fordson with ladder-side radiator and six-spoke rear wheels

The story goes that 12-year-old Henry Ford, while riding with his father in a wagon behind a team of horses, got his first glimpse of a steam threshing rig. The encounter supposedly sparked young Henry’s passion for building automobiles, but he also thoroughly detested farm work and had an abiding interest in improving farmers’ lives through mechanization.

In 1907, Ford demonstrated an “Automobile Plow” built with the frame, wheel hubs and radiator from a 1907 Ford Model K car, and powered by the engine and a planetary transmission from a 1905 Ford Model B. The steel-wheeled tractor was the first in a string of experimental machines tested on Ford’s farm near Dearborn, Mich. 

Keeping it light

Ford was determined to develop a small, inexpensive farm tractor that would be “light, strong and so simple that anyone could run it.” He believed that the horse was “a waster of land and time” and he went to considerable effort and expense to replace animals with mechanical power.

That first automobile plow was used to pull a grain binder on the Ford farm, but it was underpowered and overheated quickly. In 1910, Ford attended the Winnipeg tractor trials, where he saw big, heavy machines bog down in soft spots while lighter farm tractors kept moving. Although he had been a steam engineer, he was convinced that gasoline-powered tractors were the future of mechanized farming.



Ford started tinkering in earnest with his farm tractor. He used a Model T engine, transmission and steering mounted on a heavy frame, with a worm drive rear end and steel wheels. Although the tractor ran and handled well, it was too light and couldn’t pull a single plow bottom four inches deep because of wheel slippage. One writer dismissed it as another of Henry’s publicity stunts, and said the so-called “tractor” was nothing more than a Tin Lizzy with different wheels.

Undaunted, Ford built at least 50 experimental tractors based on car components in the next five years. To prevent minority stockholders in Ford Motor Co. from complaining about the cost of those experiments, Ford used his own money to form Henry Ford & Son Co. to develop and build his tractor.