Henry Ford’s Revolutionary Farm Tractor

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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.
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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.
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Cover illustration of a Fordson tractor plowing.
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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.
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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.

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.

A revolutionary concept

Ford’s timing was perfect. The bloody fighting on the battlefields of Europe slaughtered not only soldiers and civilians but horses as well. A world-wide shortage of horses developed and buyers for the warring countries flocked to the U.S. and Canada, offering unheard of prices for draft animals. Not only that, but the popular tractor field trials being held all over the Midwest increased demand for the machines, as did labor shortages caused by the high wages paid in defense plants.

In 1915, Ford leaked to a newspaper reporter that he intended to build a tractor that would replace six horses and cost only $200 (roughly $4,454 today). A master of self-promotion, Ford claimed that he wasn’t afraid of a post-war depression, since he could use all the unemployed workers he could get to build tractors. He predicted a demand for 10 million tractors, boasting ” … I am going to plow up the Australian bush, and the steppes of Siberia and Mesopotamia!”

In July 1916, Ford told reporters he would offer farmers a package deal of a car, a truck and a tractor, all for $600. In August of that year, Ford entered one of his test tractors in a plowing demonstration in Fremont, Neb. Ford himself was there in the field every day, and one newspaper reporter wrote that he was a bigger attraction than his tractor.

The experimental tractors Ford built during 1916 bore little resemblance to the Model T car upon which all the preceding tractors had been based. Each of the experimental models was a revolutionary new machine with a startling (for the times) engineering concept. The new tractor had no frame rails to carry the components; the engine, transmission, and rear axle housings were bolted together as a unit and were strong enough to support the entire machine. The design allowed the Fordson to be built lighter and smaller than most other tractors.

Apparently hoping to capitalize on the Ford name, a Minneapolis company had already begun selling “Ford” tractors. Accordingly, Ford was compelled to rename his line. He opted for Fordson, claiming it a logical choice for a tractor built by Henry Ford & Son, but he probably also hoped to eliminate any confusion with the unsuccessful Minneapolis-built Ford tractor. 

Like grasshoppers

When the Fordson finally went into production in October 1917, it was light (weighing about 2,500 pounds) and maneuverable. With a wheelbase of only 63 inches, the tractor would turn inside a 21-foot circle. The 4-cylinder engine was powerful; although most accounts say it had 20 hp, a 1921 Fordson sales booklet claims the “engine develops 18 horse power running at 1,000 revolutions per minute, using kerosene.”

The tractor’s low-tension ignition system, consisting of the same flywheel magneto and buzz coils used on the Model T, made starting sometimes difficult, and the thermo-siphon cooling system wasn’t always capable of preventing the engine from overheating. Also, the initial cost of $750 was more than Henry’s boastful estimate, although prices later came down dramatically, reaching a low of $395 in 1922.

American farmers gobbled up the Fordson. In Henry Ford and Grass-Roots America, Reynold M. Wik wrote that following World War I, ” … Fordsons infested the land like grasshoppers.” Most of today’s collectors turn up their noses at the Fordson, but even a competitor like Cyrus McCormick the Younger wrote in 1931: “It is questionable if the business of making tractors would have become a large-scale industry had it not been for Ford.”

It seems as though the old rattle traps should get more respect. FC

For more on the Fordson in England, read Ministry of Munitions Tractorfrom the August 2011 issue.

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 e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.

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