Tractor Tales from Wales
In Wales we call it the Ffergi bach (“the Little Fergie”). Like red phone boxes, London Routemaster buses and black taxicabs, it’s something of a British icon. To us, it probably means something along the lines of what the John Deere means to you Americans. It is a big part of our agricultural history, and it is really “where it all began.”
Of course there had been tractors before, but the Little Gray Fergie was the first tractor to really hit the big time. It was mass-produced like no other tractor before, and above all, it had the Ferguson 3-point linkage system, making it a more useful and adaptable tractor than anything that had ever gone before. A vast range of Ferguson implements meant that the Little Gray Fergie had the right tool for just about every job conceivable.
Many of the smaller farms in the U.K. continued using horses for farm work long after tractors became commonplace, so for a great many farmers, the Little Gray Fergies of the late 1940s and ’50s were their very first tractors. When I speak to people who grew up on farms back in those days, it’s amazing how many of them say the Little Gray Fergie was the first tractor they ever drove.
Harry Ferguson is famous for the revolutionary tractor hitch system known as the 3-point linkage. Even the most modern, top-of-the-range tractor today still uses that same linkage system patented by the Irish-born Ferguson.
Henry George (Harry) Ferguson was born in 1884 on a farm in County Down, Ireland. As an engineer/inventor, he had a passion for all things mechanical, not just tractors. He was a teenage apprentice in his brother’s car and bicycle repair business and before long he developed his own motorbike and racing car. He dedicated much of his life to promoting car and motorcycle racing. By 1909 he had designed a plane of his own and flown it, and in 1911 he opened a car business in Belfast.
In 1914 he started selling American tractors, but it is said he found them heavy and somewhat dangerous to operate (sorry, guys). So he designed and built a plough that could be attached to the tractor via the famous 3-point linkage, namely the Ferguson System. In 1936 he started building his own tractors, and three years later he went into partnership with Henry Ford and more than 300,000 Ford-Ferguson tractors were made. In 1947 there was a falling out with Ford’s grandson and the partnership was dissolved.
Alone, Ferguson designed the TE-20 (the Little Gray Fergie), which was assembled in Coventry by the Standard Motor Co. Some half a million of these little tractors were made beginning in 1946, making them Britain’s most popular tractor. The fact so many are still around and still working today is evidence of what simple, well-engineered machines they are.
Later, Ferguson entered another partnership, this time with Massey-Harris of Toronto, Canada, forming the Massey Ferguson Co. This was another rather stormy partnership, illustrating that while Ferguson was obviously a genius, perhaps he wasn’t the easiest person to work alongside. Ferguson died at age 76 in Stow on the Wold, England, in 1960.
The early Ferguson TE-20s ran on petrol, but some later models ran on TVO (tractor vaporizing oil) or diesel. TE was an abbreviation for Tractor England. There was also a TO-20 (TO was an abbreviation for Tractor Overseas, the designation given to those tractors built for the overseas market), but apart from the name there was virtually no difference between a TE-20 and a TO-20.
Ferguson TO-20s were made in Detroit, but there must also be a large number of TE-20s to be found in the U.S. because Ferguson had some 25,000 Coventry-built TE-20s sent out to the U.S. and Canada. When the break happened between Ford and Ferguson in 1947, it meant the U.S. company had an abundance of implements to sell, but no tractors. To solve that problem Ferguson had the 25,000 Coventry-built TE-20s shipped over and these bridged the gap until the Detroit factory was up and running. If we include in our figures all the TO-20s built, then the number of Ferguson System tractors built between 1936 and 1956 comes to around one million.
In 1955, seven Ferguson tractors accompanied the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition to the Antarctic. Under the leadership of Sir Edmund Hillary, these tractors (four petrol models and three diesel) were driven to the South Pole. This was the first overland journey to the pole since that of Captain Scott, and these Little Gray Fergies became the first ever vehicles to be driven to the pole.
Some of the tractors used on the expedition were on half-tracks with front skis, and some were fitted with an extra wheel on each side and full caterpillar-style tracks. All track kits were removable, and where conditions were favorable, the tractors were driven on standard wheels and tires. Other than fitted canvas cabs, the tractors were standard, with two being fitted with agricultural front loaders for lifting supplies. The tractors were reported to be capable of ascending a 1-in-7 slope of hard ice “where a man cannot walk without crampons,” and of operating in subzero temperatures. These famous little tractors never came home: They were left at the pole and were used by the American researchers there. I wonder if any can still be seen there today.
So by now the Little Gray Fergie is 63 years old. Despite its fame, it is still one of the more affordable of the vintage tractors in the U.K. The reason for this, of course, is that so many of these little tractors were made and so many are still around today. Exhibitors love them because they are relatively simple to restore, they are light to transport from show to show, and it’s easy to obtain parts and implements for them. In the U.K., special classes are held for Ferguson tractors and ploughs in most of our ploughing matches, and at some shows a race is often held to see who can assemble a Fergie in the best time.
George McAleer, an Irish showman with a top hat and witty repertoire, brought a totally dismantled Fergie to a show I recently attended. A local team of four mechanically minded chaps made it their mission to rebuild the tractor in record time, and have it running and driving on completion. I think the record currently stands at about 20 minutes. I suppose this can be seen as proof of what a simple (and user-friendly) machine the TE-20 is to work on.
The simplicity of the Ferguson tractor is completely at odds with the machines we have today. These tractors recall an era when every owner was deemed capable of maintaining his own machines without the need for expert help. It was even possible to upgrade your Fergie without much in the way of assistance, because a company called Perkins of Peterborough sold a 3-cylinder diesel engine and conversion kit for TE-20s.
The Perkins engine offered not only more power than the original Fergie engine, but also better economy, and the kit would have included everything required for the changeover: engine, battery box, adapter plate, modified electronics and the extended dashboard required to raise the bonnet to accommodate the larger engine (the Gray Fergies with P3 conversions can always be identified by the fact that their bonnets are higher up than those on the standard Fergies).
A detailed step-by-step guide would explain to the owner (or mechanic) exactly how to fit this new improved engine. The booklet claims that as long as instructions are followed to the letter, no problems should be encountered. How much more accessible mechanical knowledge was back in those early days! Imagine a company today offering step-by-step instructions on how to fit a new improved engine into your car in order to save you the cost of going to a dealership. That would be unthinkable in today’s throw-away world, where everything that’s broken is too complicated or too expensive to fix. The Gray Fergie does truly hark back to a golden era when British engineering was at its best, when machines didn’t break as soon as the warranty ran out, and when life was much, much simpler. FCJosephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. E-mail her at email@example.com.