Brilliant inventor Harry Ferguson’s 3-point hitch revolutionized farming.
Harry Ferguson, idealistic and obsessive, was known to inspire as well as exasperate those he worked with.
The name “Ferguson” has graced the finest agricultural machinery for a century, but who was the man behind the name? Most readers old enough to have experienced World War II would have no trouble answering that question, but younger tractor aficionados may need some background.
The name was Harry Ferguson (actually, Henry George Ferguson, but he always went by “Harry” for reasons lost to antiquity). Ferguson was born in 1884 in County Down, Northern Ireland, in an area then known as Ulster. He was a complex man, to say the least. In his biography of Ferguson, Tractor Pioneer, Colin Fraser said Ferguson, “combined the extremes of subtlety, naiveté, charm, rudeness, brashness, modesty, largesse and pettiness; and the switch from any one to another could be abrupt and unpredictable. And, he had a penchant for confrontation.”
Ferguson’s claim to fame was his invention of the now universally accepted 3-point hitch, which essentially transformed a tractor and implement into a single unit. The dictionary definition of “tractor” refers to the act of drawing or pulling. Since earliest times, animal power has been used in drawing or pulling farming implements. When traction engines came on the scene at the end of the 19th century, they were merely mechanical alternatives to animals. There technology rested until Ferguson developed the 3-point hitch, also known as “the Ferguson System.”
Ferguson was the fourth of 11 children born to farm couple James and Mary Ferguson. He did not take to the drudgery of farm life, claiming to be “too light for it.” Nor did he take to school, where he was in constant conflict with teachers. He dropped out at age 14, but as an avid reader, he kept learning. Mechanical contrivances fascinated him, and after his older brother opened a repair shop catering to the budding automobile trade, Ferguson followed him into the business. At that point, newly focused, he did quite well as a student at Belfast Technical College.
Of all the talents Ferguson developed in his youth, those of promoter and salesman may have been the most significant. He embarked on a successful career in auto and motorcycle racing to promote his brother’s business. He was able to convince his brother that building and flying Ireland’s first airplane would also be good for business.
Ferguson started his own automobile business, May Street Motors in Belfast in 1911 and hired 21-year-old Willie Sands, a gifted mechanic and natural engineer, as his assistant. Sands would continue working with Ferguson into the 1950s.
In 1914, Britain became involved in World War I and the British Ministry of Munitions (MOM) began buying all the domestic and imported tractors it could get in order to increase domestic food production. May Street Motors obtained a sales and service franchise for the Overtime tractor (the British version of the Waterloo Boy) and was heavily involved in getting tractors into service.
Because of his experience with the Overtime, Ferguson was appointed in 1917 by the Irish Board of Agriculture to oversee government-owned tractor maintenance and production records. Ferguson and Sands traveled the country in a government-supplied car advising operators, setting up plows and collecting cost data. Soil compaction, caused by the heavy weight of tractors and plows of the time, was a common complaint.
The low-cost, dependable and lightweight Ford Model T automobile spurred the birth of the car-to-tractor conversion kit. The Eros was among the most successful. It consisted of larger chain-driven rear wheels mounted behind the normal axle on extensions of the car’s frame. The kit also included a larger radiator to cool the engine. Ferguson decided that the solution to the soil compaction problem was to design a lightweight plow for the Eros Model T conversion. He commissioned Sands to make a plow specifically for the Eros. The resulting product would be the first of many farm implement designs bearing Ferguson’s name.
The plow Sands came up with was not only light (about half the weight of a standard 2-bottom plow), but also had an ingenious hitch that connected the plow to the Eros/Model T. Draft loads from the plow pulled down on all four wheels, thus aiding traction and steering. The Eros “Belfast” plow was quite successful, but the heyday of the Model T conversion was short-lived.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., auto magnate Henry Ford, flushed with the success of his best-selling Model T car, turned his attention to the plight of the farmer. In 1915, Ford appointed a new Ford Motor Co. chief engineer, Eugene Farkas, and instructed him to design a totally new tractor – one that did not use car components, as had been attempted in the past. Farkas chose a fully enclosed unit-frame concept for the new design with a large, slow-turning engine capable of running on kerosene fuel.
Directors of the newly formed British subsidiary of Ford Motor Co., aware of ongoing testing of the Farkas design, recommended that MOM look into the possibility of importing the new tractor to help increase domestic food production. Although testing was far from complete, MOM ordered 6,000 tractors to be built and shipped as soon as possible. Henry Ford also offered to donate patent rights and drawings to the British and to build a tractor factory in Cork, Ireland.
In late 1917, Henry Ford & Son, Inc. (Ford’s tractor company) began delivery of the 6,000 MOM tractors. The new tractor design had problems, however. Within just months, the tractor recorded its first fatality. An operator’s plow struck an obstacle, causing the tractor to rear over backward and pinning the driver to the ground. A powerful engine and lack of weight on the front end caused the whole tractor to rotate around its rear axle when it couldn’t move forward.
With availability of the Fordson – as Ford’s tractor became known in 1918, post-war American farmers were able to afford both a tractor and a family automobile, spelling an end to the popularity of the Model T car-tractor conversions and drying up Ferguson’s plow sales. Ferguson, with his market for Eros plows at an end, saw an opportunity to adapt the plow to the Fordson.
Ferguson and Sands modified their 2-bottom plow with a 2-point hitch (above and below each other) with the spring-assisted manual lift. To overcome the tractor’s inherent rearing problem and to transfer draft loads to all four wheels, the two parallel links were semi-rigid in the vertical plane, but allowed movement in the lateral plane for steering. Ferguson made an arrangement with Sherman Bros. Mfg. Co. to build and market the plows in America.
A novel feature of the Ferguson plow was an ingenious mechanical depth control device – a “floating skid” – invented by Sands. Ferguson wanted to expand into other implements, but the floating skid concept seemed to work well only with the plow. He and Sands decided hydraulics was the answer and changed the 2-point hitch to 3-point – two lower and one upper, with the upper link operating a hydraulic metering valve through a coil compression spring.
This arrangement was externally adapted to a Fordson, proving that the concept worked quite well. Thus, when the implement encountered hard soil or an obstacle, the reaction of the upper link lifted the implement. When the obstacle was past, the spring returned the implement to its original depth. The new system also worked with other implements, such as disc harrows and cultivators. In 1925, Ferguson obtained a patent for the system.
During a meeting in London, Ferguson explained to Henry Ford’s right-hand man, Charles Sorenson, how the system would work on the Fordson. Ferguson apparently expected Sorenson to relay the information to Henry Ford, but Sorenson appears to have failed to do so.
In May 1927, production of American Fordson tractors was transferred to Ireland. American farmers had become enamored with the row-crop tractor concept and Fordson sales were declining precipitously. At the same time, Ford announced that he needed the space at the Rouge River Plant in Dearborn, Michigan, plant to manufacture his new Model A automobile. Ferguson saw the market for his Fordson plows evaporate.
To further the prospects for his 3-point hitch concept, in 1933 Ferguson constructed a small-scale Fordson look-alike with a built-in hydraulic 3-point hitch. Painted black, the one-of-a-kind machine was dubbed “the Black Tractor.” With it, Ferguson had perfected his 3-point hitch with draft control.
Some of the Black Tractor’s components were purchased from gear-maker David Brown of Huddersfield, England. Ferguson arranged a manufacturing arrangement with David Brown to produce an upgraded version to be known as the Ferguson-Brown Type A. Production started in 1936; sales were disappointing from the start. Ferguson and Brown bickered over the size of the Type A. Brown insisted that a larger tractor would sell better. Ferguson maintained that Brown was missing the point: The 3-point hitch provided a smaller, lighter tractor. When Brown went ahead on his own and began laying out a larger machine, Ferguson had had enough.
In October 1938, Ferguson took a Ferguson-Brown Type A tractor and implements to Henry Ford’s Fair Lane estate for a demonstration arranged by Sherman Bros. The little Type A performed well against both a Fordson and an Allis-Chalmers Model A in the gardens of Ford’s estate. Suitably impressed, Ford made a decision on the spot. The two men struck their famous “handshake agreement” for production of a Ford tractor with Ferguson’s system. In 1939, just months following the handshake agreement, the Ford-Ferguson Model 9N was introduced to the press. An amazing 10,000 were sold that model year. By 1940, 150 Ford-Ferguson 9N tractors were produced per day.
In 1944, with the successful outcome of World War II assured, Ferguson made a request to have Ford-Ferguson tractors built by British Ford Motor Co. in England. Further, he wanted a seat on the British Ford board, a request rebuffed by British Ford. Ferguson complained to Henry Ford in a letter and threatened to begin building his own version of the tractor in England. That letter, however, was pigeonholed by Ford’s secretary, who said, “We’ve got enough trouble around here without this!”
When company President Edsel Ford (Henry Ford’s son) died suddenly in 1943, Ford returned to the helm. Ford’s grandson, Henry Ford II, returned from active duty with the U.S. Navy in 1945 to take over as president. Company founder Henry Ford died in 1947.
Henry Ford II soon discovered that the company was hemorrhaging cash at a staggering pace. The new president was quick to hire new executives experienced in modern business practices. He also discovered that the Ford-Ferguson 2N was being sold at a loss to Ferguson for resale to his dealers, an arrangement that cost Ford $25 million. With that, Ferguson was advised that 1947 would be the last year of the handshake agreement.
Ferguson then made good on his threat, putting his Ford-Ferguson look-alike Model TE-20 into production in 1946, using a war-surplus plant on Banner Lane in Coventry, England. Then, a year later, the redesigned Ford Model 8N tractor debuted in July 1947 with a light gray-and-red paint scheme – but without the “Ferguson System” badge.
Some of Ferguson’s patented ideas were eliminated, but the tractor’s 3-point hitch and hydraulic system were identical to those in the Ferguson System. A 4-speed transmission replaced the 3-speed unit, and other deficiencies of the 2N were corrected. A new subsidiary, Dearborn Motors Inc., a stock company, was devised, having its own dealerships and line of implements for the new Ford tractor. The availability of company stock, a perk not available from Ford Motor Co., allowed Henry Ford II to entice experienced executives to join the operation.
With his American dealers and suppliers deserting him in favor of the new Ford, Ferguson took desperate action, exporting 25,000 Coventry-built TE-20s for distribution to his remaining dealers.
On Jan. 17, 1948, Ferguson launched a $251 million lawsuit against Ford, claiming patent infringement and loss of business. Henry Ford II responded that, “The Ferguson-Ford deal made Ferguson a multi-millionaire and cost Ford $25 million.” The bitter suit was eventually settled out of court in 1952 for $9.25 million. Ferguson, under an assumed name, purchased a 72-acre site in Detroit; factory construction was completed in July. Ferguson himself drove the first TO-20 off the assembly line on Oct. 11, 1948. By the end of 1948, the plant was delivering 100 tractors per day.
By 1952, however, the North American farm equipment market was becoming saturated, and competition among the giants was crushing. While Harry Ferguson Ltd. (the Coventry company) continued to perform well, Harry Ferguson Inc. (the Detroit company) found itself unable to compete. Further, Ford’s Dearborn Motors had purchased Woods Bros., which had been a major supplier of mowing and harvesting equipment to Ferguson.
At the same time, the Canadian-based Massey-Harris company was also experiencing competitive difficulties with less-than-modern tractors, but held a commanding position in the global market for combine harvesters (combines). Ferguson first offered to sell Massey engines in exchange for Massey’s assistance in developing a combine to be mounted on the Ferguson tractor. Ferguson eventually offered a merger on the basis of a stock transfer. An impasse developed when Massey deemed Ferguson’s stock to be valued at $16 million, despite Ferguson’s declared value of $17 million. Rather than let merger momentum slip away, Ferguson proposed a coin flip; he lost.
The merger was completed in 1953. The new company was named Massy-Harris-Ferguson Ltd. A “two-line policy” maintained separate dealers and product lines for the time being. That, of course, led to inter-company squabbling and competition. As chairman of the board of the merged companies, Ferguson was supposed to show up only for annual board meetings, but he stubbornly injected himself into all other matters, including engineering. The friction continued to escalate and in 1954, Ferguson resigned his position and sold his stock to the company, which by then was called simply Massey Ferguson. In 1995, the company became a subsidiary of the AGCO conglomerate.
Harry Ferguson died Oct. 25, 1960, at age 76. He spent his final years dabbling in the automobile field and renewed his interest in racing. He is credited with the invention of a full-time 4-wheel drive system for racecars and SUVs.
Ferguson was considered by some to be just a “bumpkin from the bogs of Ireland,” but the fact remains that his 3-point hitch system was eventually adopted by all of the world’s tractor makers. FC
After 36 years in the aircraft industry, Bob Pripps returned to his first love and began writing about tractors. He has authored some 30 books on the subject and several magazine articles. Pripps has a maple syrup farm near Park Falls, Wisconsin. In harvesting the maple sap, he relies on a Ford Jubilee and a Massey Ferguson 85.