Focus on the machines: Fordson – “forward, he’s gone to the fields”



Typically, tractors inspire very little poetry, but one model that caught the pen of scribes and impressionable tractor owners, at least in the United States, was the original Fordson tractor.

In Ireland, the tractor is indelibly associated with the Cork Marina factory where it began rolling out of the factory in 1919, but its origins lie far beyond water in Dearborn, Michigan, and Irish-born industrialist Henry Ford.

Lighten a hard life in the fields

It was the desire to make life easier for humans and animals through the use of machines that sparked Ford’s interest in engineering.

However, it was his role in the auto industry that first brought him fame and fortune.

Swedish Kullervo was inspired by Fordson; its designer had been trained in Detroit although he was never directly employed by Ford

That’s not to say Ford’s contribution to agriculture was negligible – far from it.

The Fordson tractor has played an important role in bringing power to the earth across the world, whether in its original form, as a source of inspiration for other designers, or even as a model for raw copies.

Early vision

Henry Ford’s interest in helping the American farmer was quite genuine; his disdain for animal strength was real, having seen teams of horses and mules fighting on the land as a child.

Later in his life, he would explain that one of the most important experiences for him in his youth was to watch a self-propelled steam engine blow along a country road, and this is what inspired his interest in bringing mechanical power to the fields.

Steam engines, however, were cumbersome and inefficient and although ways were found to use them in the fields, whether pulling tools directly or remotely via cables, as was the solution. European, the fundamental problem of weight remained.

Trials and tribulations

It wasn’t until Ford laid the foundation for his wealth in the auto industry that he was able to come back to the issue of relieving farms of inefficient and limited horse power.

The first attempts to do this involved the unsuccessful attachment of binder wheels to a Model B car chassis.

He did a season’s job on Ford’s own farm, but the lack of power and overheating, which was to become a familiar trait on the eventual tractor, saw him give up soon after.

Model t Ford Champs
Now a collector’s delight, the Model T entered service as a tractor in its early years.

The next step was to convert the T model itself. This was done by strengthening the frame and using a worm gear to drive the rear axle.

Once again, the overheating bogie made an appearance with a report noting that vehicles used up to 15 gallons of water per day.

The woes of the conference hall

No, those car conversions weren’t the answer, and not all Ford Motor managers were happy that Henry or the company’s resources were diverted from the important business of producing highly profitable T-models.

In an attempt to sidestep the objections of his fellow directors, Henry Ford teamed up with his son, Edsel, to form a new company called Henry Ford and Son, a name that was quickly condensed into Fordson, and so the legend is born.

Michigan's first Fordson design
A glimpse of the first Fordson

Ford may have revolutionized auto production, but it came too late to the party when it came to tractors, and there was already a lot of competition in the market.

A lighter machine for the fields

The design of the Fordson mirrored much of what was happening elsewhere in the tractor world.

Farmers begged for a mechanical horse rather than the bulky and prohibitively expensive land tugs produced by businesses still gripped by a steam engine mentality.

Whiting was one of the companies that responded to that call, although the bull was not a featherweight. Waterloo Tractors was another who removed a lot of metal from the machine to produce a practical tractor that actually worked.

tractor bull whiting
12 of these Whiting Bull Tractors have found their way to Ireland

One of the most notable design features of the Fordson was the use of the engine block as the chassis, doing away with the engine and chassis concept that until then dominated gasoline tractors.

This was not really new as the traction motors relied on the boiler to hold the front and rear together and Wallis had pioneered the concept of tractors with his Cub model from 1914.

The United States was not the first to benefit from this new tractor, that honor went to Great Britain who ordered 6,000 of the new tractors in 1917, although only 3,600 arrived in March 1918 , the date on which they would be the most sought after for spring plowing.

Remove intermediaries

The machines were not launched on the American market until April 1918 and they were not distributed through the usual distribution channels.

Instead, they were awarded by the county war councils, with potential customers first having to obtain a permit before being allowed to purchase one.

This raised many issues, especially from machine dealers who still had to service the tractors.

Fordson built in cork
This first Fordson built in Cork was maintained in excellent condition by Michael Fahy of Co. Tipperary

Further complaints came by the farm press with a magazine noting that Ford had promised the cost would be $ 250 each, but the final price was $ 750.

Meanwhile, farmers had refrained from buying competing machines in anticipation of the much cheaper Fordson, which wasn’t that cheap after all.

The cost of manufacturing each tractor is recorded at $ 567.14, but Henry Ford would claim he sold them at cost to aid in the war effort, despite his avowed pacifist beliefs.

Thanks to mass production methods that allowed the assembly of 750 tractors / day in 1924, the Fordson quickly dominated the American landscape.

It was estimated that it only took 30 hours 40 minutes to produce a tractor, from raw materials to finished product, each containing about 4,000 parts in total.

Major issues

It wasn’t all sunshine and endless sales, however. The Fordson quickly gained a reputation for two major flaws.

The first of these was the lack of water pump which caused the engine to overheat, a problem that could easily be fixed at the factory if the company had wished.

Dagenham Fordson in the fields
The Fordson has once again come to the rescue in wartime. These British Army Girls Bring Beets from the Field, 1944

The second was much more serious, and it was the tendency to rear up and turn back if you encounter a hidden obstacle with the plow in the fields. One estimate put the total number of deaths in America from this problem at 136 in 1922.

The problem was with the drivetrain’s worm gear that was above the rear axle line. This meant that if the rear wheels stopped spinning, the screw would spin the tractor around the axle instead.

This problem was by no means confined to the Fordson.

There was a wartime tractor dealer and instructor who was so concerned with this problem that he set out to devise a much better method of hitching a plow, his name was Harry Ferguson.

Directors are making their way

Just as Ferguson patented his three-point hitch in 1925, sales of the Fordson in America declined.

The main reason being the advent of stiff competition in the form of McCormick Deering, JI Case, John Deere and the innovative International Farmall.

Ford’s board of directors was still not keen on producing tractors, so it was shut down in America, although it was still manufactured in Cork and Dagenham for many years thereafter.


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