Early Ford Tractor Development

Lowell Carlson
September/October 1969
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Courtesy of Ford Tractor Division, Publicity Department, Birmingham, Michigan
Ford Tractor Division
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Department of History Midwestern University Wichita Falls, Texas 76308

The history of Henry Ford's involvement in experimentation with and production of agricultural tractors is both long and interesting. Ford's early interest culminated with the famous Fordson in 1917 and in 1939, Ford Motor Company and Harry Ferguson pooled resources and engineering talent to produce one of the first three-point hitch tractors, the 9N. Ford early became interested in mechanizing farm power from experiences on his father's Dear-horn, Michigan farm. Yet, the huge, soil compacting steam and early gas traction engines failed to meet Ford's desire for a power unit small enough for average sized farms. As early as 1880 Ford constructed a small steam engine to pull a plow. When his interests shifted to automotive problems, tractor development lagged.

In 1907, Ford built an 'automobile plow'. 11 showed the effect of automotive design and reportedly ran forty feet before breaking down. In the summer in 1908, Ford instructed Joseph Galamb and C. J. Smith to build a tractor. In three days the two engineers produced a 'tractor' made of a Model B Ford car chassis with wagon wheels for front guide wheels and grain binder wheels for drive wheels in the rear. The tractor was rated around twenty-four horsepower and pulled a binder on Ford's Dearborn farm but was plagued with overheating and lack of power for plowing.

In 1913, attempts were made with a modified Model T car chassis. A heavier frame and a worm gear transmission were added. Yet, the two such tractors constructed lacked durability. The dream of a small, four-wheel tractor was very elusive. Phillip S. Rose, then in the Agricultural Engineering Department at North Dakota State College, claimed the 1913 Ford tractors used fifteen gallons of water daily, the steering was unperfected and the engine bearings needed tightening every two weeks.

Ford's purported conversion to the potential of the internal-combustion engine came in 1910, when he went to the Winnipeg Motor Contest. The field of gas tractor contestants had grown from a mere handful; of half-hearted competitors to an industry-wide struggle for victory and publicity. The Motor Contest was originally intended to help produce a light, oil engine tractor, something that the contest did not do as long as it was conducted. There was an apparent demand for a light, four-wheel tractor and Ford intended to tap it. Farmers, Ford was told by a friend, were never riper for anything and the plucking should not be postponed.

It was World War I which gave impetus to Ford's tractor production plans. English need (caused by German submarine warfare) caused Percival L. Perry, head of Ford in England, to ask for permission to produce tractors in the British Isles. Henry Ford responded, but air raids on London and the shift to plane production caused abandonment of tractor production in England for some years. Ford and his son, Edsel, faced with a sceptical group of stockholders, had formed a separate tractor division at the Highland Park plant in 1915. With Charles E. Sorenson in charge Ford began tractor development in earnest. England was urgently appealing for tractors to produce food for a wartime economy and Ford was assured of a market.

Sent in by Lowell Carlson, Department of History, Midwestern University, Wichita Falls, Texas 76308. (See article - Early Ford Tractor Development.)

The tractor, called the Fordson, began production in October with Fordson Number One rolling off the line October 8, 1917. Within seven months a British order for 7,000 Fordsons was filled. Fordson Number One went to Luther Burbank, the great horticulturalist and Fordson Number Two went to Thomas Edison, both old friends of Henry Ford. The tractor was a product of mass production and farmers unable or unwilling to purchase a tractor were attracted to its reasonable, though not low, price and its durability.

Officially, the tractor was designated the Fordson '22' in 1919. It had twenty-two horsepower and its plow capacity was rated two, fourteen inch plow bottoms. The motor was a four cylinder vertical type with four by five inch bore and stroke. It used a Ford magneto, a Holley carburetor and had splash lubrication. The transmission was enclosed and all gears ran in an oil bath. The rear drive wheels were forty-five inches high and twelve inches wide. The turning radius was twenty-one feet. The tractor had a sixty-three inch wheel-base, was less than five feet high and weighed about 2,500 pounds. The machine had a two-piece, cast-iron frame bolted together at the middle.

On this last point I find some conflict on Ford's views toward the frame's construction. In Farm Implement News, (March 27, 1947), an article claimed Ford had been greatly influenced by the Wallis Cub, a tractor of the company antecedent to the Massey-Harris tractor line. The Cub used a locomotive of automotive-type frame. A single piece, frameless boiler iron U-structure served as an oil pan inside of which ran clutch, transmission and final drive -- except bull gears. This was the first commercial use of this design innovation. Reynold M. Wik in his Agricultural History article, 'Henry Ford's Tractor and American Agriculture,' (April, 1964), states that Eugene J. Farkas, a Ford engineer involved with the Fordson, was hard pressed to dissuade Henry Ford from the idea of a steel frame. Farkas finally convinced Sorenson that the castings could be designed to eliminate need for a steel frame for strength. Sorenson evidently convinced Ford.

The Fordson, which retailed for $750, was a success. With a cost of production of $567.14 there was a profit of $182.86 on every tractor, based on 1918 cost accounting. The Fordson's popularity grew after the war. For several years before 1928, Fordson sales in the United States and Canada totaled three-quarters of all tractors built. Production reached 486,822 in 1925 and by 1927, more than 650,000 had been built at the Brady Street and Michigan Avenue plant in Dearborn. A total of 739,977 Fordsons were produced from 1917 to 1928 before production was discontinued in the United States.

The Fordson's success was the success of the light, four-wheel tractor idea. When farmers saw the advantages of smaller kerosene and gasoline tractors they then wanted tractors that would combine not only belt and drawbar work but be able to cultivate row crops. In addition to this defect the Fordson had engineering deficiencies that only time revealed. The small forty-five inch wheels permitted the tractor to mire down rather easily. The tractor was so low that there was always the chance of running a corn stalk through the radiator. Also irksome was the heat of friction produced by the worm gear differential. The heat radiated up to make the pressed steel seat feel more like a frying pan.

A fleet of new D8H46A 270 hp. The new 24 volt direct electric starting. Price for the big 8 Cats are about $560,000. Weight, 40 ton each. These tractors will be used in the copper mines at Twin Butts, Arizona in strip mining operations and some in old Mexico in the copper mines.

40-80 Avery tractor, new in 1919 - weight 11 tons.

The worst drawback of the Fordson was its tendency to tip over backwards, sometimes with fatal results.

Yet, for all these shortcomings, the name of Ford will be forever associated with the early years of power farming in the United States, Canada and many European countries. Ford's mass production methods made tractor farming accessible and insured Ford dominance in the light, four-wheel tractor field in the years, after the Great War.

Students of the history of agricultural tractors will find interesting and important information on the early years of tractor farming in the following: Reynold M. Wik, 'Henry Ford's Tractor and American Agriculture,' Agricultural History, (April, 1964); R. B. Gray, Development of the Agricultural Tractor in the United States: Part I, (St. Joseph, Michigan, 1956); Farm Implement News, (March 27, 1947); Allen Nevins, Ford: Expansion and Challenge (New York, 1962); Farm Equipment Institute, Land of Plenty, (Chicago, 1959); and old journals of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers.

This is a Bosch D U 4 Magneto, which has stamped four places in the brass casting, 'Stolen from Lit Bros.' Can your readers come up with an explanation for this?


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