A longtime Ford employee and gas engine enthusiast shares this brief history of the Fordson tractor, a groundbreaking (literally and figuratively) implement in its day.
On October 8, 1967, Ford Motor Company marked its 50th Anniversary of tractor production. Production of the Fordson tractor started in Dearborn in 1917, but the first 7000 units were made for England and it was not until the spring of 1918 that American farmers were able to buy the model.
The company's founder, Henry Ford, was born on a farm and throughout his life he had always shown an interest in agriculture. "One foot in industry, one foot in the soil," he said. "The farmer does not stand so much in need of new tools, as of power to run the tools he has. I have followed many a weary mile behind a plow and I know all the drudgery of it."
Starting as early as 1907, Ford had experimented with one design after an other and at times he was close to what he thought a tractor should be. Others too had experimented, and by 1912 such makes as International Harvester, Case, Moline, and Little Giant were already well known. These, even though using the internal combustion engine, were big, heavy, hard to maneuver and expensive. Ford's idea of a tractor was similar to that which he had incorporated in the automobile. It had to be light, sturdy, and cheap enough so most farmers could afford it.
By 1915, Ford seemed to be close to this goal. A new model he had demonstrated was hailed as a success and as a result he assigned an engineer, Eugene Farkas, to spend full time on tractor development. Farkas designed an improved machine, featuring castings which were strong enough to support the entire tractor, eliminating the frame. It weighed only 2500 lbs. and used 42 inch drive wheels in the rear and 28 inch wheels in front for steering. It was powered by a 4-cylinder, 20 hp motor and drove through a multiple disc clutch and a three-speed transmission. The model was demonstrated in the summer of 1917 and it was an instant success.
The development of the Ford tractor attracted the attention of the English government. England, as a result of the 1914-1918 World War, was on the verge of a food crisis and the tractor appeared as a possible solution for both the man-power and horsepower shortage. Lord Alfred Northcliffe on a mission to the United States, visited Ford to press for production of the tractor for the British war effort. A contract was negotiated and Ford agreed to ship 7,000 tractors to England as fast as they could be built.
At his own expense, Henry Ford had purchased the Wagner brickyard in Dearborn, where he established an experimental shop. When he could not get company director support in the tractor enterprise, he and son Edsel formed a new company, Henry Ford and Son, for the purpose of manufacturing tractors and agricultural implements at the Dearborn site. The tractor was named the Fordson. A few years later Henry Ford bought out all other Ford Motor Company stockholders and the Henry Ford and Son Corporation became part of Ford Motor Company, but the name of the "Ford-son" tractor was retained.
The Fordson production was started on October 8, 1917. Production was slow at first, but by April of 1918 the 7000 units for England had been completed, and production output was 64 units per day. Ford now turned to the American market. By June 1918, production was increased to 131 units per day. Ford's automotive assembly line methods had brought about the world's first mass-produced tractors.
In addition to the farmer, the versatility of the Fordson tractor was quickly recognized by contractors. Reversing the progress of the Model T, use of the Fordson tractor spread from the farm to the highway and to the city. Production reached 70,000 units in 1920 and it was decided to move the entire operation to the giant Rouge plant. There was a light production drop in 1921 and 1922 as a result of the move, but in 1923 it rose to 101,898 units and it reached an all-time high of 104,168 in 1925.
Somewhat parallel to the story of the Model T, the Fordson production era came to an end in early 1928. From 1917 to the end in 1928, its design remained practically unchanged; in all, 739,978 units were assembled. Many of these tractors are still in existence and since some are now coming in the hands of us collectors, it is obvious that the Fordson tractor will live forever.
George De Angelis has been employed with Ford Motor Company for over 27 years, starting as an apprentice tool and die maker. His interest in early engines and antique automobiles started in 1954. Even though he favors restoring old Fords, he owns several other makes of cars and over a dozen early engines. He is a member of the Early Engine Club in Dearborn, editor of the Model A Restorers Club magazine, and "Ford Facts" editor of the Antique Automobile magazine.