Early Ford Tractor Development

| September/October 1969

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.


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