Henry “Harry” Ferguson was an inventor who was constantly tinkering and trying new things. In the course of his life, he helped to revolutionize the tractor, helped revive the fortunes of an American automobile company’s farm implements, and his name was known worldwide. Henry Ford was the son of emigrants from Cork who revolutionized automobile manufacturing. Together, these sons of Erin formed a strong alliance and helped to change the way the world was farmed.
Harry Ferguson was born at Growell, near Hillsborough, Co. Down, on November 4, 1884. From the start, there was dynamism about him. In 1902, at the age of eighteen, he joined his brother Joe in a car and bicycle repair business in Belfast, and in 1904 he began to race motorcycles. In 1909, at Hillsborough, he made the first powered flight in Ireland, traveling 130 meters in a monoplane he had built. He continued airplane development for the next decade. He later drove racing cars, and helped to establish the famous Ulster Tourist Trophy races in 1928. Ferguson formed his own motor business in 1911, and during World War One he began to sell American tractors to Irish farmers, who were more accustomed to horse-drawn plows. With the revolutionary concept that tractor and plow should be designed as a unit, Ferguson began to register his own patents.
Irish-American carmaker Henry Ford started his Ford Motor Company in 1903. As a farm boy, he had a great interest in agriculture, and developing more efficient ways to improve cultivation and planting. An early model prototype tractor was completed in 1907. It was referred to as an “automobile plow,” and, in fact, used a number of parts from the Ford line of cars in order to cut development and production costs. It would be nearly a decade later before the first viable commercial model, the Fordson Model F, came off the production lines in Dearborn, Michigan.
As work proceeded, and it became clear that the Ford Motor Company and its directors were completely unwilling to produce a tractor, Henry Ford set up an independent company, Henry Ford and Son, to build and market the machine. The Fordson name was taken partially because there was a Ford Tractor Company in existence, and partially because of the refusal of the Ford board to back up this endeavor. The Fordson Model F was rolled out in 1917 in limited production in Cork, Ireland, and scaled up to mass production in 1918 to meet the urgent need for tractors by the British government, due to the loss of farm laborers in England and Ireland during World War One. When Ford assumed sole control of his company in 1920, the Henry Ford and Son Company was rolled into the Ford Motor Company, but the Fordson name was kept.
The Fordson was revolutionary first and foremost because it was a smaller design than many of the tractors produced by other companies at the time. The smaller design of the Fordson allowed the tractor to be affordable and easy to produce. The engine, transmission, and axle housings were all bolted together to form the basic structure of the tractor. As a result of this, the machine could be sold at a much lower price affordable to average farmers. Just as Ford had brought the car to the middle class through assembly line production, the tractor was now also within reach. The Fordson tractors were produced in Cork, and later in Dagenham, England. This would prove to be costly for Ford down the road, as all tractors sold in the United States were at least three thousand miles away from the factories. Production was transferred from Cork to England in 1922.
Harry Ferguson was also producing tractors during this period. He developed a plow suitable to the Fordson model F. His very first system was made of springs and levers. In 1925, with Eber and George Sherman, he founded, ironically, in the United States, the Ferguson-Sherman Corporation in Detroit, which produced a plow with “Duplex hitch” system suitable to Fordson line tractors. The principal patent of the Ferguson system, which was a system of hydraulic regulation of the working depth of the various implements linked to the tractor, was granted in 1926. He made his first Ferguson hydraulic system for his Ferguson-Brown prototype tractor for which David Brown had made the differential gear and transmission. In 1933 he founded with Brown the Ferguson-Brown Co., where around 1,350 Ferguson-Brown tractors, model A, equipped with the Ferguson hydraulic system, were produced. Henry Ford offered Ferguson a job, but he preferred his independence. In time, his system would change the face of agriculture, but commercial success proved elusive for Ferguson.
Another application that Ferguson came up with was the “three-point hitch.” This allowed farm implements to be attached or detached from tractors with a minimum of effort, compared to previous devices. The hitch also allowed tractors to be able to plow on hillsides, because the implements were able to adjust the depth of the plowing. The three-point hitch was compatible with the Fordson line of tractors. This adaptation opened a door that allowed the Fordson to jump back up in popularity.
By the middle of the 1930’s, Fordson sales had all but died in the United States. The cost of importing the tractors was the largest issue. Another was the entry into the market by a number of other competitors, and whose designs made the Fordson look obsolete and a bit clunky. A third factor was the downturn in agriculture worldwide that started prior to the Great Depression. In 1938, Ferguson met with Henry Ford. He brought along a Ferguson-Brown tractor. The men made a so-called “gentleman’s agreement.” A handshake was the only contract that they had. Ford engineers used the Ferguson-Brown design, along with Ferguson’s input, in order to produce Ferguson system tractors. The two men brought different strengths to the collaboration. Henry Ford’s financial strength and reputation were on the line. Harry Ferguson’s patents and designs were his contributions.
Harry Ferguson was to do all the marketing for the joint venture. Through the Harry Ferguson Inc. Corporation, he sold tractors and parts of equipment, among which Ferguson-Sherman Inc. produced several. The Ford 9N tractors were made from 1939 to 1942, and the Ford 2N tractors from 1942 to 1947. The Fordson name was used in Europe, but the N nomenclature was used to market them in the United States. The tractor contributed enormously to wartime food production, but Ferguson’s real hope was to raise living standards throughout the world. “Agriculture should have been the first industry to be modernized, not the last,” Ferguson said in 1943.
The head of Ford Motor, Edsel Ford, Henry’s son, died unexpectedly in 1943, whereupon Henry Ford came back to take over the company. Upon Henry Ford’s death from the effects of a stroke in 1946, his grandson Henry Ford II took over control of the company. He immediately started to dismantle a number of the things that his grandfather put into place. One of those things was the “handshake agreement” between Ferguson and Ford. Ford II disliked the lack of Ford’s marketing of the tractor business, and wanted to cut out the middleman. In late 1946, he advised Ferguson that the agreement would be ending on June 30, 1947.
The moment Ford Motor Co. started to sell its own newly named tractor, model 8N, which was built using Harry Ferguson’s hydraulic systems, Ferguson countered by filing a suit against Ford Motor Co. and associated companies for $350 million. The 8N was identical to the 2N/9N models, especially in its use of the Ferguson hydraulic model. Ferguson then negotiated with Standard Motors Co. for them to produce his new tractor, model TE20. Harry Ferguson drove the serial # 1 tractor; model TO20 (Tractor Oversea, for European sales), built in Detroit in 1948 off the factory line in something of a victory drive. Tractor models TO20 and TE20 were identical except for electrical system and transmission case. Ferguson pushed his new line of tractors aggressively, and the TO30 model cut into the 8N market. The lawsuit and Ferguson’s marketing effectively killed the 8N.
Harry Ferguson won $9.25 million compensation in 1952 from Ford. In 1953 he merged with the Canadian Massey-Harris manufacturers to form Massey-Harris-Ferguson, which, in 1958, became Massey-Ferguson Co. He retired from Massey-Ferguson in 1954, selling out his portion of the company. After his departure, he continued to work on and develop advancements in automobiles. He came up with a number of them through his Harry Ferguson Research enterprise. He retired to Stow-on-the-Wold, in Gloucestershire, England, where he continued to work on four-wheel drive and anti-locking braking systems. His designs were adopted in the mid-1960’s by a number of Formula One racers. However, as he found in his early tractor and implement designs, another commercial breakthrough was to be elusive. Harry Ferguson suffered from insomnia and depression and, when he died from a drag overdose on October 25, 1960, a coroner’s jury returned an open verdict on whether he had committed suicide. ♦