Who was Harry Ferguson?

Harry Ferguson

The son of a farmer, Harry Ferguson was born on 4th November 1884, at Growell, County Down, and christened Henry George, although he was always known as Harry. The family farm covered 100 acres, a large holding in Ireland at that time. Harry disliked farm work and quickly became interested in mechanical things, joining his brother Joe in his cycle and car repair business in 1902. There Harry took an interest in flying. He had been fascinated by flying since following the exploits of the Wright brothers in the United States and went to several air meetings and exhibitions, particularly in France in 1907 and 1908, and then went back to Ireland and designed and built his own monoplane. After many adventures trying to fly this plane (he had to learn the hard way - there were no instructors), he finally succeeded and flew for the first time on 31st December 1909, the first flight in Ireland. This was the same year that Bleriot made the first flight over the English Channel. Harry spent more time crashing than he did flying. On one particular occasion during an early flight ,a gust of wind caused the aircraft to vere and summersault, the result being that Harry and the engine both fell out. It is believed that Harry's plane was the first to feature tricycle undercarriage, he also took up the first passenger in Ireland, a very brave, or foolish, lady by the name of Rita Mart, who had travelled from Liverpool to make the flight on 23rd August 1910.

His brother Joe did not like the flying, and, as he could not see any benefit to the company and was concerned for Harry's health, this led to many arguments. The two eventually decided to go their separate ways, Harry setting up in business as May Street Motors in 1911. The company name was changed to Harry Ferguson Ltd about a year later. There Harry sold Maxwell, Star and Vauxhall cars. Harry competed in a Vauxhall car in local hillclimbs and speed events in which he proved to be quite successful. In addition to the cars, Harry Ferguson Ltd also held the franchise for Overtime tractors. With this involvement, Harry was well qualified to take on the task of educating the farmers of Ireland in the new ways with tractors. He was engaged by the government to demonstrate tractors during the first world war. The problem with these early tractors was that they were very heavy, had iron wheels and a large flywheel. The weight caused compaction of the soil, and the steel wheels, while not allowing any slippage, caused other problems. When a tree root or under soil object was encountered by the plough or cultivator, the wheels would not spin, and this either caused damage to the implement or the tractor. With the energy stored in its large flywheel, it rotated around the rear wheel with dire consequences for the driver. There were on the market several devices to stop the tractor tipping over backwards, but Harry's fertile mind had the idea to somehow make the tractor and plough one unit and use the suck of the soil as weight for grip, thus allowing the size of tractor used to be smaller, causing less compaction.

The first attempt at joining the tractor and plough in one unit resulted, in 1917, in a plough designed to go behind the Model T Ford car, which, for around £90, could be converted into a tractor. This conversion was called the Eros. The plough cost £28. This proved quite successful and sold in significant numbers.
After the Eros, the most widely used tractor was the Model F Fordson, at the time one of the smallest tractors available. The first attempts involved modifications to the 1917 plough with a mechanical linkage controlled through a slipper mechanism which followed the furrow bottom. Ferguson went to America in 1920 to meet Henry Ford and asked Ford to make the plough alongside the Model F tractor. Ford was impressed with the outfit and offered Harry a job which he declined. Harry went on another trip in 1925 where he met the Sherman brothers who agreed to build the plough for sale. Business was good until Ford decided during the Great Depression to stop tractor production. By this time Harry had returned to Ireland to continue his experiments and his ambition of making the plough depth wheel redundant.
During the late twenties, Harry and his fellow engineers began experimenting with hydraulics and eventually fitted a Model F with hydraulic linkage with promising results; this system actually had lower link sensing. The tractor came to Norfolk in 1931 and was demonstrated to several influential people including William Morris , in the hope that someone would build the tractor, as Harry and his small team were engineers and not production men, Eventually frustration got the better of Harry Ferguson, and, rather than try to persuade someone to build a tractor using his patent linkage system, he built his first tractor. This tractor was designed and built in Belfast, in 1933, using an l8hp Hercules engine. Called the 'Black Tractor', due to its colour, it is normally on display in the Science Museum in London. The gears for the 'black tractor' were made by the David Brown Company of Huddersfield, who, after some persuasion, became interested in building the tractor as a production machine. An agreement was made, with David Brown to build the tractor and Harry Ferguson Ltd to sell it. Designated the Model A, it cost £224, at a time when a Fordson cost £140.

During the years 1936-38, 1350 Model A's were made, although their sales were not easy as the tractor needed to be bought with its range of implements, each costing £28, in order to get the best out of it. Consequently it proved rather expensive although Harry Ferguson tried to get Browns to build it cheaper. Not being happy with the set up between himself and David Brown, Harry took an example of the Model A and demonstrated it to Henry Ford on his ranch at Fairlane, Nr Dearborn, Michigan, U.S.A., in October 1938. Henry Ford was suitably impressed, and, at a table in the demonstration field, he and Ferguson made their famous Handshake Agreement'; Ford was to use his production capacity to produce the tractor and Harry Ferguson Ltd would act as the salesmen. In addition Harry Ferguson was to have the final say in any engineering changes.

The first prototype was completed in March, just three months after work had begun, and, on 1st April 1939, it was demonstrated to a few friends in Mrs Ford's nursery garden at Fairlane. The first production tractors were ready by June, and, on the 12th June, everything was ready for a demonstration to distributors who had been appointed. The public launch came on 29th June with over 500 people being invited. The agreement worked well throughout the war period although Harry was frustrated that the Ford tractor plant at Dagenham, England, would never agree to build his little tractor. Between 1939 and 1947 some 306,000 examples of the Ford/Fergie or 9N, were made.

Although never built in the UK, a version was imported during the war. This tractor, the 2NAN, was built without electric start and ran on steel wheels. Ford engineers wanted more involvement in the design of the tractor and suggested that the gearbox be increased from three speeds to four speeds and position control be incorporated in the hydraulics. Ferguson would not agree to either of these changes, although his engineers were thinking along similar lines. In 1947, Ford prepared to release a new tractor, called the 8N, incorporating the above changes and unmodified Ferguson System Hydraulics. This tractor angered Harry Ferguson as his patents were being used without his consent, and he sued Ford successfully for $9.25 million. Production of this tractor was stopped in December 1952.

While the court case was going on with Ford, Ferguson had arranged with Sir John Black, of the Standard Motor Co, to produce a tractor to his design. As the Standard Co owned a factory at Banner Lane Coventry, which had been a shadow factory during the war, it was turned to tractor production in 1946, and the TE (Tractor England) was born. These were initially powered by a Continental petrol engine, until the engine that was being designed and made for the Standard Vanguard was in frill production. Diesel engined versions were available from January 1951. Production of the TE continued in all its 16 guises until 1956, and, when production stopped, 517,651 tractors had been produced. With the Ford deal at an end, Harry Ferguson set up a separate company in America to produce the equivalent of the TE, the TO. The TO (Tractor Overseas) was produced by Harry Ferguson Inc. at Detroit between 1948 and 1954, a total of 140,000 being made.

During the early fifties, negotiations started between Harry Ferguson Ltd and Massey Harris for the amalgamation of the two companies and product lines. These negotiations were long and drawn out as Harry Ferguson insisted that he have control over design changes. Eventually an agreement was made, and the first tractor of the amalgamation, the FE35, rolled out of Banner Lane in October 1956. Known as the Grey/Gold 35, this tractor was produced by Massey-Harris-Ferguson. During the following months, further negotiation took place with the result that by the end of 1957 Harry Ferguson had sold all his shares in the Massey-Harris-Ferguson Co. During the negotiations, Harry insisted that his share of the company was worth $17 million, however, the Massey Harris directors would only go to $16 million After some time in a stalemate situation, Harry eventually suggested that they toss for the extra million. Eventually the directors of M-H agreed and a half crown was duly tossed, Harry called tails; he lost. He then suggested that they toss again for the coin, and this time Harry won. The directors had the coin mounted on a cigar box with the inscription, 'To our friend and partner Harry Ferguson. A gallant sportsman'. Harry received $16 million (then £5.7 million) for his shares in M-H-F.

The 'FE achieved many milestones during its production span, with over 517,000 being built at Coventry alone. The tractor was exported throughout the world and made significant advances to the world's food production. Harry Ferguson always maintained that it took five acres to feed a pair of draft animals, but, with his tractor, this land could be put to use producing food for the growing population of the world. One of the more unusual feats that the TE achieved was in 1958 when Sir Edmund Hilary travelled to the South Pole using three of the little tractors. The tractors proved reliable over the 1200 mile journey and, despite high fuel consumption in the extreme conditions, proved more able than an ex-army Weasel, which had to be left behind. Hilary gave the tractors to the Americans who were manning the Antarctic station in exchange for a flight out, and they remained there for some years being used for further survey work. Of the three tractors that travelled to the Pole, one is still there, one is in New Zealand and the other returned to the UK in 1965 to take up residence in the Massey Ferguson Heritage Centre at Coventry.

For many years Harry Ferguson had been considering at the back of his mind the problems of the motor car and now turned his energies to this. He had been interested for some time in the work of two engineers; Tony Rolt and Freddie Dixon. For many years they had been working with four wheel drive systems and had been demonstrating to the Army a vehicle built for military purposes, known as the 'Crab'. It had four wheel drive and steering by swinging both axles which caused some novel handling. Ferguson, upon his return from America, went to see the two at work, and, in 1950, Harry Ferguson Research was formed. Claude Hill joined the team from Aston Martin soon after, and work began on building a complete car.

The car had revolutionary features; four wheel drive, anti lock brakes and torque converter transmission. Even the engine was of Ferguson design, being a flat four which gave a low centre of gravity. Ferguson Research had bought, from Count Teramela, the rights to the Torque Converter for about £500,000. The intention was to sell the ideas to a large motor manufacturer to produce the production version, as had been the intention with the tractor. A total of three prototype road cars were built, two estate cars and a saloon. The last estate car R5/2, built in 1959, also incorporated a supercharged version of the Ferguson flat four engine. This gave the engine an output of 150bhp from the 2.2 litres. In testing, this vehicle was regularly lapping the Motor Industry Research Authority test ground at 100 mph. Unfortunately the engine is no longer in the car, although both can be seen in the Museum of British Road Transport in Coventry.

After the road cars, Ferguson Research turned to racing to prove the worth of the Ferguson Formula System. A racing car was built, designated P99, that conformed to the, then current, Formula 1 regulations. However, all the forward thinking in the transmission, was to no avail, as the car was front engined at a time when John Cooper and most other designers were successful with rear engined cars. The car was entered for several races by Rob Walker, including the Oulton Park Gold Cup in 1961, where it was driven by Stirling Moss. To the delight of the Ferguson engineers the race was wet, and the combination of four wheel drive, anti lock brakes and Stirling's driving proved too much for the opposition, and he won the race. P99 did, however, prove to be unbeatable in the Hillclimb Championship in 1964, where it took Peter Westbury to the Championship. The car now resides in the Donington Collection.

Several others experimented with four wheel drive in racing cars, and the Ferguson Formula was used at Indianapolis in 1969 and in a Lotus 56b turbine Fl car during 1971. Harry Ferguson did not see the racing car win its race, as he died in 1960. He suffered great bouts of depression and insomnia in the latter years of his life but still had flashes of his old brilliance and stamina. On one occasion when on holiday in Jamaica, he awoke to find a burglar in his room. In the ensuing struggle the robber's gun went off, and Harry sustained a bullet through his leg. Later, when the robber was brought to court, in his defence he said that he had been savagely attacked by Harry Ferguson. Harry Ferguson's original ideas are still employed. No matter what colour of agricultural tractor, they all have the converging three point linkage and weight transfer system that Harry pioneered. Many modem road vehicles have four wheel drive technology, and those produced by Vauxhall/Opel, Ford, Mitsubishi, Honda, Land Rover, Lancia, Alfa Romeo and others employ the Ferguson patented Viscous Coupling control system, developed by GKN and FF (Ferguson Formula) Developments, a company owned by Ferguson's old partner Tony Rolt and his son Stuart. 

For those of us in agriculture Harry Ferguson revolutionised the farm tractor and saved us all a great deal of hard work. For the general public, his ideas, firstly for aviation and now employed by the motor industry, have made a great contribution to human development. Harry Ferguson, although a very slight figure of a man, proved a giant in the engineering field.

Ferguson Tractors. Ex Works - March, 1954

Diesel Tractor (TEF)
Petrol Tractor (TEA)
V.0. Tractor (TED)
Narrow Track Petrol Tractor (TEC)
Narrow Track V.0. Tractor (TEE)
Vineyard V.0. Tractor (TEL)

Ferguson Accessories

Hinged Seat and Footrest Assembly
Hitch Conversion Unit
Lighting Set
Lighting Set (Side)
£  3.10.00
£  6.10.00

Fitting charges

In Workshops
On Farm