Born in 1863 of Irish immigrants on a farm in Greenfield Village, Michigan, Henry had seven siblings. Henry’s father, William, was a quiet-spoken Episcopalian who expected his son to take over the farm, but who also soon recognized Henry’s technical ability. Henry, who detested the grinding farm work, was constantly tinkering and studying anything mechanical, and with his father’s blessing left for Detroit in 1879, at age 16. He would marry Clara Bryant in 1888. After joining Edison Illuminating Company in 1891, he eventually had the time and money in 1896 to develop his first gasoline-engine automobile, the Quadricycle. His first business venture was the Detroit Automobile Company, formed in 1899. The company only lasted a brief time, as the cars they produced were expensive but not of high quality. After building and successfully fielding a racing car in 1901, Ford started a new venture, the Henry Ford Company but, in 1902, when Henry Leland was brought in by the stockholders as a consultant, Ford departed and the company was renamed Cadillac Automobile Company.
Ford then built several famous race cars including the “999” that Barney Oldfield drove to victory that same year. Ford, along with an old friend, then formed a new partnership called Ford & Malcomson, Ltd., where he set about designing an inexpensive auto. A contract was signed with John and Horace E. Dodge for $160,000 in parts, and when the Dodge brothers demanded payment for the first shipment, Ford had to scramble to bring in new investors. The company was reincorporated as Ford Motor Company on June 16, 1903. Oldfield continued to set records with Ford’s racers and made the brand famous around the USA.
Ford rapidly improved his offerings over the next few years, working his way through the alphabet with new models. The Model T was introduced in October, 1908, and by 1918, represented 50% of the auto population in America. Ford aggressively drove the cost of the Model T down to the point where the ‘ordinary man’ could afford one, and increased worker’s wages to $5/day in order to reduce turnover. At odds with Ford Motor Company stockholders over expansion of the company and how profits would be distributed, Henry announced he was leaving to “pursue other interests,” and created a new company in 1917 called “Henry Ford and Son,” where he could have full control over all company and manufacturing decisions. His primary purpose in creating the company, however, seemed to be to intimidate Ford Motor Company stockholders (the Dodge Brothers in particular) to sell out to Ford, a ploy which ultimately was successful.
Ford had been experimenting with a number of tractor prototypes, the latest of which utilized a frameless design (pioneered by the 1913 Wallis Cub) in which the cast iron engine block, transmission and rear axle housing formed the structure of the tractor. Ford of Britain’s head, Percival Perry, was aware of these developments and in 1917, purchased land in Cork, Ireland for the production of tractors. A pair of prototypes were shipped over and demonstrated to the Royal Agricultural Society, who were impressed. Subsequent developments resulted in the determination that Britain’s capabilities (diverted as they were to war production) were simply not up to the task of tractor production at that time.
Still in need of tractors, the British Ministry of Munitions (M.O.M.) began negotiations to have Ford produce 6,000 tractors for export at their Dearborn plant, a number subsequently raised to 7,000 units by an additional order from Canada. The first tractors sent over in November 1917 were simply known as the M.O.M. tractor (named after the purchaser) and used a 20 hp four-cylinder engine similar to that in the Model T. Ford’s engineers made continual improvements and changes, and, seeing opportunity for a bit of free publicity, Ford began stenciling “Henry Ford and Son”, eventually condensed to “Fordson”, across the radiator.
With pricing for the improved Fordson Model F lower than most car/tractor conversions, Harry Ferguson effectively lost the market for his Belfast plow. He quickly revised the hitch design such that remaining production could be used with the Fordson and then started work on a completely new design that would link the plow (or other implement) to the tractor in a way that effectively made them one unit.
The biggest problem Ferguson had observed with the Fordson (and other tractors, to a lesser extent) was that they were notorious for “rearing up” when the plow struck a rock or root – with the machine no longer able to move forward, tractive power instantly became rotational power and in less than two seconds, the tractor would flip backwards about the rear axle, crushing the operator (horses knew better and would simply stop pulling). It was suggested by one wag that Ford should attach a placard to the tractor that read “Prepare to meet thy God.” Ford would eventually offer to all Fordson owners a free set of extended fenders that acted like wheelie bars. Ford tried other arrangements to mitigate the problem such as trip springs on the plow and ignition cut-outs, but farmers continued to die needlessly.