Ag History: Ford N Series Tractors And The Handshake That Changed Farming Forever

Ferguson experimented with a number of configurations for his new plow hitch design, settling on a mechanical linkage consisting of two parallel bars that formed a semi-rigid arrangement between the tractor and plow that prevented the tractor flipping backwards when an obstruction was hit. The linkages were designed to pull the plow down to its working depth, and improved traction came by shifting the weight of the plow and forces involved to the tractor. When Ford’s Charles Sorenson came to Cork in 1917 to discuss setting up UK production of the Fordson, Ferguson and Sands secured a meeting and presented the new plow design to him. Ferguson’s natural salesmanship won the day, and Sorenson committed to support development of the plow (something he later said he regretted!).

Development proceeded, and in 1920, Ferguson, accompanied by Sands, traveled to Dearborn for his first meeting with Ford. Ferguson was interested in having Ford manufacture the plow in return for royalties, but Ford misunderstood his intentions and offered Harry a job instead. When Ferguson refused several escalating offers, Ford, somewhat annoyed at this point, offered to buy the patent rights. Ferguson again refused – the two stubborn Irishmen had met each other’s match and they parted company with a grudging respect for each other.

Ford had moved tractor production to the new River Rouge plant in 1920, and Fordson branded tractors would be made there through 1928 and in the UK through 1952, with a total of 1,227,694 units of all models of Fordsons produced. Meanwhile, Ferguson was left to find someone to manufacture his new plow. The Roderick Lean Company of Mansfield, Ohio was initially engaged, but went bankrupt in 1924. An arrangement was eventually made with brothers Eber and George Sherman and the Ferguson-Sherman, Inc. company was formed.

During this time, Sands, who had since left to start his own business, was rehired to solve a problem where their Duplex Hitch plow would not make furrows of constant draft (depth). Sands came up with the idea of a linkage that would adjust the depth the plow in the soil based on its angular relationship with the tractor, solving the problem. Eventually, a third point of attachment was added for stability and a patent was awarded for the “three-point linkage,” known as the Ferguson System, in 1928.

Interestingly, the initial design had two arms on top and one below, which proved to be somewhat unstable. Ferguson reversed the arrangement, then developed a hydraulic system to raise and lower the implement (photo of the prototype shows the first hydraulic unit in the original “upside down” configuration). By this time, several companies were showing interest in manufacturing the system, including Allis-Chalmers, Rushton, Ransomes, Rover, and Morris Motor Co., which was of the greatest interest to Ferguson. The depression of the late 1920s-1930s unfortunately put the kibosh on any agreement, however.

Undeterred, in 1932 Ferguson set about to design his own tractor from his Belfast factory. Lightness was pursued doggedly, with components being sourced from both the USA (18 hp Hercules engine) and the UK (gears, transmission and steering from David Brown Co.). The resulting prototype (which looked much like a 4/5 scale Fordson F) weighed in at 1,640 lb., utilized a single plate clutch and three-speed transmission, independent (differential) brakes and of course, an improved Ferguson System hitch. Painted all-black, it had almost all the elements of a modern tractor. Ferguson sought a local Irish company to manufacture the “Black,” but finding none went to David Brown and, in 1936, formed an agreement to build tractors with Brown in charge of manufacturing and Ferguson responsible for sales.

An improvement over the Black prototype, about 1,200 Ferguson-Brown Type A tractors were produced. Weight was up to 1,850 lb., horsepower was up to 20 and the color was changed to battleship grey. Four implements were offered, including a a two-bottom plow, and every tractor included a Ferguson spanner – Ferguson insisted on using just two nut and bolt sizes wherever possible. Unfortunately, the tractor was a bit of a dog and did not sell well, especially considering the updated 27 hp Fordson Model N could be had for £140, where the Type A cost £224. Brown began pressing to manufacture a larger tractor, but Ferguson demurred, preferring to lower the price to stimulate sales. As Brown assembled a team to design their own larger tractor, Ferguson crated up tractor Serial No. 722 along with a range of implements, and headed to America, determined to meet again with Henry Ford.

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