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

Ferguson arrived at Fair Lane in September, 1938 with John Williams and the Sherman brothers in tow. Ford was away for a few days inspecting mines in the Upper Peninsula, so Ferguson used the time to ready every detail to perfection. When Ford returned, a demonstration was set up in a roped-off section of Clara Ford’s garden. After Ferguson’s operator demonstrated a two-bottom plow on an uphill section, Ford called for the estate’s Allis-Chalmers B and Fordson tractors to be brought around for comparison. Where the Ferguson had no trouble pulling the same size plow uphill, the other two tractors slipped and lost traction. Ford then called for the demonstration to be moved across the road to Deer Field, which had heavier soil. Again, the Ferguson excelled.

A table and chairs were brought out from the house, and Ferguson used a model to explain his Ferguson System hitch to Ford and to press the point that a safe, light, mass-produced tractor would be within reach of even the smallest farmer, and what’s more, could completely replace the 19 million or so horses still used on farms.

Both men were idealists and interested in making life easier on farmers – Ford offered to buy the patents outright.

Ferguson replied, “Mr. Ford, you haven’t got enough money to buy my patents. They are not for sale to you or anyone at any price.”

Ford: “Well, you need me as much as I need you, so what do you suggest?”

Ferguson responded, “A gentleman’s agreement. You stake your resources and reputation on this idea, and I’ll stake a lifetime of design and invention.”

Ford agreed; “It’s a good idea – you trust me, and I’ll trust you.”

And with that, they stood and shook hands – Ferguson would be the only man with whom Ford ever went into partnership – Ford manufacturing and selling the tractors to Ferguson’s company, which then handled distribution and sales.

The ‘handshake agreement’ covered five main points:

  1. Ferguson would have total control of design and engineering.
  2. Ford would be responsible for manufacturing.
  3. Ferguson could sell the tractor wherever and however he wanted.
  4. The Ferguson System tractor would eventually be built in the UK.
  5. And finally, the agreement could be terminated at any time by either party.

When Ferguson returned to the UK, it wasn’t long before Brown showed their new, larger tractor design to the stockholders. Ferguson cried “Foul!” and indicated he wanted out of the agreement, to which the people at Brown were only happy to agree. Ferguson would then move to America in early 1939, where he could be close at hand for the development of the new tractor.

Note that Ford had not been sitting idle after stopping US Fordson production in 1928. A number of prototype tractors had been developed – many of which were failures – and nothing had surfaced that could be turned into a runaway success. Upon the agreement, however, things quickly got into high gear, and over US $12 million was invested in the development of the new Ford-Ferguson tractor. Charles Sorenson and his team were largely responsible for the engineering of the tractor, although key components and intellectual property (obviously including the Ferguson System) were contributed by Ferguson’s team. Ford’s chief of styling, Eugene Gregorie (also responsible for the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr and 1939 Lincoln Continental), provided input for the Art Deco appearance of the new tractor (possibly with additional input from Edsel Ford).

The result after a feverish six months of activity was the Ford 9N with Ferguson System, introduced on June 29, 1939. The “9N” designation is taken from the year of introduction (‘39) and the internal project code (“N” = ‘tractor’). An article in the July 3, 1939 edition of Time magazine was effusive in its praise: “The tractor is as simple as a motorcar, can be maintained by any farm hand, operated by any schoolboy. It will plow, harrow, drag a seeder, pull a wagon better than any tractor ever made, far better than a horse which is, as Thomas Edison said, ‘the poorest motor ever built.’ That inventor Ferguson will go down in history with Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright brothers.”

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