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

About the same time the first TE-20s were rolling off the line in Coventry, Dearborn Motors, Inc. was created as Ford’s new dealership system, selling and servicing Ford tractors along with a new line of proprietary implements – a number of Ferguson’s dealers immediately signed with Ford as a result. Ferguson, who now had implements but no tractors to sell in the US, undertook construction of a new tractor factory in Southfield, Michigan, not far from Ford’s Dearborn facilities. Until the factory produced its first tractor on October 11, 1948, over 25,000 tractors were imported from Coventry to the USA and Canada and sold as the Ferguson TO-20 (TO = Tractor Overseas). By the end of the year, production was up to about 100 tractors a day and by 1954, about 140,000 TO-20 tractors had been built.

Backing up for a moment, three weeks after the June 30, 1947 cutoff date, Ford demonstrated the new 8N to 300 guests at Ford’s Deer Lake Farms. 197,128 2Ns had been produced to this point, putting it in the top ten sellers of all time in the US. The new 8N offered a four-speed transmission, draft control and a few more horsepower, in addition to sporting a cheerful new red and light-grey paint scheme that would earn it the nickname “red belly.” Missing from the grille was the Ferguson System badge that had adorned all previous 9N and 2N tractors, although the Ferguson System itself was still very much intact (along with Ferguson’s patents).

Ferguson was undergoing health treatments in Switzerland at the time, but by November 1947 was well enough to travel to America. After having a look at the new 8N, he filed suit in January 1948 under American antitrust laws, claiming Ford had monopolized the market, and demanded three times the value of Ford’s business plus patent infringement on every 8N tractor already sold, for a total of $251,111,000 plus legal fees.

Depositions got underway in July, and over the next three months, 11,000 pages of evidence were recorded from Ferguson. In mid-1949, Ford’s legal team unsuccessfully filed that several of Ferguson’s patents were actually invented by Willie Sands, to which Ferguson replied, “stealing another man’s invention is one of the foulest things a man could do.”

Henry II then traveled to England late in the year to see if he could work out differences with Ferguson, but, no agreement being reached, returned home to begin giving his own deposition. By the fall of 1950, it looked like things were ready to go to trial, but proceedings continued to drag out, and it became obvious it would be many more months before the case went to the courtroom. By 1951, the TO-20 had become quite popular and Ferguson’s sales in the USA were around $65 million – the court subsequently dismissed the antitrust part of the claim, as it was clear Ford had no monopoly.

Finally, in April 1952, the two parties settled out of court with Ford paying Ferguson $9.25 million for unauthorized use of his patents and promising to change its tractor design to remove any possible further infringements. Many of Ferguson’s patents were set to expire shortly anyway, leaving Ferguson feeling Ford had drawn out the legal process on purpose. Later that year, Ferguson began shopping his company (but not the Coventry plant) to Massey-Harris.

Talks went back and forth, and Harry suddenly offered to sell all his agricultural businesses for $16 million, to which Massey-Harris President James Duncan immediately agreed. It subsequently was discovered Ferguson had interests in France worth another $1 million, but Duncan was at the limit of what he could offer. Ferguson suggested they settle the matter with a coin toss, which he lost. The coin was later mounted on a silver cigar box engraved with “The $1,000,000 Coin” and the inscription, “To our friend and partner Harry Ferguson, a gallant sportsman.” The merger of Massey-Harris and Harry Ferguson Ltd. became official as Massey-Harris-Ferguson on Aug. 17, 1953, and the company would shorten the name to Massey Ferguson in 1958. AGCO purchased the North American distribution rights to Massey Ferguson in 1993.

Ferguson would keep inventing until the end of his life, last focusing on the design of a four-wheel drive car, which he felt would improve safety. Once again, Harry found difficulties locating a company interested in building his design, so to promote the concept, he created the P99 “Climax” Formula 1 car in 1960, which would go on to have the distinction of being the last front-engine car to win at Formula 1. Ferguson did not live to see Stirling Moss drive the car to victory in 1963, having been found dead in his home of a barbiturate overdose in 1960, at age 76.

Ford would sell a total of 524,076 8N tractors in the prosperous post-war years, making it the top-selling tractor model of all time in the US. A completely redesigned “Golden Jubilee” NAA tractor that did not infringe on Ferguson patents would be introduced in 1953 with a 134 c.i.d. 32hp OHV engine and “live” hydraulics, and Ford would continue improving and expanding its line of tractors for many years; the final tractor model to carry the Ford name (that I am aware of) would be the 170 hp Ford 8830 last built around 1993.

The “red belly” would get one last hurrah in 2009, when New Holland introduced the “retro” 50hp Boomer 8N, based on their compact utility line of tractors. Not a big seller, it was discontinued in 2011.

Final Thoughts

These two men (who both had their flaws) were similar in so many ways, and were ultimately just what each other needed at that moment in history. The Ferguson System design is used on the vast majority of farm tractors today, and while accidents still happen, one can make a strong argument that thousands of lives have been saved by this one invention. Certainly, the productivity of farming was vastly improved by these series of tractors. Both ‘Fergies’ and ‘Red Bellies’ are warmly loved in their respective homelands, and many of them survive today, easing the burden of those who till the soil each season.

Author’s Note

My father purchased a 1952 Ford 8N when I was about 12 years old and rebuilt the engine in our back yard. He put me to work at age 14 breaking and discing three acres of ground, plus mowing our 12-acre farmette. He sold the tractor a few years later when I was sixteen.

A quarter-century later, I bought a 1950 8N prior to purchasing our farm here in the Middle West. After a few years, I, too, rebuilt my 8N, which seems to be happy working hard year-round.

I’ve been wanting to write this story for quite some time, and it turned into a bit more of a novel than I anticipated… it’s likely I munged a detail here or there (and sources sometime disagreed on dates, etc.), so feel free to correct or shed additional light in the comments.


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