(first posted 8/23/2015) We’ve spilled a lot of pixels on these pages reviewing retro styled cars such as the Thunderbird, Fiat 500 and Beetle, among others, but did you know the trend extended to the ag industry as well?
We previously covered the epic story of the development of the Ford N Series tractors here, and before we look at New Holland’s retro interpretation, it’s worth reviewing the circuitous path that connects the Ford 8N to the Boomer 8N.
New Holland (the company) takes its name from New Holland, Pennsylvania, where in 1895, a 26 year-old Mennonite handyman named Abram “Abe” Zimmerman opened shop under the name “New Holland Machine Works,” focusing on engine repair. By 1899, he was marketing a new feed mill design that was capable of crushing and grinding ear corn – earlier mills had been limited to small grains, so this quickly became popular with farmers raising cattle.
In addition, after a brief period repairing and selling German Otto Cycle engines, Zimmerman began offering the Columbus Gas Engine as a means to power his mills. Because these engines ran on illuminating gas delivered through city mains, Zimmerman designed a vaporizer allowing them to run on gasoline, which opened up the market to farmers who lived outside the city.
Zimmerman eventually thought about designing a new, more reliable engine that would not require draining the coolant (plain water) in the wintertime to prevent freeze-cracking of the cast-iron water jacket around the cylinder. Noticing that tapered animal watering troughs (which New Holland Machine Works also happened to manufacture) allowed ice to lift harmlessly without cracking the metal, he designed a trough-shaped water jacket and introduced his “freeze-proof” engine (rated at 1-½ HP) in 1901. Pictured is engine Serial No. 576 made in 1904, and you can see it run here.
As the feed mill and engine business grew, additional space was needed, and in May 1903, New Holland Machine Works was incorporated to become the New Holland Machine Company – coincidentally the same year Ford Motor Company incorporated. New Holland manufactured engine parts in small batches and assembled them as needed to meet sales. In 1914 Zimmerman sold out, resigning from the company he founded to join the Russellite religious movement that predicted the end of the world that year. When that failed to happen he returned, but only for a short time, after which he resigned for good. The original facility (pictured) would be expanded a number of times over the years and was finally closed down in 1992 after having earned a position on the National Register of Historic Places.
Five various ratings of the New Holland engine would eventually be offered, topping out at 16 HP. Sales of engines, feed mills and a number of other products were robust through the 1920s until a combination of the Great Depression (which hit New Holland’s customers hard) and rural electrification (which obviated the need for stationary gasoline engines) nearly put them out of business. Production of the New Holland engine ceased altogether in 1938 and by this time, New Holland was grasping at anything to stay in business, including the manufacture of waffle irons, nutcrackers and even cast metal doorstops.
Meanwhile over in Italy, Fiat had introduced its own tractor, the model 702, in 1919, and in Belgium, Claeys began selling harvesting equipment in 1910. Both brands will play into our story later. Ford of course introduced the Fordson tractor in 1917 with the 9N tractor with Harry Ferguson’s revolutionary three-point hitch coming along in 1939.
Back at New Holland, a farmer named Edwin Nolt had set up a small manufacturing line in part of the New Holland factory in 1940 to build a self-tying (twine) pickup baler of his own design. His prototype used components from other harvesting equipment and gears from a Fordson tractor and after much trial and error, he came up with a workable design. Earlier pickup balers required several people to operate, and tying the bales (with wire) was done manually by two persons (one on each side of the implement) who poked the wires through the hay and tied the knots themselves.
The New Holland Machine Company was down to about 40 employees at this point and was on the verge of bankruptcy when an investment group led by J. Henry Fisher purchased a majority interest and started working on turning the failing company around. New products were obviously needed, and the very one that saved the company was right under their noses in the Nolt baler. New Holland bought the rights to the design and manufactured 351 units by the end of 1940, with production increasing to over 2,000 units by 1944.
Production more than doubled to over 4,700 balers by 1946, with plans to triple those numbers for 1948, but things changed even more for the better when Sperry Corporation acquired New Holland in 1947 as part of a move to diversify their business. With plenty of capital on hand, the new Sperry New Holland subsidiary’s product offerings expanded rapidly, and by the late-mid-1950s, they had produced over 42,000 balers including the innovative self-propelled Haycruiser 178 that never really quite caught on (the late 1950s – 1960s were a heady time for ag as well as auto industry designers).
Meanwhile back over in Europe, Claeys had introduced the first European self-propelled combine harvester in 1952 and was one of the biggest combine manufacturers in Europe a decade later. Sperry New Holland acquired a major interest in Claeys in 1964, choosing to grow their ag offerings even faster through acquisition.
Fiat had also been busy in the ag market and formed a joint venture with Allis Chalmers in 1974 called Fiat-Allis. Fiat subsequently purchased Kansas-based Hesston (hay equipment) as well as Agrifull (small air-cooled diesel tractors and crawlers) and consolidated these companies under its new Fiatagri name. One popular Fiat tractor model was the 48 HP (35.8 kW) 480, which will also appear in retro form later in our story (hat tip to Johannes Dutch!).
By the 1980s, Ford’s Tractor Division had become a global ag powerhouse, with over 2,500 dealers in 100 countries. However, a number of issues in the USA during the late 1970s and 1980s, including failed governmental policies, high debt, extreme land and commodity price fluctuations and two droughts, combined to create an economic crisis for farmers far worse than the Great Depression – many multi-generation family farms were lost to foreclosures. From 1962 to 1983, farm debt rose from $60 billion to $216 billion. I personally remember going out with my family to see a protest “Tractorcade” that rolled through Athens, Georgia on its way to Washington, DC during this time period.
Sperry New Holland was losing customers fast; Ford saw opportunity and stepped in, paying $330 million in cash for the division, plus assumption of $110 million in liabilities – a price that analysts said was about 50% of the value of the division. Ford also acquired Versatile Farm and Equipment Co. shortly afterwards, extending its product offerings into the massive four-wheel drive tractor arena.
“The players in this game are getting so large that you have to be a full-line manufacturer to compete,” said Philip E. Benton Jr., Ford’s executive vice president for diversified products. “Our job is to strengthen this business and to broaden our product line, and New Holland complements our product line very well.” He added that there is almost no overlap between the product lines of the two firms. ~LA Times, October 11, 1985
Despite Ford’s acquisition activity, due to the poor ag economy, they had been shopping the tractor division around for nearly a decade, and in 1991, finally found a buyer and sold 80% interest to Fiat. The last Ford branded tractor, the 170 HP (126.8 kW) model 8830, was produced through 1993. By 1995, the 100th anniversary of the New Holland brand name, Fiat had acquired the remaining 20% of the business and Ford New Holland was rechristened New Holland North America. Many of Fiat’s tractor offerings were released under both brand names, New Holland in former Ford markets, and Fiat in its own traditional markets.
Finishing out our timeline, under the ownership of Fiat, New Holland N.V. and Case Corporation merged in 1999 to form Case New Holland (CNH). In 2013, CNH Global N.V. and Fiat Industrial S.p.A. were merged into the holding company CNH Industrial N.V., and New Holland is today a product brand of CNH Industrial.
Let’s look at some tractors now! The New Holland Boomer line of compact utility tractors was introduced in 1997, with four initial models ranging from the 25 HP (18.6 kW) model 1530 to the 34 HP (25.4 kW) model 1925. Assembly for the North American market was done in Dublin, Georgia, but the design/engineering, components and engines were provided by the Japanese firm Shibaura, which had been in a long term supply agreement with Ford since 1972 that subsequently carried over to New Holland.
Starting in the late 1990s with cars like the Plymouth Prowler and Volkswagen New Beetle, retro fever hit the automotive industry. By 2010, an additional ten retro-styled cars (that I can think of off the top of my head) would be brought to market, some only surviving a few years, and others still in production today.
Perhaps looking to jump on the retro bandwagon, and exactly 70 years after the introduction of the original Ford 9N tractor, New Holland introduced the Boomer 8N in 2009 at the National Farm Machinery Show.
The Boomer 8N is a updated remake of the classic Ford 8N tractor, part of New Holland’s heritage. “The history of this project was basically a fusion between the old styling of the Ford 8N with new technology of today,” New Holland’s John Hundley said. Many of this first year’s sales have been to collectors or people who have fond memories of the legendary Ford 8N growing up on a farm in the 40s and 50s. “We have some people who are buying this tractor and parking it because they don’t want to use it, but this is a workhorse and we do have people buying it and running it in the field everyday.” ~AgWired, February 25, 2010
Essentially the same base tractor as the New Holland Boomer 3050 powered by a Shibaura 2.2L four-cylinder diesel making 50 HP (37.3 kW), the Boomer 8N sought to capitalize on warm feelings and memories of the Ford 8N. Styling cues do fairly accurately suggest the original 9N’s art deco lines penned by Eugene Gregorie, but that’s about where the similarities end, aside from the “redbelly” color scheme. The modern 8N has twice the horsepower, live PTO, power steering, four-wheel assist, over three times the lift capacity on the three-point hitch (2,800lb vs ~900lb), and can be roaded nearly twice as fast as the tractor from which it takes its name. Ergonomics are vastly improved, too with a flat operator platform. A number of “dress-up” options (that few “real” farmers would ever pay extra for but collectors seemed to gobble up) were offered, including a chrome roll-over bar (ROPS) and baby moon hubcaps.
The easy-to-use transmission is operated by a shuttle lever and a single speed control foot pedal. The pedal determines engine speed and the transmission controller maximizes forward speed for the applied load. Once the pedal is released, the tractor will decelerate to a stop in a smooth and controlled manner.
The EasyDrive transmission has a speed range of up to 18.6 mph and moves seamlessly and continuously while accelerating or decelerating. Sensors are used to measure torque, engine speed and variator speed to control the transmission electronically.
~New Holland – March 20, 2009
One interesting difference between the 3050 and Boomer 8N was that the 8N utilized a standard CVT as opposed to the shuttle shift transmission that came standard on the 3050 – although CVTs had been in use on high-horsepower tractors for a while, this was the first use of one on a compact utility-sized tractor. Other premium features that came standard on the Boomer 8N included cruise control, adjustable reactivity (how fast the tractor accelerates/decelerates) and an anti-stall feature that disengages the CVT if the engine is about to stall such as when crowding material with a loader.
Pricing was aimed squarely at the collector market, at a good $8-10K over the price of a Boomer 3050. Jay Leno bought one to move cars around in his garage, and I suspect he fit the target demographic perfectly. Options could easily add another $5-10,000 to the total. A line of Boomer 8N branded implements was also offered, including a front loader, 3pt. backhoe and both finish and rotary mowers.
The Boomer 8N was met with rave reviews, as well as a GOOD DESIGN™ award from the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design and The European Centre for Architecture Art, Design and Urban Studies. It picked up an additional AE50 award from the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) for 2009’s most innovative products. Unfortunately, the economy decided to take a dump that same year, and when combined with the high pricing, sales never came close to meeting the 1,000 units/year New Holland had forecast. A total of around 1,200 were built before NH pulled the plug in 2012, and many of those sat on dealer lots for several years before being discounted enough to finally move them.
In addition to the Boomer 8N, New Holland also introduced in 2010 an “anniversary edition” of the Fiat 480 in Europe, called the F480, and rated at 48HP, just like the original. A little more affordably priced than the Boomer 8N, it came in at 17.600 Euro for the base tractor.
Here’s where the story turns personal. I own a 1950 Ford 8N that I restored in 2008 and use year-round on our small hobby farm. My “big” tractor is a 1977 Allis Chalmers 190 making 75HP which has been an “oil burner” since I bought it a few years ago (despite it having a gasoline engine). When it started making ominous knocking sounds while baling this Spring (rod bearings going, alas), I quickly parked it before it started leaking parts. After finding out an overhaul would cost as much as the tractor was worth (after the overhaul), I elected to punt and find a replacement. I didn’t start out looking for a Boomer 8N, but a casual “I wonder what they cost now” search showed they had depreciated significantly. I ended up finding one for about half what it cost new, with only 145 hours on the proofmeter (just broken in, in other words). It was being offered by the same dealer who sold it new, so they knew the history of the one-owner unit.
There are two “weird” things that happened in the course of selecting and purchasing this particular tractor. First, on my way home from a 2-hour drive to look at a 1960s John Deere 3020 (which was half the price of this one but had over 2,000 hours on it), a car passed me, and the license plate read: BOOMER . Hmmmm, a sign? Second, the 1952 Ford 8N my Dad had when we were kids was named “Franklin.” I had not paid much attention to the name of the selling dealer up to this point (I was looking at over a dozen tractors to start with), but when I decided to pursue it further, I realized the New Holland dealer’s name was…
So how could I not buy it!
Given how poorly the Boomer 8N sold, it’s unlikely we’ll ever ever see another retro-styled tractor on the market (at least not in my lifetime), and it’s rare that ag equipment depreciates as rapidly as did the Boomer 8N.
But I’m happy I hit the timing right, and will enjoy taking both tractors to as many parades and tractor drives as I can (just as soon as I talk my wife into driving one of them!).
And that’s the story of how a classic became a future classic!