As a rule, tractors inspire very little poetry but one model that did attract the pen of impressionable scribes and tractor owners, in the US at least, was the original Fordson tractor.

In Ireland the tractor is indelibly associated with the Cork Marina plant where it started rolling out of the factory in 1919, but its origins lie far over the water in Dearborn, Michigan, and the industrialist of Irish descent, Henry Ford.

Alleviating a hard life in the fields

It was the desire to alleviate the daily grind of both humans and animals by the use of machines, which kindled Ford's interest in engineering.

However, it was his role in the automobile industry which first brought him fame and fortune.

Gustave Wrede kullervo inspired by Model T copy fields
The Swedish Kullervo was inspired by the Fordson; its designer had trained in Detroit although he was never directly employed by Ford

That is not to say that Ford's contribution to agriculture was negligible, far from it.

The Fordson tractor played a huge part in bringing power to the land throughout the world, whether in its original form, as an inspiration to other designers, or even as a model for crude copies.

Early vision

Henry Ford's interest in helping the American farmer was genuine enough; his disdain for animal power was real, having watched teams of horses and mules struggle on the land as a boy.

Later in life he would explain that one of the most important experiences to him in his youth was watching a self-propelled steam engine puffing along a country road, and it was this that inspired his interest in bringing mechanical power to the fields.

Steam engines, however, were heavy and inefficient and although ways were found to use them in fields, be it pulling implements directly or remotely via cables, as was the European solution, the fundamental problem of weight remained.

Trials and tribulations

It was not until Ford had laid the foundations to his wealth in the car industry that he could return to the question of relieving farms of the inefficient and limited power of the horse.

The first attempts to do so involved the unsuccessful attachment of binder wheels to a Model B car chassis.

It did do a season's work on Ford's own farm but lack of power and overheating, which was to become a familiar trait on the eventual tractor, saw it abandoned soon after.

Model t ford Fields
Now a collectors' delight, the Model T was pressed into service as a tractor in its early years

The next step was convert the Model T itself. This was done by strengthening the frame and using a worm gear to drive the rear axle.

Once again the bogie of overheating reared its ugly head with one report noting that the vehicles consumed up to 15 gallons of water/day.

Boardroom woes

No, these car conversions were not the answer and the directors of the Ford Motor company were not all happy with either Henry, or company resources, being diverted away from the important business of churning out highly profitable Model Ts.

In a bid to circumnavigate the objections of his fellow directors, Henry Ford partnered with his son, Edsel, to form a new company called Henry Ford and Son, a name that was soon condensed to Fordson, and so the legend was born.

First Fordson design from Michigan
An overview of the first Fordson

Ford may have revolutionised car production, but he had come too late to the party as far as tractors were concerned, and there was already a great deal of competition in the market.

A lighter machine for the fields

The design of the Fordson reflected much of what was happening elsewhere in the tractor world.

Farmers were begging for a mechanical horse rather than the cumbersome, and prohibitively expensive, land tugs being produced by companies still gripped by a steam engine mindset.

Whiting was one company that had answered this call although the Bull was hardly featherweight. Waterloo Tractors was another that had taken a lot of metal out of the machine to produce a practical tractor that actually worked.

whiting bull tractor
12 of these Whiting Bull Tractors were said to have found their way to Ireland

One of the most notable design features of the Fordson was the use of the engine block as a chassis, doing away with the engine and frame concept which had dominated petrol-powered tractors up until then.

This was nothing really new as traction engines relied on the boiler to hold front and back together and Wallis had pioneered the concept on tractors with its Cub model of 1914.

It was not the US that was the first to benefit from this new tractor, that honour fell to Britain which ordered 6,000 of the new tractors in 1917, although only 3,600 hard arrived by March 1918, when they would be most wanted for spring ploughing.

Cutting out the middleman

Machines were only released onto the American market in April 1918 and they were not distributed through the usual dealership channels.

Instead, they were allocated by County War Boards with potential customers first having to secure a permit before being allowed to purchase one.

This raised many hackles, not least from machinery dealers who were still expected to service the tractors.

Cork Built Fordson
This early Cork-built Fordson was kept in excellent condition by Michael Fahy of Co. Tipperary

Other complaints came via the agricultural press with one magazine noting that Ford had promised the cost to be $250 each, yet the eventual price was $750.

Meanwhile, farmers had held off buying competing machines in anticipation of the much cheaper Fordson, which wasn't quite so cheap after all.

The manufacturing cost for each tractor is recorded as being $567.14, yet Henry Ford would claim that he sold them at cost to help the war effort, despite his avowed pacifist beliefs.

Thanks to mass production methods which enabled the assembly of 750 tractors/ day by 1924, the Fordson soon came to dominate the American landscape.

It was estimated that it took just 30h 40m to produce one tractor from raw materials to finished product, each containing around 4,000 parts in total.

Major problems

Yet it was not all sunshine and endless sales. The Fordson quickly gained a reputation for two major faults.

The first of these was the lack of a water pump which caused the engine to overheat, a problem that could be easily remedied at the factory if the company had so wished.

Dagenham fordson in fields
The Fordson once more came to the rescue during wartime. These British Land Army girls are bringing beet in from the fields, 1944

The second was a good deal more serious, and that was the tendency for it rear up and flip over backwards if encountering a hidden obstruction to the plough in the fields. One estimate put the total deaths in America due to this issue at 136 by 1922.

The problem lay in the worm gear in the transmission which lay above the line of the rear axle. This meant that should the rear wheels stop turning, the screw would rotate the tractor around the axle instead.

This problem was not confined to the Fordson by any means.

There was one tractor dealer and wartime instructor who was so concerned by this problem that he set about designing an altogether better method of hitching a plough, his name was Harry Ferguson.

Directors get their way

Just as Ferguson was patenting his three-point linkage in 1925, sales of the Fordson in America were declining.

The major reason being the advent of strong competition in the form of McCormick Deering, J.I. Case, John Deere and the innovative International Farmall.

The board of directors at Ford were still not well disposed to tractor production and so it was halted in America, although it was still manufactured at Cork and Dagenham for many years afterwards.