Strange as it may now seem, four-wheel drive in the Ireland and the UK was often considered an unnecessary gimmick – right up until the early eighties.
Even when its virtues were reluctantly being recognised it was only considered worthwhile on tractors of 100hp or more.
Operator error – apparently
If anything of lesser power was suffering traction issues then it was simply a matter of judicious use of the diff lock and topping the tyres up with water, or so we were told by the manufactures.
Quite why this situation lingered into the age of what we might term modern tractors, is open to debate, after all, the concept of traction was well understood and its principles championed by Harry Ferguson and his three-point linkage.
Not that four-wheel drive wasn’t available; there were several conversion specialists willing to adapt the standard factory model, County and Roadless being the most well known.
The forestry sector had also embraced the idea, the ubiquitous Unimog from German and Latil from France being often found hauling timber through the woods in Germany and France.
Meanwhile, ex army Matadors that may well have served with Montgomery in North Africa were considered quite appropriate for the task in the UK.
The Unimog was a purpose designed multi-purpose tractor, the Latil was never quite sure whether to be a tractor or a truck while the Matador was something that just happened to fulfil a specific need.
Behind the curtain
We might compare this with what was happening in continental Europe, and in Czechoslovakia in particular where Zetor was quietly working on a four-wheel drive versions of it 3011 and 4011 models as far back as the late fifties.
Eventually launched in 1960 as the 3045 and 4045, these advanced tractors provided just 33hp and 45hp apiece, 15-20 years before mainstream Anglo American brands, such as Ford, lowered themselves to offer such a frippery on machines of even four times that power.
There are, I believe, two distinct but interacting reasons why western agriculture went without mainstream four-wheel drive for so long.
The American connection
The first is that the dominant brands had a North American heritage. Ford is the obvious example and the Massey half of Massey Ferguson was Canadian in origin, and it was the part of the company that controlled the company.
Farming the prairies, with the majority of the land work being undertaken when the ground dried out in spring, was a somewhat different ball game to dragging a plough through sodden soil in Northern Europe.
Yet the companies were controlled from America and it was American designers that called the shots.
Ploughs on the prairies left wide, shallow furrows, or the tractors worked on the land, so wide tyres, or dual wheels with plenty of ballast weighing them down was sufficient to transmit the power to the soil.
An ocean apart
Deeper ploughing was required in Europe, the better to bury the trash, which meant ploughs dug deep and narrow, too narrow for a wide tyre, and they would certainly not accept a dual.
Despite this, it was two-wheel drive tractors designed for the American experience that tended to be built and sold over here.
If four-wheel drive was required then County, and others, would sell you an adapted machine at twice the price of a standard one, an arrangement that suited the manufacturers as much as it did the conversion companies.
Assembly lines of the time were purpose built to maximise production. The aim was to get tractors out of the factory gate in the quickest possible time and any sort of sophistication was frowned upon as complicating the business and adding expense.
Sales over suitability
This neatly brings us on to the second reason why it took so long for four wheel drive to establish itself here, the need for large manufacturers to keep their factories busy by pushing sales of machines that may not have been best suited to the farmers needs.
When Henry Ford championed the use of the production line his intention was to create a car that everybody could afford, the key to this laudable aim was standardisation. “Any colour just so long as it’s black” sums up Henry’s production philosophy nicely.
This worked well while the world was adopting independent transport for the individual and there was a huge demand for a device that granted hitherto unimagined liberty to travel.
The same, to a certain extent, applied to the tractor, albeit with a 40 year time lapse.
Reluctant farewell to the horse
Tractors had a slow start in life, their adoption was nowhere near as rapid and universal as that of the car. The car offered something new and industrialisation had put money in people’s pockets.
The tractor, on the hand, was a replacement for an already present method of draught and transport within farming, and there wasn’t always the funds to to invest in mechanical horses, despite the obvious advantages.
It took a world wide war and to shake much of the farming community from this legacy and sales took off from the 1940s onwards.
Feeding the post war world
Tractors were suddenly in demand and so they were churned out as standard items with little choice and very few options, farming was becoming mechanised and just getting many farmers to adapt was an achievement in itself.
This situation lasted until the sixties when the consolidation of holdings and new opportunities in exploiting diesel power were realised, moving the demand from lots of small tractors to fewer, but larger units.
However, the overriding metric that appeared to motivate management was still the number of units sold and two-wheel drive tractors could be made at a lower price.
Thus, cheap tractors equated to more tractors and so the preservation of market share, or so the logic went. Four wheel drive threw something of a spanner in the works as far as the big companies of the west were concerned.
Factories behind the iron curtain had no such constraints and it is probably no accident that it was in the east that four wheel drive first appeared as a serious step in tractor evolution.
Today, here in Europe, two-wheel drive tractors are a novelty and usually only available to special order.
In retrospect, the delay in introducing four wheel drive owes as much to manufacturers primarily catering for the large American two-wheel drive market, and a reluctance to diversify away from this core business, as it does to any engineering constraints.