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.

two wheel drive world war
Two-wheel drive designs answered the immediate demand for tractors after the war

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.

Niche machines

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.

Continent forestry merry
Many smaller companies popped up to offer four wheel drive conversions, such as Merry in 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.

Zetor iron curtauin
The Zetor Five series was introduced in 1967 with four wheel drive as an option

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.

America plough
John Deere offered the two-wheel drive 20 series in the early seventies with 150hp available in the largest model

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.

County tractors
County were happy to fit an equal sized four wheel drive system, at around twice the cost of the standard tractor

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.

Massey Ferguson two wheel drive
In its heyday Banner lane would turn out thousands of basic tractors monthly

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.

Henry ford black
The Fordson tractor tried to emulate the success f the Model T, but it came late to an already established market

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.

Ford tractor 6600
Ford responded to the demand for more power in the early seventies with the Ford 6600 of 75hp

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.

Complete turnaround

Today, here in Europe, two-wheel drive tractors are a novelty and usually only available to special order.

Tractor four wheel drive
Irish farming without four wheel drive is unthinkable nowdays

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.