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Ireland’s greatest transport engineer?

This is the story of Harry Ferguson – often referred to as the King of the Tractor. While tractors are central to his story, they don’t really do justice to the depth of his creativity or the breadth of his ambition. From humble beginnings, he built a global engineering empire, changing the face of automotive machinery across the world. Long after his death, his vision of safe and efficient machines are standardised across the planet.

Ireland’s first pilot.

Harry Ferguson was born in November 1884, near Dromore, Co. Down, to a farming family. In 1902, he began working at his brother’s bicycle and car repair shop, as a mechanic. He developed an interest in motorcycle racing and the new technology of aviation. His interest in aviation was piqued with visits to air shows in Europe at the time, and he convinced his brother to help build an aircraft of Harry’s own design, the Ferguson Monoplane. On New Year’s Eve 1909, Harry made the maiden flight of the plane, and became Ireland’s first pilot.

Over the next year, the plane was flown numerous times, until it crashed on landing. Harry then fell out with his brother over the topic of aviation safety, which led to him quitting his job, and in 1911 starting his first independent venture – selling cars and tractors in Belfast.

The spoils of war

At the outbreak of World War 1, Britain was a net importer of food. German navy forces attempted to blockade British supply routes, so domestic food production was a priority for the British government. This led to two independent developments, that would later come together with significant effect. In the US, Henry Ford, himself from a long line for farmers, was turning his attention to tractors, and by 1916 had a working prototype of the Fordson. Ford struck a deal with the UK government to supply tractors, built both in the US and locally. This led to the establishment of Ford’s first overseas factory, in Cork, Ireland (where Ford’s father and grandparents were from, having emigrated to the US during the Irish famine in the 1840s). Tractor production started in the US in 1917, and in Cork in 1919. Initially, all production went to the British government, but after the war, Ford began to sell to the general public. At the end of the war, Ford had a significant global footprint, a proven tractor model, and a burgeoning reputation on both sides of the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, Harry Ferguson was tasked by the British government to improve farming yields through mechanisation. This led to Harry participating in many demonstration events on the latest tractors, and of course, looking for improvements in their design and use. He was struck by the inefficiency of the towing mechanism for tractors – which at this time was largely an adaption of horse-drawn solutions. Indeed, much of farming still relied on horse-power, so tractors of the day needed to be compatible with the existing farming tools. The inability to accurately control a plough, for example, meant more manual intervention, more trips over the same ground, and ultimately lower yields.

Fig. 1: Ferguson’s plough design, featuring mounting below wheel centre line

Fergusons’ initial response to this is to rigidly mount a plough to a modified Ford Model T, and then a mounting system for a Fordson tractor. He demonstrated this to Henry Ford in 1920 in Cork, and then again in 1921 in Dearborn, Michigan. The design for the tractor had a number of key advantages, such as ploughing depth control by way of a wheel running alongside the plough blades, as well as an attachment architecture to the tractor that meant when the plough struck an obstacle, the tractor didn’t tend to overturn (as was the case with contemporary solutions). Ford had tried to buy the designs, and employ Ferguson, but Ferguson wanted a partnership. The meetings didn’t yield a result for either party.

Fig. 2: Harry Ferguson demonstrating his plough mechanism

He gained a number of patents for this mechanism of attaching ploughs to tractors, and added more design complexity as he went. By 1925, he perfected a three-point mechanism, which allowed for automatic control of plough operation, rapid changing of equipment, a hoist mechanism to raise the plough when needed, and crucially, used the weight of the tractor to control the plough directly, meaning a smaller, lighter and cheaper tractor could be used – meaning a much wider potential audience, and less damage to soil from the machine’s weight.

Fergusons’ first tractor

By now, Ferguson was selling plough equipment according to his designs, and started working on a design of tractor to accommodate his new hitch mechanism. He eventually struck a deal with David Brown Inc, to produce a tractor with the Ferguson System – the three point mount. As well as this, the tractor featured individual wheel brakes, with independent foot controls, to allow for sharp turns. This entered production in 1936, and was sold as the Ferguson Brown Type A, along with a variety of attachments, the Ferguson System.

The tractor didn’t sell well, struggling to convince farmers to invest in the new system, compared with lower priced, conventional alternatives. This commercial failure strained the relationship between Brown and Ferguson, and by 1938, their relationship had reached an end.

In the meantime, Ferguson, through business partners in the US, had arranged another meeting with Henry Ford, where he could demonstrate the new three-point mount. Clearly impressed, Ford again tried to buy the designs, but Ferguson wouldn’t sell. In the end, both men agreed to a partnership – a gentlemen’s handshake sealing a deal which would see Ferguson responsible for design and distribution, and Ford for production. From this partnership, the Fordson 9N entered production in 1939, and proved to be a significant success for both.

Fig 3: A Ford 9N, featuring the Ferguson system

The new tractor featured the 3-point mount system, as well as a Power Take Off – a mechanism for powering trailer objects from the tractor engine. Ferguson had patented a gearbox for achieving this extra drive in 1935, and this system went into large scale production on the Ford 9N. This design led to Ferguson’s interest in gearbox design, and he would eventually come back to the subject later.

Fig. 4: Ferguson’s patent for a gearbox with PTO

Ferguson/Ford fall out

The relationship between Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson was seemingly cordial and based on mutual respect – both had similar backgrounds and upbringings. Ford had given sales rights to the tractor entirely to Ferguson, and design rights for the tractor rested mainly with Ferguson. After the second World War, Harry Ferguson returned to England, looking to find a manufacturing site for the 9N. This lead to him taking over a vacant factory in Coventry, UK, and launching the Ferguson TE20 in partnership with the Standard Motor Company. The design was almost identical to the 9N, save for the engine, and of course could be used with Fergusons’ range of accessories. This gave Ferguson an international footprint, as well as market access across the globe. The TE20 even found it’s way to the South Pole, being part of Edmund Hillary’s expedition in the 1950s -the first vehicle to be driven on the continent. Today, the TE20 is the basis for the kids TV character, the little grey Fergie.

Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, Aoraki-Mt Cook National Park
Fig. 5: An example of Hillary’s expedition vehicles – photo from Travolution360, used under CC license

In 1947, Henry Ford died, and control of the Ford empire passed to his grandson, Henry Ford (Jnr). This lead to a reset of the relationship, as Ford was unhappy with the relative financial outcomes of the partnership. Ford set up a rival distribution company, and launched a new product, the 8N, in late 1947, effectively freezing Ferguson out. However, the patent rights still rested with Ferguson – and so a fairly significant lawsuit was launched. Ferguson sued for over $200 million, roughly 3 times the worth of the Ford company at that time. The case rumbled along for a number of years, during which time Ferguson was producing and selling the TE20 in the US, and making some progress. In 1952, the case was settled out of court for $9 million.

The advent of Massey-Ferguson

After the failure of the Ford partnership, Ferguson was keen to find a buyer for his US tractor interests. He began discussions with the Massey-Harris company of Canada, and in 1953 a deal was struck to merge both companies, creating the Massey-Harris-Ferguson company – which was eventually rebranded to Massey-Ferguson. Ferguson retained the UK operation, and the design team in Coventry. The relationship didn’t prosper, as the company sold tractors under the Ferguson brand as well as the Massey-Harris brand, using two separate dealer networks, as well as two design teams across the Atlantic. Ferguson was seemingly unhappy with his lack of design control, and resigned in 1954, a year after the merger. He was offered a settlement of $15 million, but barred from selling tractors for 5 years.

4WD cars and anti-lock brakes – the Ferguson Formula

Ferguson had started an automotive research and development company in 1950, and now he found himself with a significant amount of capital, but no pressing agricultural business to attend to. Instead, he devoted his time to an experimental car design, eventually showcasing his work in the Ferguson R5. This featured a 4WD system, anti-lock brakes – both new to road cars, as well as an automatic transmission and electric windows. The brake system incorporated a mechanical ABS system popular on aeroplanes of the day – the Dunlop Maxaret system. This system incorporates a drum and flywheel. The drum is rigidly attached to the wheel, and the flywheel is mounted via a one-way clutch. If the wheel skids, the drum will stop rotating, relative to the flywheel. Once the difference reaches 60 degrees, a brake by-pass valve opens, releasing brake pressure back to the reservoir.

Ferguson was motivated to improve vehicle design to make it safer and more predictable in wet or slippery conditions, and his expertise in off-road vehicles came to the fore. He wanted to produce a vehicle that was cheap and reliable, and priced within reach of every working family. This was very much how his designs for tractors had resulted in smaller, safer tractors being within reach of many small-hold farms and reaching such widespread acclaim.

Ferguson wanted to bring the car into production, but couldn’t find anyone to take on the task. So, as a way of demonstrating the technology, he set about building a Formula 1 car, which would showcase the benefits of his technology. The result was the Ferguson P99, which was entered into the 1961 season. Unfortunately, Ferguson passed away in winter 1960, and so never saw the vehicle race.

Fig 6: A cut-away view showing the inboard brakes, off-set driveline, and front engine layout

Posthumous racing success

1961 also saw a change in F1 rules, switching from 3L engines to 1.5L engines. This meant that there was less power and torque available, and the added weight of a 4WD system was less of an advantage than assumed. The cars could easily cope with the engine power in dry conditions, so the car was not successful. However, at the British GP that year, despite it being held in July, torrential rain appeared. Stirling Moss was racing a Lotus in the race, but brake failure left him without a ride, and so, midway through the race, his teammate brought the P99 into the pits, and Moss took over the controls. He didn’t finish the race, due to an earlier infringement, but was impressed by the handling in the wet. At the International Gold Cup event in September, held near Chester in the UK, rain again dominated. As the race didn’t offer championship points, Stirling Moss drove the P99 to victory – the first and only F1 victory for a 4WD car. Moss was quite taken with the car, and named it his favourite ever race car.

The 4WD system continued to be offer to race teams under the FF moniker (Ferguson Formula). The P99 went on to be raced in Indycar and Hill Climb events, and the FF layout was used by a number of F1 teams throughout the 1960s. It also found it’s way into the Jensen FF, launched in 1965 – the first road car with anti-lock brakes. While the FF was not a significant success for Jensen, it previewed larger commercial success for the system, eventually reaching mass production with the AMC Eagle.

Jensen FF Series 2
Fig. 7: Jensen FF Series 2 – photo by Brian Snelson, used under CC license

In terms of vehicle engineering, Ferguson left a significant legacy. His designs for agricultural equipment remain the standard across the globe, meaning his vision for safe, efficient and productive farming has benefited generations across the world. The combination of business acumen with hands-on experience meant he was able to see problems, envision solutions, and find a path to production in short order. He believed that mechanisation of farming was a way to dramatically increase yield, and ultimately reduce poverty and hunger.

For road vehicles, it is clear his vision for traction and stability was ahead of its time. The fundamentals of cheap and reliable all-wheel drive became commonplace 3 decades after he began experimenting with it, and today his ideas on better braking are a legal requirement in most markets across the globe.

Fig. 8: A Massey Ferguson featuring the Ferguson System – Image by gillesbertin from Pixabay