The Ferguson ‘A’, “Anything short of concrete”


World famous for their farm implement range Massey-Harris had expanded into tractor production through the acquisition in 1928 of the JI Case Plow Works Co who held the rights to the ‘WALLIS’ tractor. (A version of this machine had been built in the UK by Ruston and Hornsby and marketed as the ‘BRITISH WALLIS’.)

While the demonstration Harry Ferguson gave for the Massey-Harris executives was impressive, no manufacturing agreement resulted. But then, this was the autumn of 1932.

Tullylagen Manor, home of Mr McGregor Greer, Photo: G. Field

One of the fields at Tulllagen Manor where early Ferguson developments were tsted including the ‘Black’ tractor. Photo – G. Field

Not long after this, construction of the Ferguson prototype (popularly known as the ‘BLACK TRACTOR’) was completed. To evaluate the design a series of field tests commenced, one of the locations chosen being Thomas McGregor Greer’s Tullylagen Manor es­tate near Cookstown, Co Tyrone in Northern Ireland. Here a field well away from the public gaze was used to enable the testing to take place in secret. It subsequently became the best known secret in the district! Joe Warnock, a neighbour of Greer’s, would drive the tractor leaving Harry and his right-hand man Willy Sands free to concentrate on engineering matters.

All this activity at Tullylagen inter­ested a young Cookstown man called Robert McGucken. As well as being good friends of the Warnocks the McGuckens owned the MOC Garage Co and a franchise for ‘Austin’ cars. (MOC Garages occupied premises in Magherafelt, Omagh and Cookstown, the initial of each town forming the com­pany name.) Not surprisingly Robert had little difficulty in gaining access to the test site. Here he found that a small corrugated iron shed had been erected to serve as a field workshop and provide shelter from inclement weather. During this visit Robert enjoyed a long conversation with Willy Sands on the fu­ture of mechanised farming – outside the workshop!

In the spring of 1933 Harry Fer­guson held a number of public demonstrations using the prototype ‘Black’ tractor. While some refused to take the new machinery seriously others realised its potential. Two of those who did were Hugh Minford. MP for Antrim and Rowley Elliot, MP for South Tyrone. During the second reading of the Agricultural Marketing Bill at Stor­mont, Minford and Elliot spoke highly of the new farm machinery. Rowley Elliot pointed out that of all the food consumed in the UK. only three-sevenths was ac­tually produced by British farmers. He believed that if the new machinery were to be made in Northern Ireland. it would not only help farmers but increase employment as well.

Not all of those in the Northern Ireland House of Commons shared this view however. The then Minister of Agriculture, Sir Edward Archdale, ex­pressed concern that the machinery might not be suitable for small farms. “It will do a garden .• retorted Hugh Min­ford. Rowley Elliot then extended an invitation to the NI government to attend a demonstration this being accepted by the Minister of Labour, Mr Andrews.

Sadly a tractor factory in Ulster (the six counties of Northern Ireland) never became a reality and three years passed before the design entered production in England at a Huddersfield gear factory. This resulted from a manufacturing agreement between Harry Ferguson and David Brown and Sons. Put simply, Browns were to build the tractor. Ferguson would sell it.

Throughout 1936 the Ferguson A (Ferguson-Brown) was demonstrated all over Ulster including Ballyclare, Ander­sontown, Armagh and the Agricultural Research Institute at Hillsborough. At each demonstration an unidentified ‘spectator’ would ask Harry Ferguson the same question: “ls there anything it cannot plough? “Anything short of con­crete!” Ferguson would reply.

Despite all this, sales of the new tractor could hardly be described as spectacular. It was apparent that farmers were still loyal to the horse and this was not going to change overnight. A demonstration held at Ardtrea near Cookstown in early 1937 illustrates this point. As the day progressed it was suggested to the farmer who owned the land that he should buy the tractor. He was aghast. “Me! Buy a tractor! The weight of that thing’lI pack the land. No – give me a horse any day. (Harry Fer­guson 0 – ‘Dobbin’ 1)

In August 1937 Robert McGucken decided to buy another tractor for the agricultural contracting business he had started. This he mentioned to Harry Ferguson during a visit to Belfast. Not one to miss an opportunity for good publicity and knowing that at least this time he was sure of a buyer, Harry of­fered to stage a demonstration. A suitable field was found adjacent to the Lissan road near Cookstown, Co Tyrone. The tractor selected, serial no. 307. driven by Joe Warnock, opened the demonstration with a Fer­guson ‘B’ type two furrow plough while Harry Ferguson addressed the crowd. A fter ploughing a few rounds. (’bouts’ to ploughmen), Joe turned to the spec­tators and picked out a young man, a certain Rankin Faulkner. On mounting the tractor. Rankin was given verbal in­structions what to do and, moments later, moved off ploughing two furrows with apparent ease. To this day Rankin modestly maintains that his efforts were not exactly world class but, in view of the circumstances, he did very well indeed.
Ferguson ‘A’ No. 307 referred to in Leslie Hutchinson’s article. Note that the oil filter over the magneto coupling is not original equipment. This one was fitted in the late 1950s during an overhaul by a garage in Magherafelt. Taken at the County Armagh Vintage Vehicles Club Rally at Markerhall1989.

Even the sceptics had to admit that this was an amazing feat. Joe War­nock’s choice was certainly not made an random for the Faulkner family owned a successful electrical business in the town and as such were known far and wide. Thus, no-one could accuse Fer­guson of cheating by using one of his own employees. The point of the exer­cise did not go unnoticed. If a novice could use this machine just think what an experienced farmer could do with it. At the end of the demonstration it was an­nounced that the tractor had been sold to, surprise, surprise. Mr Robert McGucken. The farmers went home with much food for thought and their sons very disappointed that they had not been picked to drive the tractor!

Tractor no. 307, registered as vehicle JI 7674 on September 2nd 1937, was shortly engaged on its first job, binding oats. When Robert and his young helper arrived at the customer’s farm they found harvesting already in progress in an adjacent field, also oats. It so happened that on this occa­sion the binder was being pulled by a tractor bigger, heavier and more powerful than the diminutive type ‘A’. On seeing the new arrivals the driver stopped work and, walking over to the hedge, exclaimed: “You’re surely not going to try and pull a binder with that thing? Laughing loudly he turned and walked back to his own machine. Such sarcasm had a profound effect on our duo. As Robert McGucken recalled: “That day we pulled out all the stops. The light weight of our little tractor made it very easy to manoeuvre. Even though my helper had only recently left school he found the steering no problem. By the end of the day Robert and his young assistant had finished work and were driving out of the field. The other tractor was still working. even though both fields were about the same size.

In September 1939 Robert McGucken sold his machinery and volunteered for the Royal Air Force. Although tractor 307 has had succes­sive owners it still exists and is now owned by Ferguson Club member Mr Noel Greer of Markethill, Co Armagh in whose capable hands it has been re­stored. No doubt we shall be seeing a lot more of it at future vintage tractor events.
Fifty seven years later the Black’returns to the farming scene on the Ferguson Club exhibition on the Massey-Ferguson stand at the 1989 Royal Show. Dickdowdeswell, long time Ferguson test engineer, stands at the front of tractor.

Photo courtesy Roger Thulbourne

© Leslie Hutchinson (no 166) – 1990 – First published Vol.4 No.1, Spring 1990