The Ferguson System from Vol.1 No.1 & No.2

Reproduced from the Ferguson Club Journal No.1 Autumn 1986

The Club is pleased to reproduce over several issues The Ferguson Story as written by Michael Williams in his book British Tractors, Published by Blandford Press Ltd. Details of this book and similar publications are available from Blandford Press Ltd. Link House, West Street, Poole, Dorset.


Most of the tractors in use throughout the world have features developed originally by Harry Ferguson. He and his team made an immense contribution to improving the efficiency of farm mechanization, and he also established a highly successful commercial empire.

The success story had a modest beginning on a farm in what is now Northern Ireland, where Harry Ferguson was born on 4th November 1884. The family farm at Growell, County Down, was about a hundred acres, larger than the average in the area but too small to provide more than a fairly simple home.

Living and working on the family farm probably helped Harry Ferguson in his later career, although the toil and routine of a farm worked with horses and manpower were not to his liking. Another factor in his childhood was the austerely religious way of life which his father imposed on the family, and against which Harry increasingly rebelled. Before his eighteenth birthday he decided to leave home to find a way of life away from the farm, He was offered an opportunity to join an elder brother in a garage business he was building up in Belfast. Harry welcomed the idea, which suited his interest in cars and engines.

The garage prospered and built up a good reputation, helped considerably by Harry’s talent for tuning the unreliable engines in use at that time. The business also benefited from his racing success with motor cycles, which was exploited to the full for publicity for the garage.

Another of his early talents, and an outlet for his mechanical aptitude, was aircraft design. When Ferguson first joined his brother’s business in 1902 they were operating on a tight budget. By 1908 there was sufficient money to finance Ferguson’s ambition to design and fly his own aircraft. After numerous failures he made his first flight in December 1909. This was the first time an aircraft had flown in Ireland, and Harry Ferguson was the first person in Britain to design, build and fly his own aircraft. More flights followed, and he might have considered making his career with aircraft, but in 1911 his energies were diverted to making a success of a garage business of his own after breaking away from his brother.

The new garage business included the agency for Vauxhall cars, and Harry Ferguson achieved a good deal of local publicity with Vauxhall on the racing track. Much later, in the 1920’s, he became a leading figure in the campaign to establish a major motor sport event in Northern Ireland. His influence and energy played an important part in starting the famous Ulster Tourist Trophy races in 1928. These attracted some of the most famous cars and drivers in the world to Northern Ireland, drawn by the prestige of the Ards circuit.

Harry Ferguson’s interest in farm mechanization developed during World War 1. Tractors had suddenly become important as the key to increasing food production, and the government launched a ploughing campaign to turn large areas of pasture into more productive arable land. Imported American tractors played a major part in the campaign and the Ferguson garage held the agency for the ‘Overtime’. This was the British name for one of the American imports, a sturdily built and reasonable reliable tractor which became popular in Britain.

Harry Ferguson relied on demonstrations to overcome some of the sales resistance to the tractor, and these were usually carried out with a plough. His activities with the Over­time were noticed by the Irish Board of Agriculture, and in 1917 he was asked to help to improve the standard of tractor operation on Irish farms. Many of the tractors were difficult to use, especially with inexperienced operators and with implements designed originally for use with horses. This work took Ferguson and a talented engineer from his garage who was called William Sands, to many farms where tractors were in use, where they explained and demonstrated how to get the best from the equipment.

What he saw on his travels convinced Ferguson that there must be a more efficient way to use tractor power in the field, and he set to work on the problem. His first approach was to design a plough with a low draft requirement, light in weight, and with an ingenious arrangement of springs to help the tractor driver to raise it out of work. The plough was designed to hitch so closely behind the tractor that depth wheels would not be needed. The plough hitch point was beneath the tractor and ahead of the rear axle, so that the pull on the plough helped to stabilize the tractor and improve the grip of the rear wheels.

With so much variation in tractor dimensions, draw bar positions and power, Ferguson decided to make the plough suitable for one make of tractor. He chose the ‘Eros’, which was a tractor conversion for the Ford Model T car. The kit was made by the E.G. Staude Manufacturing Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, and was one of several conversion kits made for the Model T.

The plough went into production, to be sold as the ‘Belfast’. It attracted some interest and favourable comments on its unusual design, but it failed commercially because Henry Ford’s new Fordson tractors were arriving in large numbers from America. The Fordson put conversions of the Eros type out of business, and with them went the sales potential for the Ferguson plough.

A new plough was designed specifically for the Fordson. This version was also designed to work without a depth wheel. The hitch arrangement consisted of two sets of struts, arranged to keep the plough in work and also to transfer shock loadings on the plough as a downward force at the front of the tractor to prevent the danger of overturning. The struts were the forerunner of a three-point linkage, and were known as the Duplex hitch.

The new plough took Ferguson to the United States where he formed a joint company with the Sherman brothers of Evansville, New York State, to manufacture an improved version of the plough for the American market. Meanwhile development work on the hitch design continued, and in 1928 a hydraulic system for operating the draft control principle was tried as an alternative to a mechanical design. In the same year it was announced that production of Fordson tractors would be transferred from America to Ireland, and this led to the collapse of the Ferguson-Sherman plough business in America.

Fortunately Ferguson was strong enough financially to survive the American setback, and to continue his development work. The Duplex hitch was replaced by a series of experimental arrangements of converging links and systems of three linkage points.

With the Ferguson System on the way towards completion efforts were made to find a manufacturer to put it into production. In his book Harry Ferguson Inventor and Pioneer (published by John Murray) Colin Fraser cites some unexpected names among the companies which were possible partners for Ferguson at that stage. Some of the ship­building companies in Northern Ireland were approached, because they had the spare capacity at the time and because of Harry Ferguson’s hope of building the tractor in Ulster. In America Allis-Chalmers took out an option on some of Ferguson’s patents, and in Britain the Rover car company looked closely at the Ferguson System as a possible way into the tractor market. Ransomes and Rapier of Ipswich and the Rushton tractor company also showed interest, as did Morris Motors of Oxford.

As more companies proved unwilling or unable to find the resources to put the Ferguson ideas into production, it became clear that the advantages would have to be demonstrated. In order to carry out a demonstration, a tractor incorporating the Ferguson patents was designed and built by the team, and was finished in 1933 with a coat of gloss black paint. It became known as the ‘Black Tractor’, and deserves its place in the Science Museum, London, as the tractor which brought the Ferguson System into the world.

The Ferguson Black Tractor – now preserved in the Science Museum, London

The Black Tractor was powered by a Hercules engine from America, producing 18 hp. At the rear of the tractor was an almost complete Ferguson System, with the linkage in its now familiar arrangement of single upper point and two lower arms. The single top arm of the linkage was used, after some trial and error, to actuate the hydraulics of the draft control system using compression forces coming up from the implement.

Some of the components for the Black Tractor, including the gears, were supplied by the David Brown company of Huddersfield. This established a contact between Harry Ferguson and the company, which led in 1935 to the manufacturing agreement Ferguson had been seeking. The manufacturer was David Brown Tractors, which occupied space in premises belonging to the gear company. The marketing company was controlled by Harry Ferguson and his backers. The product was a Ferguson tractor, often referred to as the ‘Ferguson-Brown.
Ferguson Tractors in the David Brown assembly plant in 1937

New Ferguson tractors started to arrive at the end of the Huddersfield production line in 1936. Demonstrations, organized with the precise Ferguson eye for detail, were arranged to show the advantages of the tractor, but sales were slow. There was resistance to the price, which at £224 was almost twice the cost of a Fordson. To buy a Ferguson meant additional expense for the special implements required, whereas a Fordson would probably suit the existing equipment on the farm.

The paint finish for the tractors was grey, and this remained the standard colour for Ferguson tractors until the Massey- Harris red took over. Styling was obviously based on the Black Tractor, but in the production model the engines were an 18-20 hp. Coventry Climax E in the first five hundred tractors, and a David Brown engine of 2010 cc for the rest of the production run. The gear box had three forward ratios and a reverse.

In order to encourage sales a special training school was set up by Harry Ferguson, The aim was to improve the standards of servicing and operation of the tractors to en­sure that their performance was up to standard.

As the sales position remained disappointing relations between the Ferguson team and those at David Brown began to deteriorate. The tractor sold reasonably well in parts of Scandinavia and in Scotland, where its special advantages were most useful, but in spite of this stocks of unsold tractors began to accumulate at the factory, bringing cash-flow problems. There was some argument about teething troubles on the design and manu­facture of the tractors, and disagreement between David Brown and Ferguson over changing the design.

David Brown (now Sir David) believed a more powerful engine and a fourth forward ratio in the gearbox would help to make the tractor more saleable. Ferguson, who found it hard to work harmoniously with any of his business partners, insisted that his original design was right and refused to agree to any changes.

Relations became even more strained after David Brown announced that he was briefing a design team from his company staff to work out the details for a tractor incorporating the improvements he considered necessary. Then in 1938 Harry Ferguson arranged to send a Ferguson tractor and implements to the United States. Through Eber Sherman, his former business partner in America, contact had been re-established with Henry Ford, and the tractor on its way to America was to be demonstrated to him.

The demonstration took place in Autumn 1938, apparently without the knowledge of David Brown. The ‘Ferguson Brown’ showed its advantages, under the supervision of Harry Ferguson and Ford was suitably impressed. That same day Ferguson and Ford shook hands on an agreement to work together to produce a new Ferguson System tractor. The agreement, involving millions of dollars of Ford money and the patents which were Ferguson’s life’s work, were never witnessed or written down.

Ferguson-Brown Tractor

Technical Notes: Ferguson Brown Tractor V1. No.1

Text reproduced from the Ferguson Club Journal Volume 1. No. 1 Autumn 1986.

THE FERGUSON SYSTEM Volume 1 No.2,  Continued from Volume 1 No 1

Meanwhile back in Yorkshire the partnership between David Brown and Harry Ferguson ended in January 1939 in complete discord. Fortunately for the David Brown company – and for the future of the British tractor industry – the David Brown plans for a new tractor with more power were already well advanced, and in spite of some disappoint­ments with the old Ferguson tractor, David Brown decided to stay in the tractor business after the break with Ferguson.

The new David Brown tractor – the first to carry the company’s name – was launched in July 1939. The new Ford tractor, resulting from the agreement with Ferguson, was launched at the end of June 1939 in America. The Ford tractor was called the 9N, the David Brown was the V AK 1.

Although the 9N was a Ferguson System tractor it was completely different in design and styling to the Ferguson-Brown. It is an extraordinary tribute to Henry Ford, and the re­sources he controlled, that only eight months passed between the first Ferguson-Brown demonstration in America, and the huge public demonstration of the new 9N.

Ferguson/Ford 9N, Coldridge Collection

Harry Ferguson and Henry Ford both shared a conviction that the new tractor had a vital role to play in the mechanization of world farming. This was to be a major contribution to improving the efficiency of food production and raising the living standards of farmers. To help achieve this objective the price of the 9N was to be kept within the financial reach of as many farmers as possible.

Production of the 9N tractor continued through the war years, with output rising in several years above the 40,000 mark, and the tractor made a big impact in the American market. Meanwhile in Britain Ferguson was again making determined efforts to find a manufacturer to make a tractor to his design. He had expected that the British end of the Ford empire would be ready to adopt his ideas, but this did not materialize. The Fordson tractor was in volume production and was well accepted by British farmers, It would have been difficult to introduce a new model under wartime conditions, and there is little evidence that the directors of Ford in England were enthusiastic about Ferguson or his ideas.

Since Ford – his first hope for a British partner – was a non-starter as far as any deal was concerned, Harry Ferguson looked for an alternative. His search ended soon after the war when reached an agreement with Sir John Black, then managing director of the Standard Motor Company, to manufacture a new tractor in Coventry. The Standard Company, now absorbed anonymously into the British Leyland organization, had spare factory capacity available at Banner. Lane, where the company had been producing air­craft engines for the war effort.

Ferguson’s determination and high-level contacts won through in the campaign to obtain steel allocations for the new tractor, and also the release of scarce dollars to pay for an American engine until a British alternative became available.

The legal proceedings were complicated by the informal nature of the original handshake agreement on which the tractor production and marketing arrangements had been based. They were also prolonged by Ferguson’s unwillingness to accept an out-of-court settlement. The proceedings dragged on for more than four years, during which Ferguson tended to gain public sympathy as the (relatively) small businessman confronted by the vast Ford organization. At the same time there was strong demand for tractors, and Ferguson’s business interests appeared to be prospering as production of the ‘Fergie’ increased. This was hardly helpful to his claim to have been so seriously damaged by the formation of Dearborn Motors.

Harry Ferguson eventually agreed to a settlement in 1952. He accepted a judgment for payment of $9.25 million by Ford to cover the royalties on his patents, plus an agree­ment by Ford to stop using some patented features on the 8N. The claim for compen­sation for damages to his company by the changed tractor marketing arrangements was dismissed. The verdict was not the great victory Ferguson had hoped for, although it was interpreted as such. The net amount received by Ferguson and his interests was fairly modest after legal costs, amounting to more than $3 million, had been paid.

The former farm boy from Ireland now owned a Rolls-Royce and a magnificent country house in the Cotswolds. The Ferguson System was making a significant contribution to the efficiency of farm mechanization, and the advantages of the ideas Ferguson had worked so hard to develop and promote were no longer in doubt. The rewards Ferguson earned from the commercial development of his ideas were considerable, but they might easily have been much greater. One of the limiting factors on the profits earned by his companies was Harry Ferguson’s policy of holding down his selling prices in a personal campaign to check inflation. This was a cause he believed in and promoted with great enthusiasm and little support. He applied the principles to his own business and he en­couraged others to follow his example. He paid for advertising space in the national press to explain his views, and wrote numerous letters to politicians in an attempt to obtain government support. He also provided a substantial cash prize to be awarded for the best contribution to putting his ideas into practice.

The Ferguson formula for economic reform was to introduce a policy of price reduction. This was the key to breaking the spirals of cost and wage inflation. With prices no longer increasing, wages could be pegged so that increased income could be achieved only through promotion of higher productivity. Profits must also be restricted, with excess profits being invested for improved efficiency.

In the years around 1950, when the Ferguson economic theories were promoted most vigorously, Britain was struggling with an annual inflation rate of’ about 5 per cent. Ferguson predicted that the rate of inflation would increase disastrously if it was not brought under control by the method he advocated, and the result would be serious unemployment and encouragement to the spread of Communism. Since then, as successive governments have failed to cope with inflation, Ferguson’s credo has not been disproved, and his assessment appears increasingly relevant.

Soon after the lawsuit with the Ford organization had ended Harry Ferguson entered the final phase of his career as a leading figure in the world tractor industry. The new venture appears to have developed after his American company, based in Detroit, face increasing financial difficulties.

By the end of 1946 the first of the famous TE20 Fergusons were emerging from the Banner Lane production line. They were powered by a Continental engine imported from America, which was an overhead-valve design developing 23.9 belt hp as a maximum, but rated at 20.3 bhp. The engine capacity was 1966 cc, with four cylinders, operating on petrol. Importing this engine had been a controversial move, given official approval only because the expenditure of dollars involved would help to get the Ferguson tractor into production and into export markets more quickly. The replacement engine from Standard became available in 1948, and this was also a four cylinder design, developing about the same power at the Continental, but with slightly smaller capacity at 1850 cc.

Ferguson TE20 Continental, Coldridge Collection

Much of the design of the new tractor was obviously influenced by the Ford 9N, but the TE20 used a gearbox with four forward ratios, instead of the three Ferguson had chosen for the 9N and the old Ferguson-Brown tractors.

The launch of the TE tractor in England was good news for Ferguson, but 1946 also brought him bad news from America, where his agreement with Ford over the 9N tractor was beginning to crumble. Henry Ford II, now in charge of the huge company, was not satisfied with the old marketing arrangement which allowed Ferguson control over the tractor marketing organization. By the end of 1946 the discontent of the Ford side was becoming obvious, and it led to a new company being formed by Ford to take over the tractor marketing. This new arrangement was to become effective in July 1947, when the Ferguson organization in America would no longer have a tractor to handle.

July 1947, dealt a further blow to the Ferguson interest when Ford announced a new tractor, the 8N, to replace the 9N which went out of production. The new tractor, designed by Ford engineers, was equipped with a full Ferguson System linkage and hydraulics. The tractor was based on its predecessor, with similar styling, but the old three-speed gearbox was replaced with a new box giving four ratios and a reverse.

One of the results of these developments was a crisis for Ferguson’s American company, as the dealers they once supplied signed up with the new Ford marketing company, called Dearborn Motors. Efforts were made to find a factory and some financial backing to enable Ferguson System tractors to go into production in America under Ferguson’s control. Eventually production of an American version of the TE20 was arranged in a factory in Detroit. This tractor known as the T020, used Continental engines similar to those which had been imported to start the TE production line in Coventry. Later an improved version, the T030, was introduced from the Detroit factory, and sales topped 30,000 units in 1951 and in 1952. In both years total production of Fergusons in Coventry and Detroit exceeded 100,000 tractors.

Another result of the action by the Ford Company was the famous lawsuit in which Harry Ferguson and his companies claimed damages from the Ford Motor Company amounting to $251,000,000. This sum was later increased by a further $90,000,000. Part of the claim was for -compensation for the alleged damage to Ferguson’s interest by the changed distribution arrangements. There was also ·a claim for compensation for what Ferguson alleged was the unauthorized use of his patents in the new 8N tractor.

The answer to the American problem, Ferguson decided, would be to interest Massey­Harris in taking over the Detroit company, Massey-Harris, a Canadian based company, seemed a logical suitor for several reasons. There was already an established contact between Massey-Harris and Ferguson, and although the Canadian company had a highly successful product ranle in farm machinery, this was not matched by their tractors. Massey-Harris had the resources to buy and revitalise the American Ferguson business. the Ferguson business would give them the successful tractors they lacked.

This approach in 1953, failed. The Massey-Harris board decided that the ailing Detroit company on its own could be of only limited value to their international business in­terests. However, it made both sides conscious of the possibilities of some more fundamental link, and an opportunity to discuss this occurred later in 1953 when the Massey-Harris president, James Duncan, visited England to see a demonstration of a new prototype Ferguson tractor.

During this visit Ferguson began the negotiations which provided the basis for a link between the two companies. Agreement was reached for Massey-Harris to buy Fergusons’ interest in his companies for $16 million. Payment was in Massey-Harris shares, and Harry Ferguson became the largest single shareholder in the new group. The agreement provided Ferguson with the honorary position of chairman of the new company, with some executive responsibility for major engineering decisions. It was also agreed that the Ferguson name would be perpetuated in the new company, which was to be called Massey-Harris-Ferguson. This was later shortened to Massey-Ferguson.

The new organization was a logical union of different strengths, but a difficult settling-in period was to elapse before the benefits began to show. During this time important and difficult decisions had to be taken, and as usual Harry Ferguson had strong views which he promoted vigorously. The situation began to deteriorate, and there was probably a serious danger that a rift between Harry Ferguson and the M-H-F board might have soured the already difficult relationships between former Ferguson employees and their Massey-­Harris colleagues. Matters came to a head when Harry Ferguson threatened to resign and to sell his shares in the company. The M-H-F board decided to accept his resignation and to arrange for his shares to be purchased.

In practical terms, that was the end of Harry Ferguson as an active force in the tractor world. But it was certainly not the end of Ferguson as a man of energy and ambition. He turned his attention and his resources to development work for the motor industry. In his company, Harry Ferguson Research Ltd. he had build a strong team to carry out engineering research.

At one stage he seriously considered making a return to tractor development. He believed that the FE35 – the first new tractor launched by Massey-Ferguson – had broken away from his original philosophy of simplicity and economical, functional design. He talked of a new Ferguson tractor which would be based on his ideals, and would continue his ambition to bring the Ferguson System to as many farmers as possible.

The new tractor never materialized, and the response from the car industry to the developments he had produced was disappointing. Harry Ferguson was facing problems of failing health and he could no longer rely on the vigour and forcefulness which helped him to build a commercial empire.

Harry Ferguson died in October 1960. His record of achievement in the tractor industry would be hard to equal, and the evidence of his achievements is to be found on most of the world’s tractors.

Concluded from the Ferguson Club Journal Volume 1. No. 2 Winter 1986/7.

“The Club is pleased to reproduce over several issues The Ferguson Story as written by Michael Williams in his book British Tractors, Published by Blandford Press Ltd. Details of this book and similar publications are available from Blandford Press Ltd. Link House, West Street, Poole, Dorset”