The Little Grey Fergie

An icon of agriculture

There wouldn’t be a person with some knowledge of farming who hasn’t heard of or seen a Ferguson.

It has been an iconic name in world agriculture for more than 70 years. Today the name lives on through the Massey Ferguson brand, behind machines ranging from tractors to planters, seeders, hay equipment and combine harvesters.

Massey Ferguson products now are sold around the world through the larger AGCOcorp, founded in 1990, and which also owns the Challenger and Fendt brands, among others.

Harry Ferguson (above) was the man who started it all.

Henry George “Harry” Ferguson (4 November 1884 – 25 October 1960) was an Irish-born British engineer and inventor.

He was the first person in Ireland to build and fly his own aeroplane and he developed the first four-wheel drive Formula One car, the Ferguson P99.

Harry Ferguson was born at Growell, near Dromore, in County Down. His father,  was a farmer of Scottish descent. In 1902, Ferguson began work as a mechanic with his brother, Joe, in a bicycle and car repair business where he became interested in flying. In 1904, he began to race motorcycles.

His big moment in history, however, was to come with the three-point linkage system for connecting ploughing equipment to tractors.

Getting mobile

Richard Trevithick’s “barn engine” in 1812 set in motion spectacular development for machines that replaced animals as the beast of burden on farms.

The Trevithick engine was a portable steam engine that could be moved around on wheels to attach to a limited variety of machines, such as threshing machines, gristmills, sawmills, pumps and fans in mines and oil wells. But they were not self-propelled.

The desire to give steam engines the ability to move themselves was the spark for development of the traction engine.

The first proper traction engine was developed in 1859 by British engineer Thomas Aveling when he modified a Clayton & Shuttleworth portable engine, which had to be pulled around by horses, into a self-propelled contraption. Aveling fitted a long driving chain between the crankshaft and the rear axle and away he went.

On both sides of the Atlantic the steam powered traction engine was used in agriculture well into the 20th Century.

The combustion engine changed everything. In 1892, in Clayton County, Iowa, American John Froelich invented and built the first gasoline (petrol) powered tractor. But immediate success evaded him; he went out of business three years later.

The idea was picked up in England where Richard Hornsby & Sons were acknowledged as having produced and sold the first oil-engine tractor invented by Herbert Akroyd Stuart.

The Hornsby-Akroyd Patent Safety Oil Traction Engine was made in 1896 with a 20 hp (14.9 kW) engine.

The word “tractor” however was not used in these early days and the machines, even with further refinements in the 1900s, were heavy and slow. They were also restricted in what they could do; pulling ploughs or powering belt driven equipment while remaining stationary.

In 1908 the Saunderson Tractor and Implement Co. of Bedford introduced a four-wheel design and went on to become the largest tractor manufacturer in Britain at the time.

Unpopular at first, these gasoline-powered machines began to catch on after 1910 when they became smaller and more affordable.

Henry Ford introduced the Fordson, the first mass-produced tractor, in 1917. Fordsons were built in the US, Ireland, England and Russia and by 1923 they had three-quarters of the US market. By the 1920s tractors with gasoline-powered internal combustion engines had become the norm.

Rubber tyres were a significant advance, making tractors lighter. After that came developments that still typify tractors today; three-point linkage, hydraulics and power take-off.

Making the link

Harry Ferguson applied for a British patent for his three-point linkage (hitch) in 1926, a method of attaching implements to the tractor that avoided tipping up either the tractor or the implement when working.

In 1930 Ferguson’s design became an international standard that is still the basis for implement attachment on today’s massive farm machines. The operation of the tractor and its implements was known as the Ferguson System.

The Ferguson-Brown Company produced the Model A Ferguson-Brown tractor with a Ferguson-designed hydraulic hitch. In 1938 Ferguson entered into a venture with Henry Ford to produce the Ford-Ferguson 9N tractor. This tractor model also included a rear Power Take Off (PTO) shaft that could be used to power three-point hitch mounted mechanical implements. This became the standard for future tractor operations including hole boring, hay cutting and baling, crop harvesting and fertiliser spreading.

Improvements to tractors were gradual; 20 hp (14.9 kW) was the standard power of engines for years until farm holdings became bigger and more powerful tractors were needed. Large manufacturers emerged in the US and Europe and by the mid 1900s, when the number of tractors in the world passed the number of farm mules and horses, four-wheel-drive (4WD) tractors punching out up to 100 hp (74.6 kW) had appeared. By 1963 manufacturer Steiger was boasting a tractor of 265 hp (197.6 kW) with many other manufacturers offering tractors of 100 hp (74.6 kW) and above.

By the 1980s, 300 hp (223.8 kW) and higher were included in the John Deere and Steiger ranges. Massey Ferguson also was a player in the big tractor market.

The MF 8740 – the largest conventional wheeled tractor MF has produced – now boasts a maximum output of 407 hp (303 kW).

More recently, manufacturers have added tracked drive to their range (instead of tyres) and were boasting 600 hp (447.6 kW) plus.

The United Kingdom Society of Ploughmen set down rules for ploughing records. The quickest confirmed time for ploughing one acre (0.404 ha) is 9 minutes 49.88 seconds set by Joe Langcake at Hornby Hall Farm, Brougham, Penrith, UK, on 21 October 1989. He used a Case IH 7140 Magnum tractor and a Kverneland four-furrow plough. A Massey Ferguson 820 tractor is credited with having ploughed 1,500 acres (607 hectares) in 24 hours.

Birth of the TE

Harry Ferguson continued to develop the farm tractor into the 1940s, putting his name to the Ferguson grey TE 20 in 1946. The “Fergie” was produced for a decade out of Coventry, England, and sold around the world, many of them in Australia.  An arrangement with Henry Ford saw production of the Ford Ferguson from 1929 to 1947. When that arrangement ended the US factories produced the Ferguson TO 20 version from 1948. Meanwhile, more than 25,000 Coventry-built TE 20s were sent to the USA and Canada. TE stood for Tractor England. TO stood for Tractor Overseas.

The 20.7 hp (15.4 kW) unit was petrol, kerosene or diesel powered. The Fergie was fairly basic, started by gear lever crank or crank handle, steered by direct steering (power steering was several years away) and had nothing by way of suspension although adding a spring under the driver’s seat was an improvement.

The Coventry factory produced more than half a million Fergies until 1956. Harry Ferguson merged his worldwide companies with Massey-Harris of Toronto, Canada, in July 1953, three years before TE and TO 20 production ended. The Massey Ferguson 35 replaced the old line in the US in 1955 and the TE 20 in the UK in 1956. The 35 was itself succeeded by the 135 from 1964 to 1975 when it in turn was superseded by the 235. MF now offers a huge range of tractors of all sizes.

Many Little Grey Fergies (and some in other colours) can still be found today in the furthest corners of the world, some rusting away in forgotten corners of paddocks, others restored to their former glory and yet others still working small farms.

A monument in Wentworth, NSW, Australia, at the junction of the Darling and Murray Rivers commemorates efforts in the 1956 flood when a fleet of little grey Fergies was used to build levee banks to save the town.

Seven Ferguson TE 20s (four petrol, three diesel) were used on the 1955–58 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Some were converted to half-tracks with front skis and others were converted to full tracks and taken to the South Pole by Sir Edmund Hillary, the first vehicles to be driven to the Pole.

A diesel TEF 20 known as Betsy earned a place in Guinness World Records in May 2003 when Terry Williams drove it 3,176 miles (5,111 km) around the coast of Britain, the longest journey by tractor. Betsy was donated to the Friends of Ferguson Heritage group in 2004 and put on display at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming in York.

A TEA 20 has been depicted on the New Zealand $5 note. The note, featuring Sir Edmund Hillary, shows one of the tractors from the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition in the background. A Fergie also is depicted on a New Zealand $1.50 postage stamp issued in 2008 as part of a set of five commemorating the life of Sir Edmund Hillary.

A TE 20 starred in a TV series for pre-school children, The Little Grey Fergie, shown in the UK in October 2013.

In 2017, twenty Ferguson tractors from the Australian Harry Ferguson Tractor Club retraced the steps of explorers Burke and Wills over the 2,300 km from Wentworth in NSW to Durham in Queensland. The fleet of course included some Little Grey Fergies.

A Grey Fergie Muster is held at Bendemeer, north of Tamworth, NSW, Australia, every three years to celebrate the important role the tractor played in Australia’s agricultural history. Enthusiasts bring their tractors from around the nation. The 2018 event will be held on March 17-18 at Fergie Flats, Bendemeer.

FOOTNOTE: The author first drove a TEA 20 Fergie in the early 1960s on the family farm in NSW Australia. It was a tough drive on rough ground but reputedly much better than following the backside of a horse around the paddocks all day. It was a sad day when the TE was retired, though it was replaced by another Fergie, a shiny red Massey Ferguson 135 diesel which also became a mainstay of world-wide small to mid-size farming.

The racer

Designer Claude Hill and racers Fred Dixon and Tony Rolt teamed up with Harry Ferguson in 1960 to create the world’s first four-wheel drive Formula One car, the Ferguson P99, for the Rob Walker Racing Team. It used a 1.5-litre Climax engine and had two claims to fame – the first 4WD car and the last front-engine car to win a Formula 1 event, driven by Stirling Moss to victory in wet weather at the Oulton Park GP in 1961.

CM, with thanks to AGCO

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