By Peter P Dobbing
Records show that between July 2020 and July 2021 there were 1,907 tractors sold in Ireland at a price of approximately €87,000 each. Not all were sold in Cork of course but a fair number were. It was good business for the tractor dealers but reflects even better on the Irish farming industry. I was once told that when an Irish farmer or farm worker drives a tractor it is akin to being allocated a company car.
Henry George Ferguson (better known as Harry) was born in November 1884 in Growell, near Anahilt, between Hillsborough and Dromore, Co. Down. His parents were James Ferguson, a wealthy farmer and Mary (nee Bell) who between them had eleven children, eight sons and three daughters. Harry was the third son and fourth child. Interestingly Mary was a half-sister to Elizabeth Gould and Margaret Bell, the first women to qualify as doctors in Ulster. After leaving the local school at age fourteen Harry went to work on the family 100-acre farm. Unfortunately he and his father never did get on too well and he soon abandoned farming to work in Belfast at the garage owned by his brother Joe.
In Belfast he attended evening classes at the local Technical College and became increasingly interested in engines and technology. By 1907 the Ferguson‘s garage business was the biggest in Ireland and Harry began racing motorcycles and motorcars as publicity measures. He loved this and enjoyed the thrill of speed, becoming known locally as the Mad Mechanic. Air shows became popular both in England and Europe and after visiting many Harry decided to build his own aircraft.
The first man to fly in England was Alliot Verdon Roe in 1908, inspired by Roe and by Bleriot in France Harry and Joe decided to build a plane in their Belfast garage. Hitching the Ferguson Monoplane behind a car it was towed through the streets of Belfast to Hillsborough Park in preparation for flight. After some technical problems, especially with the propeller, the monoplane took off on the 31st December 1909 with Harry at the controls, he becoming the first man in Ireland to build and fly his own aircraft.
Subsequently he made flights from Magilligan Strand in Co Derry and Newcastle, Co Down, but unfortunately during this time he neglected the garage business, causing a rift between the brothers. Therefore in 1911 he established his own business May Street Motors in Belfast, being joined by his lifelong assistant Willie Sands. Leading up to WWI Harry again collaborated with his brother in building an innovative car known as the ‘Fergie’, although it was unsuccessful, largely due to wartime difficulties.
During WWI it became evident that the loss of manpower and horsepower transferred to war effort would have a serious impact on farming, just at the time when more food needed to be produced. Now Harry Ferguson could not claim to have invented the tractor, a machine that would undertake the work of missing horses. Huge tractors were already at work in the vast, and usually dry soil, fields of America. What he did do was design a smaller tractor and its implements that could work the smaller and wetter fields of Ireland and Europe. In 1917 and with government support he arranged demonstrations that showed farmers the benefits of tractors and various attachments.
One major problem was the then rigid coupling between tractor and plough, which could force the combination to overturn. During 1917 he and Sands designed a plough that could be towed behind a Ford Model T car. Henry Ford was impressed and from this idea built the Fordson tractor. Harry went to Michigan to meet Ford but while he offered him a job Ford was not prepared to enter into a partnership. Ferguson continued to work on his plough design and ultimately devised the three-point linkage system that almost completely eradicated the problem of tractors overturning on soft ground.
For a while Ferguson went into partnership with the American Shearman Brothers, manufacturing ploughs for Ford tractors, but after a year or two Ford ceased tractor production in favour of cars. Back in Ireland Harry perfected the hydraulic linkage system that enabled the tractor driver to lift/lower or change implements without dismounting.
In 1933 Ferguson built his first tractor in Belfast, it was painted black and forever known as the Black Tractor, whereas later models were coloured grey. In 1936 he established a partnership with David Brown of Huddersfield, Yorkshire, Browns building the tractors and ploughs while Harry sold them worldwide. Again unfortunately the arrangement only lasted two years.
Once again Ferguson turned to Henry Ford and in 1938 demonstrated his system and his current tractor at Ford’s estate in Michigan. This time Ford was so impressed that a deal was made, not legally but by two gentlemen on the basis of a handshake. Ford would build systems in America while Ferguson built and continued designs in the UK and Ulster. By 1941 90,000 Ford-Ferguson tractors had been produced and by 1947 the total had reached 300,000, however the great majority were built in America.
Henry Ford died in 1947 and his grandson, Henry Ford II, took control of the business. He refused to accept the existing ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ but continued to build tractors using Ferguson’s designs and patents. There followed years of litigation between the two parties, which was settled out of court in 1952 with Ford paying over $9.0 million. Harry felt that he had been robbed, and likely was. With virtually no product to sell Ferguson had to start again and this time he joined with the Standard Motor Company of Coventry and sixteen TE (Tractor England) models were produced. These and their associated implements revolutionized the business of farming.
Standard construction using just two sizes of bolts and just one spanner greatly simplified manufacture and maintenance, together with reducing costs. Known as ‘the wee grey Fergie’ this machine sold in hundreds of thousands and was prized by farmers all over the world.
After the lawsuit with Ford his health was not good, and in 1953 he sold his companies, in exchange for a large block of shares to Massey-Harris thus forming Massey-Ferguson where he became chairman.
Freed from day to day business he developed a four-wheel drive saloon car and a similar racer. These failed to attract commercial backers but the racer, termed the P99 driven by Stirling Moss won the Gold Cup at Oulton Park in 1961. During his career Harry was awarded honorary degrees of DSc from Louvain in Belgium and an engineering degree from the University of Dublin as well as a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts. He died on 25 October 1960 at his home in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire England.