It is difficult to write a brief history to describe the development of the Ford N-Series tractors. The span of years covered by this history includes two World Wars and The Great Depression. It would take several textbook-sized volumes to fully describe the many political, cultural, and economic factors affected by these events.
Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, the assembly line, or the tractor. Harry Ferguson was primarily a salesman. A large part of Henry Ford's genius was a unique ability to better apply ideas and inventions to industry. The moving assembly line had already been used in some manufacturing, but applying the concept to something as large and complex as the assembly of automobiles was considered impractical by most industries. At the time, it was generally believed that the moving assembly line concept might be applied to simple products, but complex products required careful attention to details that could only be obtained by craftsmen with a full understanding of the entire machine. It was very difficult for most people to imagine that a series of workers trained to do single tasks would be able to assemble complex products of good quality. Henry Ford not only embraced the idea, he went much farther with it than anyone thought reasonable.
The Ford Motor Company was not the first automobile company Henry Ford started, but it was by far the most successful. The Model-T started production in 1908. By 1915 innovations in the assembly process at Ford Motor Company allowed new cars to be produced with much less labor. This allowed the price to drop from $850 to around $440. At one point over half of all cars in the U.S. were Model-T's. Another study shows that at one time 9 out of 10 automobiles worldwide were Fords!
Henry Ford was raised on a farm, and was very much aware that a large percentage of farm production was being fed directly to the draft animals working the farm. Others also saw the possibility that machines might be able to do most of the work. Beginning in the 1800s many people had already made various attempts to harness mechanical engines to plows. These traction-engines were usually based on very large, heavy machines. Often stationary engines operated plows or cultivators with a cable system. These early attempts were generally very expensive, unreliable, and extremely dangerous to own and operate. By the late 1800's there were several attempts to produce a general-purpose traction-engine or tractor. What Henry Ford wanted was an efficient design that would be easier and cheaper to build. The same ideas that put the Model-T cars easily within the grasp of most working families should be able to make traction engines available to most farmers. The first prototype "automobile plow" by Ford was built in 1907. The term "tractor" to describe these types of vehicles began appearing in print as early as the mid-1800's but did not come into common use until the 1900's.
Henry Ford continued to develop his tractor, but was not able to convince the other owners at Ford Motor Company to invest in mass-producing a farm tractor. The Ford cars were so successful, there was little incentive for the other owners and stock-holders to spend time and money on research and development of new products. Many of the innovations implemented by Henry Ford (increased salaries, reduced work hours, plant expansions, and lower prices) were not well received by his partners and shareholders. Henry Ford was even sued for mismanagement, and lost! The Court agreed that a business should be primarily concerned with the profits of it's shareholders. Henry Ford was extremely upset that a few shareholders could dictate his business decisions. Determined to start producing tractors, and frustrated by the other owners at Ford, he decided to start a new company with his son Edsel called Henry Ford and Son Company. Their first production tractor, the Fordson Model F, began limited production in 1917. The Fordson Model-F was the first agricultural tractor able to be mass-produced. It had many innovative design features such as bolted together castings in-lieu of a more conventional (expensive and heavy) frame. Their timing wasl also good. The outbreak of World War One created food and manpower shortages in Europe. The British government had an urgent need for tractors, and the Fordson Model-F went into full-production in 1918 to meet that demand.
The immediate success of the Fordson Tractor was at least part of the reason Henry Ford was able to regain full control of the Ford Motor Company. In 1919 rumors that the Fordson Company might follow the success of their tractor with a new car design, created a situation where Henry Ford was able to buy out all of the other shareholders at Ford Motor Company. The Henry Ford and Son Company was then merged with Ford Motor Company and reorganized with all shares owned by the Ford family and son Edsel Ford taking over as president. The Ford Motor Company remains family-owned to this day.
Edsel Ford was president but Henry Ford remained very much involved in management decisions and company direction. While they remained close, this arrangement was not without friction between father and son. The times were also not the most favorable for any business. American farmers were among the first to feel the effects of the depression that was soon to grip the entire country. Declining U.S. sales forced Ford Motor Company to suspend U.S. tractor production in 1928. After 1928, all Fordson tractors were being built in Europe. The Fordson tractors remained on top in Europe, but with no tractors being manufactured by Ford in the U.S. (1928-1938) and increasing competition from a variety of manufacturers, Ford Motor Company dropped from the top of the U.S. tractor market to a low of about 5-percent. This situation was increasingly difficult for Henry Ford and he eventually set out with the intent to re-establish the Ford Motor Company as a leader in the U.S. tractor industry.
Most tractor designs were still generally based on very large heavy machines to provide traction and help reduce the tendency to rear-up and flip over when the plow hit something. The Fordson tractors, being smaller and lighter than most of the others, were even more likely to flip over. Very little was done to correct the problem for many years. At one point the rear fenders on the Fordson tractors were extended lower in back of the tires so the fenders would hit the ground and prevent a rollover. Other solutions such as tip switches on the ignition were also tried.
The new farm tractor that Henry Ford wanted to build in the U.S. would be even smaller and lighter than the Fordson. "Every small farm should be able to buy a tractor." Of course, a smaller-lighter machine would be even more likely to rear up and flip over. An engineering solution to this problem was needed badly. In my mind this quote defines Henry Ford's approach to most engineering or manufacturing problems. He was a man in search of solutions, and did not particularly care where the ideas came from. "Don't find fault, find a remedy; anybody can complain." He also said "I am looking for a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can't be done." and "It is all one to me if a man comes from Sing Sing or Harvard. We hire a man, not his history."
Henry Ford did not invent the fixed-mount plow and hydraulic three-point lift system for tractors. Plows of that time were mostly adapted from implements drawn by draft animals. When a plow encountered an obstruction, draft animals just stop. Plows dragged by machinery would either break something or cause the machine to flip. Harry Ferguson, the son of an Irish farmer, had been working for years to perfect a plow system that would solve the flip-over problem. Harry Ferguson believed there was a way to rigidly attach a plow that would both increase traction and solve the flip-over problem. One of the early Ferguson designs from around 1917 could be attached to a Model T Ford automobile-plow conversion. Harry Ferguson's engineers continued to improve their hitch system, and fitted it to Fordson tractors and others.
The Sherman brothers were U.S. sales agents for Ferguson. Ferguson-Sherman Incorporated was created in 1925 to manufacture and sell the Ferguson Duplex Hitch for the Fordson tractors. The U.S. built Fordson was discontinued in 1927 but the Sherman brothers continued to operate by importing British-made Fordson tractors. The Sherman brothers continued to work closely with Ford during this period.
In 1936, Harry Ferguson entered into an agreement with David Brown in England to produce the Ferguson-Brown Type A Tractors with his plow system. Around 1300 of these tractors were built from 1936 to 1939 but they were much more expensive than the larger Fordson tractor. In spite of the benefits of the Ferguson plow and hitch, most farmers were unwilling to pay a premium price for a smaller tractor that was also plagued with durability issues. Harry Ferguson was looking for a manufacturer with the resources and engineers capable of solving the design problems and producing an efficient tractor that could be sold for a reasonable price.
In 1938 the Sherman brothers arranged for Harry Ferguson to bring a Ferguson-Brown Tractor and a new 3-point hydraulic draft control system to the U.S. for a demonstration with Henry Ford. Henry Ford was greatly impressed. The famous "handshake agreement" between Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson resulted in a collaboration between engineers at Harry Ferguson and Ford Motor Company. Much of the new tractor's engineering design can be attributed to Ford Motor Company engineers Eugene Farkas, Adolph Eckert, and Harold Brock. Ferguson engineers largely responsible for the 3-point lift and hydraulics were John Chambers, Archie Greer, and Willie Sands. Many others contributed to the merging of ideas that would result in a very economical tractor that was far safer and easier to operate than anything else available at the time. In spite of the difficulties assiciated with merging the efforts of two separate engineering teams, the new "1939 9N Ford Tractor with Ferguson System" was developed and produced very quickly. The first 9N models rolled off the assembly line mid-1939. The 9 was for the year, 1939, and N was Ford's designation for tractor. The original price was $585.
In the rush to production, one of the more historically significant problems occurred with the stamping dies for the steel hood. The steel hoods could not be produced for the new tractor. Approximately 750 cast aluminum hoods were quickly produced by a foundry run by a son of Charles Sorenson "Cast Iron Charlie" one of the top managers at Ford. The aluminum hoods solved that production problem. Approximately 700 tractors were built with cast aluminum hoods before the steel hoods became available. Of those first 700 or so aluminum-hood tractors, only about 35 are still known to exist today. All of the 9N tractors were painted dark gray. When one of these early 9N tractors is discovered and restored today, many of the early cast aluminum parts are being polished rather than painted.
The Ford N-Series Tractors with the Ferguson System created new standards for the farm tractor that were later adopted by nearly all farm tractors. The Ferguson 3-point hitch and hydraulic system was a major improvement over the drawbars and other proprietary systems. The Ferguson three-point hitch allowed for easy attachment and removal of implements and introduced several new safety and performance features. The Ferguson System allowed implements to be transported to the work with the weight carried on the rear axle. Ground-engagement implements could safely add weight and traction under load, allowing a smaller, lighter tractor to perform better than a much larger machine. The Ferguson system allowed the new Ford tractor to be smaller, quieter, safer, and more efficient than most other tractors of the time. For the first time, a tractor could actually be operated by most women and even children! With the Ford Motor Company's mass-production manufacturing methods, the new Ford tractors could be built and sold at a price much lower than the competition.
The 9N tractors were originally marketed and sold through Ferguson-Sherman Inc. Starting in 1941 Ferguson split with the Sherman Brothers and the tractors were sold by Harry Ferguson Inc. The Ford-Ferguson 9N tractor was very successful, but the marketing arrangement often meant that Ford Motor Company was building the tractors at little or no profit. The agreement between Ford and Ferguson was strained even more when World War Two (1939-1945) made some materials and components difficult or very expensive to acquire. A few stripped-down "war time" 2N tractors had steel wheels, magneto ignitions, and had to be hand-cranked since no starters or batteries could be used. Those restrictions were soon eased when it became obvious that food productioon was critically important to the war effort. Most 2N tractors were the same as the earlier 9N model, and continued with the same 9N model numbers stamped on the engine block.
The stresses of converting much of the Ford Motor Company productiion to support the War effort may have contributed to the early demise of Edsel Ford who died of stomach cancer in 1943 at the age of only 49. His son, Henry Ford II was serving in the navy, and unable to take over the presidency of the family-owned business. The elderly and ailing Henry Ford, decided to assume the presidency. Most of the directors did not want to see him as president, but since he had continued to be involved in management of the company, even without an official title, none were willing to contest his leadership. Henry Ford II left the Navy in July 1943 and joined the company's management a few weeks later. He took over the presidency of the company in 1945 when family finally convinced the aged Henry Ford Sr. to step down. The company was in trouble and losing over $10 million a month. Henry Ford II is often credited with saving the company. He certainly brought an aggressive management style and hired good people.
The relationship between Ford Motor Company and Harry Ferguson, Inc. had been deteriorating almost from the beginning. The original deal was supposed to include producing tractors at the Dagenham, Essex Ford plant in the UK, but the UK Ford company refused to do it. Ferguson wanted a 4-speed transmission and an overhead valve engine for more power and flexibility. Ford Motor Company would not add these more expensive features, when they were already losing money building the tractors. It was obvious to both sides that the handshake agreement could not continue much longer. At some point, Harry Ferguson began working with other manufacturers to produce tractors with the improvements he wanted. Henry Ford died in April 1947, at the age of 83. This likely removed the last thread of loyalty Henry Ford II may have felt to continue his father's handshake agreement with Ferguson. The new 1948 Model 8N Tractor would be built and sold by Ford Motor Company.
By some accounts Ford Motor Company was at fault and broke the agreement with Ferguson. The truth is that the marriage had been over for some time. Harry Ferguson, Inc. had already entered into an agreement with Standard Motor Company in Coventry, England to produce tractors. Ferguson provided the tractor design, marketing and sales service, while Standard provided the factory space and manufactured the tractor. That arrangement seems familiar doesn't it? The TE-20 tractor was obviously built using the plans for the 9N tractor with the improvements Harry Ferguson wanted. Approxmiately 517,651 TE-20 tractors were built between 1946 and 1956, with over 25,000 exported to the USA. Ferguson also built a new manufacturing facility in Southfield, Michigan that began production of the TO-20 tractors in 1948. So, at the time the handshake agreement was supposedly broken by Ford Motor Company, Harry Ferguson Inc. was already in direct competition using the tractor design that was developed by Ford and Ferguson engineers. Ferguson brought a huge lawsuit against Ford Motor Company for continuing to use his patented lift design. The eventual settlement was far less than the original amount, partly because the new Ferguson tractors were already very successful in both US and overseas markets. These new Ferguson tractors were obviously based on the Ford/Ferguson 9N tractor.
The Ford 8N was a refinement of the 9N and 2N tractors. Two major improvements were the new four speed transmission and the new Position Control setting for the hydraulic system. The original automatic draft control on the Ferguson system would allow the depth of the implement to vary based on soil conditions. This did not work well for some implements. The new Position Control setting bypassed the draft control and allowed the implement to remain at a consistent position relative to the position of the Touch Control lever.
Although refined, the Ford 8N still used the same basic engine and lift system as the earlier 9N and 2N models. Uunauthorized use of the Ferguson patented lift system was one of the main contentions in the Ferguson lawsuit. The lawsuit was filed by Harry Ferguson after the termination of the handshake agreement, and claimed damages, and infringement of his patents. The lawsuit settlement, forced Ford to design a new hydraulic control system and make other changes that ended 8N tractor production in 1953 with the launch of the new Ford NAA Tractor. The 1953 Golden Jubilee tractor logo celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of Ford Motor Company. In my opinion, the changes to the hydraulic system and the sheet metal make the NAA a transitional model between the N-series and later tractor models. But, on the other hand, including the NAA production with the N-series tractors puts the production numbers for N-Series tractors well over the million mark. Many parts are interchangeable, so the NAA model tractors are often considered one of the Ford N-Series tractors.
Are you looking for your local Ford Tractor dealer? In case you didn't know:
In 1986 Ford expanded it's tractor business by buying Sperry New holland and formed Ford Hew Holland, Inc.
In 1991 Fiat purchased an 80 percent interest in Ford New Holland
In 1999 Case/IH and New Holland merged, to form CNH Industrial.
In 2012 N.V. Fiat and CNH became CNH Industrial N.V.
So, your local dealer for parts and service is CNH Industrial. Farm tractor dealers in the USA operate as the New Holland Agriculture division. You can still search for the old Ford tractors by the original model numbers on the New Holland Agriculture web site, HERE.
This has been my attempt at a very brief history of the Ford N-Series Tractor. I do not guarantee the complete accuracy of this narrative because most of this information is based on second and third-hand sources. If you are interested, there is additional information available on the web and in your local library.
All the information I have collected on serial numbers and model Identification can be found HERE.
The best reference I have found to help identify your tractor was John Smith's old ford tractor site. The site has been archived HERE.
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