HARRY FERGUSON

Harry Ferguson

By Bill Martin.

Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, Cultra, Ulster.  1984.

THIS is a remarkable booklet.  Although it’s only the size of a large postcard, its 30 pages are crammed full of information, photographs and diagrams.  I really liked the way it was written – everything was direct and straight to the point.  Bill Martin is not a man who uses two words when one will do!  For instance, his introduction tells the story of Harry Ferguson in a single paragraph:

“HHarryFerguson 2 jpgarry Ferguson was born into an age of rapid change.  He contributed to the way in which change was applied.  He was born into a way of life which the industrial revolution had largely bypassed, where the horse reigned supreme, where brawn was more useful than brain and where a farmer could feed himself, his horse and four other people in that order of priority.  When he retired he was able to look at an industry in Britain in which one farmer could produce sufficient food for himself and forty others.  The other measure of his success is that some 80 per cent of tractors produced today the principles which he established.”

Henry George “Harry” Ferguson was born in 1884 at Growell, near Dromore, County Down.  The son of Mary and James was the 4th child of 11 in the family.  In 1902 he became an apprentice in his elder brother Joe’s engineering business, Hamilton and Ferguson – later to become J.B. Ferguson and Co. Automobile Engineers based in Little Donegall Street in Belfast.  The brothers were known for their discipline, efficiency, accuracy and quality.  Great innovators, they used the most up-to-date equipment.  Harry also took part in sporting events to publicise the company.

He was very quick to spot trends.  He first saw aircraft in summer 1909 and by December he had a plane built and undergoing trials in Hillsborough, Co. Down.  This was no mean feat as he was “trying to design an aircraft and learning to fly it at the same time.  There were no reference books to work from only indistinct pictures in magazines.”

After several attempts, he won a prize of £100 for the first official flight in Ireland over a three mile course.  Despite his flying success he split from his brother JB, who could not see how it would benefit the garage business.  They decided to go their separate ways.  The May Street Motor Company (later Harry Ferguson Ltd.) opened for business in 1911 and became agents for Vauxhall, Maxwell and Ford.  He also started to sell Overtime tractors imported from America in 1914 – something that would later ‘make his name.’

Tractors had been introduced in 1894 but there were only 300 in the whole of Ireland by 1917.  The situation was to rapidly change:

“1916-17 was a period of national crisis and the need to increase home food production became paramount if starvation was to be averted.  There was neither spare manpower nor industrial capacity and large numbers of women were already employed in agriculture yet the problem had to be solved and the area under the plough increased immediately and substantially.  The tillage order of 1917 gives some indication of the desperation since it required holders of 10 acres or more to plough 15% more than the previous year and large landowners with 200 acres or more to plough an extra 20 percent.  The Government made two important decisions which were to have far reaching effects on Ferguson.  It arranged to have 6,000 Ford tractors imported from America, which helped to get Ford firmly established in the U.K. tractor market, and it also made arrangements to ensure that farmers were taught how to use them properly.”  

This proved to be a turning point in Ferguson’s life – he was regarded as a ploughing expert because of his previous association with US Overtime tractors.  In March 1919 he (and his employee William Sands) were appointed by the “Irish Board of Agriculture to travel throughout Ireland and by demonstration, instruction and example to improve the quality and efficiency of tractor ploughing.”

It was during these trials that he began to think about faults and problems associated with ploughing and started to construct his own ploughs.  According to Martin: “The plough was built in the May Street premises in Belfast and compared to its contemporaries was about as revolutionary as a plough could be.”  Mounted directly on a Ford Eros tractor it was four times more efficient than other tractors and “set the pace and style for development for the next 20 years.” 

In 1933 Ferguson designed the revolutionary ‘Black Tractor,’ which was both light and powerful.  It was built in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, by David Brown Tractors Limited.  The Ferguson Brown Type A was introduced in 1936.  Sales were slow – but some success was to be found in the Channel Islands and Scandinavia.  Later on (in 1938) Ferguson met Henry Ford and – famously sealing the deal with a handshake – agreed to go into business together.  The equally famous Ford Ferguson Tractor was born and thousands were built (in the Ford factory in Detroit, Michigan) up until 1947.

Relations between Ferguson and Ford were soured when Ford’s grandson took over the company and set up the Dearborn Motor Corporation.  Here he produced tractors based on Ferguson’s designs – but neglected to obtain use of the patent rights.  As Martin notes, this led to one of the most famous industrial law suits ever: “It took four years to settle and eventually Ferguson was awarded over £3m as compensation for patent infringement and loss of business.”      

Ferguson switched production to Coventry in the East Midlands and in 1946 the TE 20 made an appearance.  He later became involved with the Canadian-based Massey Harris (later known as Massey Ferguson) until 1954 when he resigned as chairman of the group.

Whilst his name is – rightly – most commonly associated with tractors, Ferguson had always retained his interest in motor cars.

He was successful in helping to launch the Ulster Grand Prix in 1922 and the Tourist Trophy Races in Ards between 1928 and 1936.  He also became interested in the idea of cars obtaining more power safely using a four-wheel-drive system.  Prototypes were built but there were no takers.  To try to encourage public acceptance of the system, the P99 racing car was built.  (Stirling Moss gave the car its first win, the Oulton Park Gold Cup in 1962.)  The system was later used in the Jensen Interceptor FF, a luxury car, but sadly never in a ‘people’s car’ as he wished.  Ferguson sadly died in October 1960.

Reviewed by John Field

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