Henry Ford, a son of the County Cork soil, produced a tractor that revolutionised agriculture in Ireland and around the world, writes Jessica Casey.
“Many were the expressions of wonder and amazement that came forth from the vast assemblage, as it quietly and vigorously sped from headland to headland and turned up the sod to the tune of one acre per hour.”
That was the vivid description in the Cork Examiner of the spectators watching a Fordson tractor in awe at a motor ploughing demonstration in 1918.
Henry Ford had spent the past four years developing the vehicle, which would go on to revolutionise farming production.
The Fordson tractor played a vital role in the first 15 years of the new Marina plant in Cork city and was manufactured there in two spells, from 1919 to 1923, and from 1928 to 1933.
Like the Model T did with motorists, the new tractors brought agricultural industry to the masses.
Then, like now, Cork was an agricultural county and Ireland’s industrial base was largely devoted to farming. The fact the Fordsons were manufactured on our doorsteps has meant they have retained a place in the heart of the country’s agricultural community ever since.
To this day, farmers will swear by their Fordson tractor.
With a 22 horsepower engine, the Fordson was marketed as the ideal vehicle for agriculturists, as it was “simple, safe to handle and economical in its fuel consumption”.
They were cheaper and more efficient than rival competitors at the time, making motorised machinery more affordable to farmers, especially to those who previously couldn’t access such luxuries.
Even in 1919, the year the first Fordsons wheeled off the production line in Cork, the Examiner reported on farmers already discussing the possibilities and positive influences the machine’s introduction could have on their working lives.
“So pleased were the farmers who attended the demonstration with the ploughing done by the tractor that they went away convinced of its great superiority to horse labour and of the prospects its advent has opened up of agricultural developments in Ireland,” ran one article.
Nearly 32,000 Fordson tractors were built in Cork until the production of the vehicles was moved to the Dagenham plant in 1933.
Even then, many Cork workers obtained work in the new English factory, utilising their expertise and knowledge of the vehicle.
Keith Bryan and his father Victor, from Waterfall, Cork, are avid tractor collectors and 30 of their collection of 95 vintage tractors are Fordsons.
Victor purchased his first vintage tractor in 1979. “We bought it for £40,” he recalls. “It was cheap, there was no value on them then!”
Keith explains another reason for their collection. “We’re related to the Ford family from my mother’s side.”
The Great War played a role in the Fordson tractor story, explains Keith.
“During World War I, there was a big demand for mechanisation because a lot of farmers were at war and they weren’t able to work on the land. So the British Ministry of Munitions put in an order to Ford for 6,000 tractors.”
The order spurred on Henry to finish designing his revolutionary tractor
The oldest working Fordson currently in Ireland was produced in January, 1918, according to Keith, who says his collection includes one produced a month later, making it 99 years old.
The Bryans say they have used the machine for ploughing in the past. “And it’s working perfectly,” Keith adds.
Noticeably, this 1918 tractor carries no Fordson name on it, and is referred to by collectors as a M.O.M — in reference to the Ministry of Munitions.
“Ford produced cars primarily up until 1917 and then to produce tractors, he formed a new company, Henry Ford and Son,” says Keith. “It was April, 1918, before they came up with the name Fordson.”
This private business venture would go on to be incorporated into the Ford Motor Company after proving such a success.
The Bryans’ varied collection includes a never-been-used showroom Fordson still covered with its original tarp; a tractor converted from a Model T; and a model from the World War II era, painted a dark green to act as a camouflage from planes when it was working in the fields.
Evidence of the patriotism the workers in the Cork foundry had can be seen in some of the castings the Bryans have in their workshop.
By 1923, when Fordson tractor production had moved to Dagenham, Ireland’s 26 counties had gained independence from the UK.
“When they moved the production from Dagenham, the Irish foundry wanted to put their stamp on it, so instead of putting ‘Made in Cork’ on the castings, they put ‘Made in Irish Free State’,” says Keith, pointing out the label on the engine
Standing beside earlier tractors, the difference in the design between the Fordson and what came before it is staggering. The early ones are unwieldy, gigantic contraptions compared to the neat and compact Fordsons.
“They were well ahead of their time,” says Keith. “They were a small, compact unit with the engine and gearbox all bolted up together, which was a first.
“That design that was produced in 1917 is still being used today in the modern tractor. They were first to have a compact model design, and that’s what really gave them the competitive edge.”
And Fordsons are relatively easy to refurbish, according to Keith.
“They’re straightforward,” he says. “Because there were thousands of them made, you can get parts.
“All the parts are interchangeable — even though they are different, they’re all interchangeable.
“So I can take the radiator off that and put it on that, or I can take the engine off that and it would fit. You can play around with them.”
“The Cork ones, they are a little bit trickier because some of the parts are different,” he says, adding that the earlier the vehicle, the harder the parts are to find.
“I had to bring in parts from America for a lot of those early ones.”
Henry Ford, whose ancestors originated from the rich dairy lands of County Cork, completely reformed farming, Keith says.
“He introduced a tractor that was roughly half the price of his competitors and he made tractors available to farmers who wouldn’t have normally been able to afford them.
“They were designed to be used, but they were also designed to keep them simple, so he could make them cheap.
“And that changed farming, just like when he introduced the Model T car. It was amazing for the time.”
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