Ploughing a new furrow: tractors a mainstay of early years

A man whose roots were from deep Cork farming stock, it is apt that Henry Ford’s new Irish factory became synonymous with tractor production during its first 15 years, writes John Dolan.

A Fordson tractor at work on the Ford farm at the Marina in Cork in January, 1940.

The first vehicle that wheeled off the Marina production line was a Fordson tractor, and they were manufactured there in two spells, between 1919 and 1922 and 1929 and 1933, when the production transferred to the Dagenham plant in England

Nearly 32,000 of the vehicles were built in Cork in total, and many are still going strong to this day. Indeed, the oldest working Fordson in Ireland today was made in the US in January, 1918, pre-dating the Irish operation.

The Fordson has been compared to a Model T for farmers. With its 22 horsepower engine, the tractor was mass produced and marketed as the ideal vehicle for agricultural work as it was “simple, safe to handle and economical in its fuel consumption”.

They were cheaper and more efficient than rival machines and a public demonstration of one in Cork in 1919 elicited an ecstatic reaction from the crowd.

“Many were the expressions of wonder and amazement that came forth from the vast assemblage,” reported the Cork Examiner, “ as it quietly and vigorously sped from headland to headland and turned up the sod to the tune of one acre per hour”.

Read more: Fordsons was the first Cork team to win the FAI Cup Trophy in 1926

The vehicles were seen as crucial to Britain’s Great War effort and when its Ministry of Munitions put in an order with Ford for 6,000 of them, it spurred Henry to hastily complete his design and open his new factory in Cork to manufacture them.

Annual production reached 36,781 in 1921 and 99,101 in 1926. By 1925, Ford had built its 500,000th Fordson tractor.

Although the tractors were hugely popular in Ireland, Britain and the US, tens of thousands, including some built in Cork, were exported to the Soviet Union from 1920 to 1927.

Henry’s idea for a new tractor design had its seeds in his childhood, when he grew up on a farm a few miles from Detroit, Michigan.

The plate on a Cork-made Fordson.

As he developed a love of automobiles, he also expressed a desire to “lift the burden of farming from flesh and blood and place it on steel and motors”.

In the early 20th century, he began to build experimental tractors from automobile components and four years after founding the Ford Motor Company in 1903, Henry finished his first experimental tractor which he called the ‘Automobile Plow’.

A hands-on boss, he enjoyed coming up with ideas for the designs and test-driving them himself.

The early models of the Fordson could usually work on gasoline or kerosene, although even alcohol could be burned in it. Instead of brakes, the driver depressed the clutch.

The machines could work in the fields all day long, provided the radiator was continually filled, the fuel was replenished, and the water in the air filter tank was changed.

In an attempt to persuade farmers that the tractor was a good, long-term investment, Ford used American data that showed farmers spent $.95 per acre ploughing with a Fordson compared to feeding eight horses for a year and paying two drivers, which cost $1.46 per acre.

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