The Great Harry Ferguson and the "Fergie" Tractor

The World's Best Loved Tractor

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The original "Little Gray Fergie."A Fergie ploughing showing systemOnother application of this durable workhorseThe Massey Ferguson...a bit more upmarket but the same underneath the skin.Henry George "Harry" FergusonSarah Ferguson.  That's a hand...get me a foot, a foot...with toes on!
The original "Little Gray Fergie."
The original "Little Gray Fergie."
A Fergie ploughing showing system
A Fergie ploughing showing system
Onother application of this durable workhorse
Onother application of this durable workhorse
The Massey Ferguson...a bit more upmarket but the same underneath the skin.
The Massey Ferguson...a bit more upmarket but the same underneath the skin.
Henry George "Harry" Ferguson
Henry George "Harry" Ferguson
Sarah Ferguson.  That's a hand...get me a foot, a foot...with toes on!
Sarah Ferguson. That's a hand...get me a foot, a foot...with toes on!

No Toe-Sucking, Just Great Engineering

.A man who did more for agriculture than any one else of his times.

We hear the name Ferguson a lot these days as Sarah, the F---ess of York, wends her erratic way through life doing - as far as I can see - little discernable good, except perhaps to have promoted toe-sucking as fore-play.

Sarah - and we hear a groan of relief from a country graveyard - is not related to the Ferguson of this article, that is Henry George (Harry) Ferguson, who revolutionized agriculture with his Ferguson System of soil tillage and other work done by tractors a British farms.

When this writer first began a career, the idea was to become a farmer and three years were spent before it was given up in disgust in favor of the Royal Navy (an even bigger mistake). But one thing that has stuck with me through all the intervening years is what a marvel of engineering was the Ferguson Tractor and its special implements, such as the plough.

Before Harry Ferguson attempted to immerse himself in the agricultural engineering business, he had already designed and built a plane; taught himself to fly and was the first aviator to fly from Britain to Ireland. Later, he was studying the tractors of the day as they laboriously pulled heavy, separate ploughs and harrows, etc., through Britain’s heavy, damp soil, when a brilliant idea occurred to him. Like all great ideas, one can’t help thinking, why wasn’t it thought of previously? Why not. Ferguson mused, attach these pieces of equipment to linkage on the tractor and control them with hydraulics from the driver’s seat? Further, and this was the real secret of the immediate success of the system, as the plough, etc., was dragged through the soil, the drag and therefore weight, would be transferred to the rear wheels of the tractor, giving enormous traction and allowing a far lighter, minimally powered tractor, to do the job only possible by expensive, fuel gulping behemoths in the past. In fact, as I can bear witness, it was impossible to spin the rear wheels of a “Fergie,” or “Little Gray Fergie,“ as the tractors were lovingly named, no matter how heavy the going, the machine would stall before it lost traction. (See my note).

Harry developed the tractor for about 20 years after the lightning bolt of pure reason hit him in 1916. The system was patented in 1930 and several models of tractor produced until the famous THE 20 came out and was embraced by farmers and councils all over Britain and eventually, as deals with Henry Ford and other were finalized, was accepted all over the world.

Ferguson called his system “”the Automatic Control System,” and the tractors were built by a David Brown factory in Huddersfield in the days when this country was known for its manufacturing all over the planet.

I drove Fergies at Melon Farm, Ivychurch, Romney Marsh, and at a farm in Gate Helmsley, Yorkshire. (Interestingly, the farmer was a Mr. Ford!). It was true that we loved these efficient and easily handled little tractors - for they were tiny compared to any other popular tractors of the day: the Fordson Majors, the Nuffield Universals and the clumsy Field Marshalls with their one huge cylinder that sounded like an artillery barrage; the Massey Harris, made by the company with which Ferguson would merge in 1953 as Massey-Ferguson, and many others.

The tractors found the same sort of reverence in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Ford, in the US, built 300,000 of the tractors before falling out with Ferguson and losing the rights to make the machine. (This resulted in angry farmers insisting on thousands being imported from Britain as their special tilling machinery was useless without the tractor…now, that’s a “special relationship,” those were, indeed, the days!).

The first tractors ran on petrol, superseded by petrol/TVO (Tractor Vaporizing Oil), actually petrol/paraffin (kerosene in the USA). Diesel models soon followed.

Ferguson tractors were used for many other applications apart from agriculture. Several with tracks were the first to reach the North Pole since Scott’s ill fated expedition. It was found they could scale a 7 in 1 icy hill, yet only men with crampons attached could ascend this steep incline.

Ferguson became very rich from his company, and his patents for the system he developed on his tiny Fergie tractors has been taken up and used by all tractor manufacturers since.

Ever innovative, Ferguson went on to build the first four-wheel drive F1 racing car.

Harry Ferguson, inventor extraordinary, died in 1960 of barbiturate poisoning at his home in Stow-on-the-Wold. The coroner left an open verdict on whether it was accidental or suicide. His tractors are now eagerly sought by collectors. He left us a huge legacy.


In fact, if the Ferguson tractor did have a fault, it was that its extraordinary hauling ability outstripped the power from the four cylinder motor (a Standard car engine was used at first). A couple of times, we had to haul a noble Fergie from a swampy field as it just lacked the power to move. Putting large engines in them, of course, would have negated the designer’s mandate, to produce a low-cost and effective machine. We soon learned the few limits of the tiny workhorse and didn’t let it bite off more than we all could chew!

More by this Author

Comments 16 comments

Info Bucket profile image

Info Bucket 6 years ago from Kerala, India

I thought it was Alex Ferguson!! I don't know anything about this!! lol!!

diogenes profile image

diogenes 6 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Nope: Henry George (Harry) Ferguson, Info Bucket. You may be confused with Sir Alex Ferguson, Man United's manager. Thanks for response...Bob

Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

Thank you for your impressive hub on Henry George Ferguson and the design of tractors. I learned a lot from it.

diogenes profile image

diogenes 6 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Hello HH. Yes, it's strange how something I did all those years ago, to wit, drive Fergie tractors, resulted in a humble article about them...Bob

Nellieanna profile image

Nellieanna 6 years ago from TEXAS

Tractors are admirable machines and did, for sure, revolutionize agriculture.

My parents grew up at the bare start of the machine age & came from agricultural backgrounds with horses and hand implements. They continued with agriculture into their own lives.

And my beloved George attributed much of his own early training to driving his Uncle George's tractor on his Kansas farm every summer of his youth.

Quite a machine. Of course, tractors I've known have been American and/or Canadian makes, so it's good to learn about the British make. John Deere & International Farmall are American brands I'm familiar with. Massey-Ferguson brand from Canada. It must be related to the Ferguson there? I know that the Massey part was actor Raymond Massey's predecessor. I guess it's a tractor aristocracy, huh?

diogenes 6 years ago

Interesting comments Nellieana: Many Fergies were built in the last century in the USA under license to Ford...but perhaps the important point is that all tractors today use some form of the Ferguson system; he truly revolutionized tilling, etc. Bob

Hugh Williamson profile image

Hugh Williamson 5 years ago from Northeast USA

Love this Hub.

I learned how to operate a tractor on our Ferguson TO-20. The "TO" standing for "Tractor Overseas" - (from Britain) in the U.S. designation. It had an overhead valve engine that bested rival Ford by about 10 HP.

It also had a unique safety feature to prevent it from being started accidentally while in gear. The starter was activated by the gear shift lever instead of a push button switch.

I sure wish I knew where it was now. Great Hub.

diogenes profile image

diogenes 5 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Thanks Hugh. They were a great little machine and represented Britain in the days we meant something as well...Bob

old albion profile image

old albion 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

Interesting and informative. A clear and to the point style. Thank you.

Best Wishes.

diogenes profile image

diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Thanks for the visit and kind words, Old Albion


Au fait profile image

Au fait 4 years ago from North Texas

A couple of your pictures sure look a lot like Ford tractors similar to the one my family had on our farm when I was growing up. I was driving that tractor all by myself at age 7 and with the help of my father starting at age 3!

I've always known the Ferguson as the Massey-Ferguson and it had a very narrow front end which made it tip over (or flip over, front over back) more easily.

Interesting to read about as your hubs always are!

Sî, estoy ocupada . . mås o menos . . . y usted?

Te quiero, amigo. Ciudar de sî mismo.

Please do not respond in Spanish as mine is EXTREMELY limited. Buenes dias is about the most complicated I can get . . .

diogenes profile image

diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Au fait. You are always provoking, to say the least! I am so sorry i didn't concentrate on the Fergie's propensity for doing back flips and killing farm stock and the driver. Rather, I attempted to extoll the virtues of this magnificent yet humble machine.

With that, I turn on my heel and depart.

Por favor, regresas con mas palabras tan profundas!

R xx (so there).

Wanna meet me in Mexico and learn a few more words?

Au fait profile image

Au fait 4 years ago from North Texas

Not trying to be critical at all, dear Robert. Just telling you about my personal experience. The info you provided was great, your writing was superb as always, and your hub was overall excellent! Give you an A++++. Relax, dream, all is well . . .

diogenes profile image

diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

I sent you a reply to email but dont know whether these eemails come back to you?


Au fait profile image

Au fait 4 years ago from North Texas

Have to be off to work, but I sent a reply just now to your friend Brad. Hope that's OK and that you receive it. Only just checked my email a little while ago. It's only 5:40 AM here. Must be off or I'll be late. Have a good day!

diogenes profile image

diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Hi MISTY: You keep threatening to go to work, did you make it? Better step up, pal, or you will be in Motel Chevvy.


    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article