Monday 8th October 1917
The first Fordson tractor went in sale in the US. It used a 20 hp (15 kW), inline four-cylinder engine. The engine was similar to the Ford Model T engine in many respects. Like many engines of its day, it was multifuel-capable; it was usually tuned for gasoline or kerosene, but alcohol could also be burned. (Tractor vaporising oil [TVO] existed in 1920 but was not yet widely used. It entered broader use in the 1930s and 1940s.) Like many other multifuel machines, the Fordson started on gasoline from a small auxiliary tank (just a few quarts) and then switched over to the main fuel tank once warmed up sufficiently (no more than 5 minutes). To handle the kerosene (or, rarely, TVO), the intake system had a vaporizer downstream of the carburetor. The mixture coming from the carburetor was intentionally rich, and the vaporizer heated it and mixed it with more air to lean it out to the final ratio before entering the intake manifold. The intake system also had a water-bath air cleaner to filter the dust out of the air inhaled by the engine (an invention that did not originate at Ford but that was still rather novel in 1917). Air cleaning is critical to engine lifespan, even for road vehicles and most especially for farming and construction vehicles (which work in environments where dirt is frequently stirred up into the air). The Fordson carburetor and air cleaner were designed by Holley. In later decades, the water bath would be replaced with an oil bath for better filtering performance.
The ignition system was similar to that of the Model T,with a flywheel-mounted low-tension magneto and trembler coils. The ignition timing was manually advanced or retarded with the spark advance lever mounted near the steering column, which rotated the timer. The cooling was by thermosiphon. (In later decades, a high-tension magneto and a water pump would be added.) The transmission was a three-speed spur gear (the three forward speeds ranged from approximately 21⁄4 to 61⁄4 mph). A worm drive reduction set and a differential made up the rear. The design of the rear was patented for its ease of manufacture and service. Brakes were not provided on early Fordsons, as high-ratio worm sets generally transmitted rotation in one direction only, from the worm element to the gear element, because of the high power loss through friction. To stop the tractor, the driver depressed the clutch.
Ford engineer Eugene Farkas successfully made the engine block, oil pan, transmission, and rear axle stressed members constituting the frame. By eliminating the need for a heavy separate frame, costs were reduced and manufacturing was simplified. Ford held a patent on a unit-frame tractor. The rear wheels were fabricated steel, spoked and cleated. The earliest ones were 12-spoke; a 14-spoke version followed. Several models of front wheel were used, including 10-spoked fabricated steel and 5-spoke cast iron. Industrial models also used other wheels designed for specific tasks, including aftermarket wheels.
The name “Fordson” was not yet widely used in 1916 and 1917, nor was “Model F”. Terms such as “the [real/genuine] Ford tractor” or “the Henry Ford tractor” were used at this time. Henry Ford & Son had used the cable address “Fordson” for years. In 1918, it was adopted as the brand name marked on the tractors. In April 1918, U.S. sales began under County War Board distribution rules. The Model F designation (for essentially the same model, with improvements) began in 1919. Sales boomed in 1918 and 1919.
There was nothing about the Fordson’s design or farming capabilities that was a “first ever” among tractors (the unit frame was novel for tractors, but that didn’t give it special farming advantages). But it was the first tractor that combined all of the following factors: it was small, lightweight, mass-produced, and affordable; it had a large distribution network (dealers nearby in many locales); and it had a widely trusted brand (via Ford). Such factors made it possible for the average farmer to own a tractor for the first time. Thus Henry Ford and colleagues had done again, for the tractor, what they had recently done for the automobile with the Ford Model T. Ford incorporated his private company, Henry Ford and Son Inc, to mass-produce the tractor on July 27, 1917.
At a hurriedly built factory in Dearborn, Michigan, he used the same assembly line techniques he used to mass-produce the Ford Model T. It took thirty hours and forty minutes to convert the raw materials into the 4,000 parts used for the tractor assembly. At this time, the Fordson sold for US$750; each cost $567.14 to manufacture (including labor, materials and overhead), leaving a profit of $182.86. Soon Dearborn was sending knock-down kits to final assembly plants in various U.S. states, including New Jersey, Iowa, and Missouri. The core of Fordson production later moved to the new Ford River Rouge Complex.
The Fordson succeeded in being cheaper to maintain than horses, as the Ford Model T had previously done. A government test concluded that farmers spent $.95 per acre plowing with a Fordson compared to feeding eight horses for a year and paying two drivers, which cost $1.46 per acre.
Despite several early design flaws and reliability issues such as engine failure and unbearable heat, the Fordson established a firm foothold on U.S. farms, with more than 70% market share in earlier years. By mid-1918, more than 6,000 Fordson tractors were in use in Britain, Canada, and the United States.
In the U.S., Ford established a policy in 1919 to loan Fordson tractors to educational institutions with vocational training programmes. Agricultural colleges could use a Fordson for six months and then exchange it for a new one. Under this arrangement, forty-two tractors were loaned to such universities as Cornell, Idaho, Michigan, Maryland and Prairie View State Normal in Texas. Others went to the orphanage at Nacoochee Institute in Georgia, the Berry School at Rome, Georgia and Camp Dix at Hutchinson, Kansas.Annual production reached 36,781 in 1921 and 99,101 in 1926. By 1925, Ford had built its 500,000th Fordson tractor. Ford was the only automotive firm to sell cars, trucks, and tractors simultaneously from 1917 to 1928, during which time 552,799 Fordson tractors were built.