Old Fordson Tractor Shows How Far Tractors Have Come

I’ve long been a proponent of keeping vintage tractors in use around farms. But some old tractors ... well, they’re a little too vintage, even for me.

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: Paulette Johnson

I’ve long been a proponent of keeping vintage tractors in use around farms. Even at ~70 years old, my John Deere Model 40 is reliable as can be and does great work raking hay and pulling wagons. My Massey Ferguson 135 is more than half a century old but cuts fields and bales hay just fine.

But some tractors … well, they’re a little too vintage, even for me. It’s amazing how far tractors have progressed during the last century.

I recently saw an old Fordson tractor on display and had to marvel at both the similarities and differences compared to modern tractors. A sign stated the tractor was from 1926, which—as near as I can tell—would make it a Fordson F with a 20-horsepower engine.

Even though it’s approaching 100 years old, there was no mistaking the Fordson F as a tractor. Two large drive wheels in the back, two smaller wheels in the front, the engine mounted in front of the steering wheel…. Truthfully, the Fordson F looked a lot like the John Deere Model 40 and the Massey Ferguson 135.

Some Key Differences

But the differences were striking. Rubber tires were nowhere to be found. Instead, the Fordson F had steel wheels with large lugs for generating traction. I’m sure it would have been a bumpy ride on hard ground, though the wheels looked ready to dig deep for traction. Indeed a bit of reading and research suggests the traction of these old steel wheels can be very good. Maybe even too good, since the slippage of rubber tires can be beneficial in some circumstances.

Another notable difference was the hand crank on the front of the machine to facilitate starting the engine. There was no battery, because there was no electric starter. Muscle power was used to start the engine, and I understand that operating the hand crank could be a difficult and even dangerous endeavor.

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Then there was the power take-off (PTO), and I’m calling it a PTO only because it provided power to other implements. The PTO on the Fordson F wasn’t the splined shaft found on the backs of modern tractors and even more recent vintage tractors like the John Deere Model 40 or the Massey Ferguson 135. This PTO was located on the side of the tractor in the form of a spinning cylinder (called a pulley, or belt pulley) to which a belt could be attached to transfer rotational power to an implement.

Historical Value

I’m fascinated by the Fordson F from a tractor history standpoint, but I wouldn’t want to use one for farming. I’m thankful that technological advancements have given us rubber tires, electric starters and splined PTOs.

I suppose it has something to do with what seems “normal” to me. Maybe farmers who have only ever used modern tractors with hydrostatic transmissions would feel the same skepticism about the geared transmissions of the John Deere Model 40 and Massey Ferguson 135.

But in any case, I think we can all be glad at how much progress tractors have made over the last century. And with that in mind, who knows what the next century will bring? Maybe electric tractors will rise to the forefront and farmers of the future will look back on our gasoline and diesel engines and wonder how we ever got along with oil changes and fuel filters.

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