The Fordson model F tractor by the Ford Motor Company was the first agricultural tractor to be mass produced. It was a lightweight, frameless tractor with a vapouriser-fed engine and four metal wheels, but lacking a cabin.
In cold weather early Fordson tractors were difficult to start because the oil congealed on the cylinder walls and clutch plates. It had to be hand cranked repeatedly with great effort. Strong men took turns cranking between intervals when the ignition was adjusted. Sometimes farmers would build a fire under the tractor to warm the crankcase and gear boxes for easier cranking. The tractor was fueled by kerosene, but gasoline was required to start it.
To get the tractor in motion, the gears had to be shifted and the clutch would not disengage fully to allow gear change. Once the gear change was accomplished by ramming the shift lever into position, and listening to the grating noise, the tractor would start forward immediately, requiring clear space ahead. The clutch had to be partially disengaged for a while, until the oil warmed and the clutch released.
Using the Fordson in the field
The Fordson could pull discs and plows that would require four mules to pull, and it could work all day long, provided the radiator was continually filled, the fuel replenished, and the water in the air filter tank was changed. The intake air was filtered by bubbling it through a water tank. On dusty days mud would accumulate in the water tank after a couple of hours of operation, and needed to be flushed out and the tank refilled.
The transmission, rear axle and engine served as the frame. Heat from the gearing would build up through the tractor making the iron seat hot, and the foot rests nearly unbearable. The exhaust pipe would glow. But the tractor would continue working until it wore out the rear wheel bearings, which had to be replaced after a few seasons of operation.
“Prepare to Meet Thy God”
Not only was the Fordson a challenge to start and operate, but it also quickly developed a bad reputation for its propensity to rear up on its hind wheels and tip over, which proved disastrous – and sometimes fatal – for its operator.
Ford Motor Company largely ignored the issue for several years as criticism mounted. One farm magazine recommended that Ford paint a message on each Fordson: “Prepare to Meet Thy God.” Still another listed the names of over 100 drivers killed or maimed when their Fordsons turned over.
Much later Ford finally took heed and made modifications, such as extended rear fenders (dubbed “grousers”) intended to stop the tractor from turning over, and a pendulum “kill switch” to cut engine power in such instances.