13 December 1996

It started with a Little Grey

Little Grey Fergie – revisited. David Anthony takes a nostalgic look at the development of a tractor destined to change the world

BEING at the controls of a Ferguson TE20 once more was like taking a trip into the past – clear memories of sun-soaked days driving a cabless Fergie in the heart of scenic Wiltshire.

But this particular tractor was no ordinary TE20. This was no less than TE1, identifying it as the very first of the TE20 series tractors off the Ferguson production line in Coventry.

Production started in 1946, and TE1 has been at the centre of Massey Fergusons 1996 celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of tractor production at Banner Lane. This year also saw the company celebrate the 3,000,000th tractor to come off the line.

TE1 was followed by a further 533,482 tractors before the last of the TE series was built ten years later in 1956. During that time the Ferguson TE20 – much better known as the Little Grey Fergie – became firmly established as one of the most important models the tractor industry has produced: A combination of light weight, compact size and excellent reliability. A three-point linkage with Ferguson System hydraulics gave the TE20 a big advantage over European-built competitors, quickly pushing the more powerful Fordson tractor into second place in the UK sales charts.

Harry Ferguson was the son of a farmer in what is now Northern Ireland. His interest in mechanisation started during the 1914-18 war when he worked in a government campaign to help farmers make the switch from horses to the new tractors which were arriving from the USA.

He quickly realised that simply dragging an implement behind a tractor was inefficient, and this started him on the development work which eventually produced the Ferguson System.

Although Fergusons varied interests included being one of the first people in Britain to build and fly his own aircraft, motor racing and, much later, developing a successful four-wheel-drive system for cars, he spent most of his life developing and marketing Ferguson System tractors.

His first production tractor arrived in 1936, the result of a partnership with David Brown. Although the tractor demonstrated the advantages of the rear linkage and hydraulic controls, sales were disappointing because of the recession and competition from the low-priced Fordson which still dominated the UK market.

The link with David Brown ended when Harry Ferguson signed a deal with Henry Ford to build a Ferguson System tractor in America. The result was the 9N, which was built from 1939 onwards and combined Fords unrivalled expertise in mass production with the benefits of the Ferguson System.

When Harry Ferguson decided to set up his own tractor company in Britain, the partner he chose was the Standard car company.

Standard had a large factory at Banner Lane, and in 1946 it began building the TE20 tractor Harry Ferguson had designed. Styling was similar to the 9N, and both were painted in the grey colour Ferguson preferred. The TE20 was equipped with a four-speed gearbox instead of the three speeds of the 9N, and with an overhead valve engine which could outperform the older sidevalve Ford engine.

Exactly when TE1 was built is not clear, but it was the first tractor in a pre-production batch built mainly for test purposes. John Burge, who works at Banner Lane and is secretary of the Friends of Ferguson Heritage Club, believes TE1 had a tough life before settling into retirement as an important exhibit in the museum at Banner Lane.

The power unit – an American built Continental which was used for the first two years of production until a Standard engine was available – has been rebuilt twice, and the tractor also appears to have a replacement transmission cover.

Such harsh treatment may have been part of a rigorous test programme, or perhaps TE1 was used as a factory runabout at Banner Lane before someone appreciated its value and rescued it.

Whatever its subsequent history, it is highly likely Harry Ferguson would have driven TE1 to make sure it was right for his customers. Now, 50 years later, it is easy to see why this tractor made such an impact when it arrived on the market with a £325 price tag.

Although there is no power assistance, the steering is light and manoeuvrability is brilliant. The engine is quiet, the gear shift is still as easy as I remembered it, and servicing access is excellent with the bonnet raised.

Visibility from the drivers seat is good, but that is mainly because no cab is fitted. There is no heater either.

On the cold day we chose for my nostalgic trip, the cab on one of the new MFs from Banner Lane looked temptingly cosy.

The very first Grey Fergie – TE1 – immaculately restored by Massey Ferguson engineers at the companys HQ.

Safe starting…having held in a button on the side of the transmission housing, the gear stick was pushed into its start position. The arrangement called for a certain dexterity but ensured the tractor was not started in gear or by a person not in the seat – a tractor ahead of its time.

Fergie

When it comes to innovation, few developments have made such an impact on tractor design as the introduction of the three-point linkage. Fitted to the TE20, with its Ferguson System, it put the tractor years ahead of its rivals.