14 June 1996

PIONEERS THAT WERE

POWERED BY FORD…

Ford and Fordson skid units were used by many specialist tractor makers too.

STUART GIBBARD looks at some of the most notable machines

AS well as being a popular agricultural tractor, the Fordson also proved a convenient and economical choice for specialist equipment makers who needed a dependable power unit as the basis for their machines.

The Fordson tractor skid unit – so called because it was usually supplied minus wheels and shipped from the factory on a wooden skid – was widely used by many British firms, including Roadless, County, Doe, Chaseside, Muir-Hill, Matbro and Bray. These each produced successful ranges of agricultural, earth moving or construction machinery and were further linked by their pioneering work in the development of the four-wheel drive tractor in the UK.

COUNTY

County was the most prolific manufacturer of Ford-based conversions. By 1973 it had built over 30,000 tractors and was exporting to nearly 150 countries worldwide.

Based in Fleet, Hampshire, County Commercial Cars was formed in 1929 by two brothers, Ernest and Percy Tapp, to convert Ford trucks into six-wheelers by fitting a third axle. Commercial vehicle conversions remained the mainstay of Countys business for many years and during the World War II more than 14,000 military versions of its 6×6 Sussex trucks were built.

After the war the company embarked on a new lightweight agricultural crawler to be known as the County Full Track. Built from 1948 and based on the Fordson E27N Major, the crawler was originally seen as an interim product to fill unused production capacity at Fleet.

But the Full Track met with instant acclaim and, with sales greater than ever expected, it heralded the start of a long line of County tractors. Improved models of County crawlers, including the acclaimed Ploughman range, were made up to 1965, when they were phased out in favour of four-wheel drive production.

In 1954 a request from the Puerto Rico sugar cane industry for a wheeled tractor with the performance of a crawler launched County into the 4WD market almost by accident and resulted in the skid-steered Four-Drive. Basically a crawler on rubber tyres with the front wheels chain-driven from sprockets on the rear axle, the Four-Drive sold well in the West Indies but enjoyed only limited success on the home market.

The Super-4, built from 1960 to a more conventional layout with front wheel steering, introduced a new concept in four-wheel design which was to feature in all future County tractors. Based on the Super Major, power to the front wheels was transmitted by twin propeller shafts driven by bevel gears off the Fordson bull-pinion shafts, the advantage being that the standard differential would work on all four wheels. A six-cylinder version, the Super-6, soon followed.

The County range was revised to embrace the new Ford models introduced in late 1964. The Ford 5000 skid unit was used for the 654, which also became available in forward control form. Further new and more powerful models followed to match the demand for increased horsepower.

Tractor production at Fleet peaked during the 1970s. But by 1980, the year the companys most powerful model (the 188hp 1884) was released, world recession was hitting Countys important export trade and sales were falling.

County Commercial Cars went into receivership in February 1983. The company was bought by Shropshire County dealer David Gittins, who formed County Tractors Limited, which was taken over in 1987 by the present owners, Benson Group, and relocated to Knighton in Powys.

ROADLESS

Ironically, only a month after the receivers moved into Fleet, Countys close rival Roadless also fell by the wayside and went into voluntary liquidation in March 1983. Equally famous for its 4WD tractors, Roadless, founded by Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Johnson, had been involved in pioneering work with off-road vehicles for over 64 years.

Roadless Traction was originally set up in 1919 as a holding company to exploit patent rights for track and suspension designs held by Johnson and his colleagues, who had been involved in tank development during the First World War.

Through the 1920s and 1930s the company, operating from a former nunnery in Hounslow, moved into small-scale manufacture and built tracked versions of steam and commercial road vehicles before concentrating on tractors fitted with rubber-jointed tracks.

Roadless first conversion of a Fordson appeared in 1930, when a Model N on tracks was supplied to Margate Corporation to haul wagon loads of seaweed off the beach. The Fordson Roadless crawler quickly became one of the companys most successful conversions. During the Second World War, many were fitted with a forecarriage arrangement for stability and were used extensively on Britains airfields.

The companys association with Ford continued with DG half-track and full-track versions of the E27N and E1A Major tractors.

In 1956 Roadless boldly stepped into the four-wheel drive market with a 4WD conversion for the Fordson Major. Built under licence from Selene in Italy, it consisted of a GMC ex-military vehicle front-axle driven from a transfer box mounted between the gearbox and rear transmission. This was the beginning of a new era for the company, which went on to build four-wheel drive versions of most Ford tractors for nearly 30 years, eventually introducing a planetary front axle of its own design.

Roadless launched its first equal-size four-wheel drive tractor, the 115, in 1968. This impressive machine achieved near-perfect weight distribution through the design of the front axle assembly, which weighed a massive 1t and used reduction gear casings to lift the drive up to the front hubs to maintain a low centre of gravity.

Roadless recorded some remarkable successes against larger manufacturers in the Long Sutton ploughing demonstrations during the 1970s. But the beginning of the 1980s saw the company badly affected by Fords decision to market 4WD versions of its own tractors. Roadless had other irons in the fire, notably a hydrostatic forestry tractor known as the Logmaster, but its release coincided with a recession in the timber market and sales never materialised to the level needed to save the company.

DOE

East Anglian agricultural machinery dealers, Ernest Doe and Sons of Ulting near Maldon, took a totally different approach to four-wheel drive when faced with the demand for a more powerful tractor to cope with ploughing the heavy Essex clay during the late 1950s. The company simply adapted two Fordson Power Major tractors to be coupled together in tandem to form a 4WD machine of over 100hp.

The tractors, with the front axles removed, were joined by a specially-built turntable which supported the weight of the rear unit. Twin pairs of steering rams, either side of the turntable, allowed the machine to turn through nearly 90í.

The original design had been evolved by a local farmer, George Pryor, in his farm workshop. Pryor agreed to sell the manufacturing rights to Ernest Doe and the first machine was supplied in 1958 as Does Dual Power.

Mechanical linkages gave the driver, seated on the rear tractor, limited control over the front unit. The first version of the tractor was soon replaced by the improved Doe Dual Drive, or "Triple D", with the driver now able to fully operate the functions of both power units through a system of hydraulic servos.

Although cumbersome in appearance, the Doe Triple D had excellent performance capabilities and sold well to large farms. Several were exported and one machine was exhibited at the 1964 Moscow Show. The company also built a range of high capacity implements to match the tractor and in 1965 launched the uprated Doe 130 based on two Ford 5000 units.

By the end of the 1960s, with competition from more conventional four-wheel drive machines, sales for the Doe tractor were falling and the company decided to end production and concentrate on the retail side of the business.

MUIR-HILL

Another name was added to the list of manufacturers of Ford-based 4WD tractors when Muir-Hill entered the ring with its 101 model in November 1966.

Established in construction machinery since the 1920s with a range of dumpers and loading shovels traditionally build on Ford skid-units, Gloucester-based Muir-Hill was a relative newcomer to the agricultural scene.

The motivation behind the 101 agricultural tractor came from David JB Brown who had joined Muir-Hill in 1965, subsequently becoming managing director. Brown had previously been with Chaseside, where he had initiated the Northrop tractor – an equal-size, four-wheel drive machine based on Ford 5000 components. The short-lived Northrop project had shown great promise but was shelved after Chaseside was bought out by JCB in 1968.

The Muir-Hill 101 was built along similar lines to the Northrop but with certain design improvements. The gearbox, transmission and hydraulics were derived from the Ford 5000 and power was provided by a six-cylinder Ford 2704E engine developing 108hp. The 101 was uprated in 1971 and was replaced the following year by the 120hp 121 with the Ford 2715E power unit.

The 121 was joined by other models of Muir-Hill tractor but these were Perkins powered, the only exception being the 141, which had the option of a 143hp turbocharged Ford engine. The tractors remained in production, with various cab improvements, until 1982, when Muir-Hill was sold by its parent company, Babcock International.

Over the next 10 years ownership of Muir-Hill passed from company to company, including Wibau, Sanderson and Aveling Barford. Today the business is in the hands of Lloyd Loaders of Hipperholme, near Halifax, specialists in reconditioned Muir-Hill tractors and loading shovels. The company also builds new machines to order, including its own version of the Muir-Hill tractor, marketed as the Myth-Holm 131 and available with a choice of power units.

Ford and Fordson tractors became the basis of countless thousands of specialist machines, many of which are still in work all over the world, from land mine clearance machines in the Gulf, orange and lemon tree shapers in Israel, to timber forwarders in Scandinavia. Ford skid units, now built under the New Holland banner, are still in demand for conversion by other manufacturers and only last year a number of export model County tractors were supplied based on new New Holland Series 40 tractors.

A County Full Track fitted with the option of a Perkins P6 diesel engine.

Above: Production model County Super-4 – the machine that heralded the start of a long line of four-wheel drive production at County. Below: Countys flagship model, the 188 hp 1994, was unveiled at the 1980 Smithfield Show. This tractor was based on Fords TW30 model.

The first Roadless tractor to be based on a Fordson skid unit – this Model N crawler is seen on demonstration with Margate Corporation in April 1930, hauling a 3t load of seaweed off the beach.

A Fordson Power Major provided the skid unit for this prototype County Super-4. Production model machines, built from 1960, were based on the Super Major.

An early Doe Dual Power tractor in action with a Doe five-furrow plough.

The Myth-Holm 131 – new version of the Muir Hill tractor introduced by Lloyd Loaders of Hipperholme in 1989. Power comes from a 130hp Ford 2725 unit but other engine options are available.

A Doe Triple D matched to a Doe four-furrow reversible plough. The tractor is fitted with a Fritzmeir cab.

The Bray Centaur was the brainchild of Essex ploughing contractor, John Suckling. Built by Bray Construction Equipment of Feltham, the four-wheel drive tractor was designed to be fitted with a plough fore and aft to eliminate turning on the headlands. The machine was based on a Bray industrial loading shovel and was powered by a Ford 590E six-cylinder engine driving through a Power Major gearbox.

Launched in 1971, the four-cylinder Roadless 94T, based on the 94hp turbocharged Ford 7000 tractor, featured a new diff-locked planetary hub reduction front axle of Roadlesss own design and manufacture.

A 1962 Doe Triple D, based on two Fordson Super major units combined to give over 100hp.

Countys yard at Fleet during the late 1950s. Two Power Major-based Ploughman crawlers are loaded on to a County 6 x 2 conversion of the Ford Thames Trader lorry.

Built in 1962, the Matbro Mastiff was one of the first pivot-steer agricultural tractors. Made of two Fordson Super Major rear transmission units joined by a single propeller shaft, it boasted 100hp from a Ford six-cylinder engine mounted over the front unit. A normal Super Major gearbox was used with a chain driven transfer box. The "centre-pivot steer" system was developed by Matbros founder, Leonard Mathew, for use in the companys loading shovels.

A Fordson Model N tractor fitted with Roadless DG4 half-tracks in 1944. The drivers canopy was also available from Roadless for £11.10s.0d. extra!

Matbro Mastiff

An early Roadless four-wheel drive conversion of a 1956 Fordson Diesel major.

Bray Centaur

Muir-Hills 101 began life with a 108hp engine, which was updated to 120hp in 1971.