With 175 years of developments in power on-farm, Alex Heath looks at the major milestones and iconic models which have helped shape the tractors of today.
When the Preston Guardian was founded in the 1840s, agriculture in Britain found itself at a crossroads. The country was just beginning to flourish after recovering from the effects of a 20-year depression in agriculture – which came at the end of the Napoleonic War.
At this time, the oxen were gradually replaced by the more intelligent and versatile horse for all manner of cultivations and haulage tasks.
Advancements in power delivery saw horse-works or engines developed to provide power to the earliest, rudimentary static threshers and these required horses to be attached to a spoke-like device, with a belt taking the drive to the thresher.
By the 1850s, steam engines were gaining momentum, with the earlier static three and four horsepower models giving way to larger, mobile six or 12hp models.
Initially, these mobile units were pulled by horse, but soon became self-propelled, pioneered by British engineer Thomas Aveling, widely regarded as building the first traction engine in 1859, adding to their versatility.
Attaching a winch on to the flywheel saw steam ploughing become a popular and efficient way of cultivating at the time, but not radically more so than the humble horse, which continued to be employed for large amounts of cultivation.
The following decades saw manufacturers increasing the efficiency of the steam-powered traction units, however these were predominantly US-made or inspired, not entirely suitable to UK conditions.
Much like modern day agriculture, the last quarter of the 1800s saw agriculture become globalised with the US exporting excess cereal harvests from 1875 and, with the advent of reliable refrigeration by the 1890s, meat from the southern hemisphere started landing on our shores.
UK farm land, with its unpredictable weather, soils and field sizes required lighter, nimbler tractors, not feasible at the time. However, internal combustion engine development was advancing at a ferocious pace and it was not long before engineers saw its potential in a tractor chassis.
The Hornsby-Akroyd Patent Safety Oil Traction Engine was the first of its kind to be produced and sold in the UK, fuelled on heavy oil, it developed 20hp.
A number of years and feverish developments passed before the next revolutionary machine was unveiled in 1903, in the form of the Ivel Agrimotor, created by Dan Albone.
This three-wheeled, petrol-powered machine was compact and had an exceptionally tight turning circle, perfect for replacing horses.
Developing 22hp, it sold in reasonable numbers, a feat for any new technology of the time, with sceptical farmers.
American-made tractors were at the forefront of advancements as the land cropped across the pond continued to grow.
In the years preceding World War 1, one name rose to eminence in the form of International Harvester (IH), an alliance of several companies.
Its most popular model in the UK was the Titan 10-20 and was often the first glimpse of a tractor many farmers had. IH continued to develop tractors and the 1.5 ton 8-16 Junior, equipped with the first PTO shaft, grew in popularity.
As World War 1 raged on Henry Ford, famed for his revolutionary methods of car production, turned his hand to tractor manufacture, rewriting the book as to how it should be designed, using the engine and transmission as the structural chassis.
Initially, in 1917, the government purchased 6,000 units of his 20hp prototype tractor, later called the Fordson Model F, but favoured domestic production, limiting the risk of German sabotage.
The UK production site decided on was Cork, Ireland, but production at the site did not start until after the war in 1919.
One of the single biggest landmarks in the history of the tractor occurred in 1926, when Irishman Harry Ferguson put pen to paper and designed the three point linkage.
Built for him by David Brown of Huddersfield, the 20hp Ferguson Type A was as light as anything that had gone before it, but the implement-attaching mechanism meant it was fully capable of keeping up with all but the biggest tractors of the time, due to the hydraulic draft control mechanism.
However, because of the significant cost of the tractor and the need to buy specialist implements to get the best out of the little tractor, sales were nothing radical, but the three point linkage had proven its worth.
Possibly the most iconic tractor ever, the Ferguson TE20, otherwise known as the Little Grey Fergie, was born in 1946. Heavily based on a previous collaboration with Ford, it was produced in petrol, paraffin-petrol and some diesel models until 1956.
In 1953 a merger with Massey-Harris would see it produced under the two brands, before being superseded by the TE35 later to become the Massey Ferguson 35. In total, 517,651 TE20s were built at the plant in Coventry.
Eight years later, the iconic MF135 would be created, largely based on the TE35, but fitted with a three cylinder Perkins engine producing 45hp.
Tractors globally in the following years continued to get larger and more sophisticated, and the UK was no exception.
Advances in engine, transmission and hydraulic technology, plus the creation and development of hardware we now take for granted, such as cabs and four wheel drive systems, can be seen in a tractor many millennials will have learned to drive on.
Ford launched its 10 series tractors in 1981. A culmination of all the advancements of the last three decades, the 7610 was the largest in the range, boasting 103hp from its turbocharged four cylinder engine in a compact package.
Synchromesh transmissions meant grinding gears was a thing of the past and the Q cab the tractors were fitted with, while not hush quiet by today’s standards, was a big step forward at the time.
And we now find ourselves with the tractors of today. Refinement is now a standard expected from manufacturers, as is near complete automation, for a range of tasks.
Gear changes now seamlessly cycle up and down ranges with continuously variable transmissions, steering and accuracy is down to the millimetre with guidance systems and largest tractors are now boasting near to 700hp with the Case IH 620 Quadtrac and John Deere 620RX.
Just imagine feeding all the mouths we have now if we were back in the 1840s.