Friday, June 27, 2008


It seemed astonishing to me, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, that I would actually be allowed to drive a tractor. And not just a quick turn about the yard, either, but driving one properly, out in the fields for hours at a time, doing real work for real money. I couldn't believe my luck.

Wise men, those local farmers. They knew that they could get a boy to shovel cow dung from dawn till dark if there was a chance that he'd be allowed to take the tractor out next day and spread the muck. Wiser still to know that a boy would sit on that iron seat in all weathers, a bit of sacking draped across his head and shoulders (no cabs in those days) and still glow with the privilege of being in charge of such a mighty machine.

Fordson Major! Massey Ferguson! I loved them then, and I love them still. The Fordson was the scarier of the two. It was a beast, blue with orange wheels, taller than a man, and before you could scale the heights of it and park your skinny ass on that great scalloped seat you had to get thing going. No joke, my dears, on a cold January morning, and the starting handle covered in slippery white rime. I was never a tough kid, nor a particularly brave one, and so it took some effort and commitment to swing that handle over - knowing that if the engine kicked back it could break your leg, let alone your wrist. But I was bright enough to take instruction, and always made sure I kept my puny thumb over the top of the handle rather than grasped around it. And then, when the engine coughed and choked into life, and the frozen yard was filled with its heavy pumping beat - always that clickety-clatter at the top end - well, it was music to me. And the fresh winter air smelled better than ever, somehow, mixed with diesel.

Then you clambered up the iron mountain, aware that you were out of scale with it all, the footrests just a little too high, seat too deep and broad, steering wheel too wide. Using the clutch was like using a footpump. The top of the gear lever felt as big as a baby's head beneath your hand. Out to the fields then, with a trailer load of beets for the cattle, or dung to spread, and the hope of a similar job when that was done. Hope, too, that you didn't tip the damn thing over on the steep slope of the pasture, because then you would surely die. Although on balance it might have been worth it. The very early Fordsons were notorious death traps, although the ones I knew were later models, and a slight improvement over this from Wikipedia:

"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 a number of 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.
It wasn't until much later that Ford finally took heed of the critics and made modifications, such as extended rear fenders dubbed "grousers" intended to stop the tractor from turning over in a tipping situation, and a pendulum-type "kill switch" to cut power to the engine in such instances.

But where the Fordsons were scary monsters, the Massey Fergusons were much more friendly, and a real joy to drive. Electric start! Two gear ratios! The so-called 'little grey Fergie' was as smart as a terrier, quick and intelligent, cheap to run. Harry Ferguson's revolutionary thinking meant that the TE20 didn't just haul things along, but also powered its many attachments. It didn't need the brute force of the Fordson in order to get the job done. Thanks to hydraulics, ploughs could be raised and lowered, making it possible to get right into the awkward corners of fields, and the onboard PTO shaft meant that baling machines and the like were powered by the tractor rather than the drive wheels of the machines themselves. When the TE20 was first introduced, Ferguson reps travelled the country demonstrating its innovative features to groups of admiring farmers who instantly took the wonderful little machine to their hearts. I know of no other single piece of equipment that had such a measurable effect on modern farming. Every farmer had one, and it was universally loved. I'd buy one now and keep it as a pet, if I had a big enough kennel.

Yes, and I'm only half joking. The Fordson Major and the little grey Fergie were standard kit in that part of Somerset I come from, and every boy I knew was fully conversant with both. They were holiday entertainment for some of us, a career gateway to others. As it turns out I've probably spent more hours drawing tractors than I ever did driving them. I'm still not entirely convinced as to which was the better choice.


James said...

I was on a TO30 at age 11. I could hold it on a hill only by standing on the pedals and pulling up on the steering wheel.

Jim Peck

Masha said...

I remember my best friend Susan driving a tractor when she was 13 years old, on her family's wine farm in Stellenbosch. She was a skinny girl with long white plats and lots of freckles, very pale and serious. She seemed to make that thing move by sheer willpower.
I was a soft non-farm girl, and chiefly remember the naked un-uphostered metal seat.

Steve Augarde said...

Ha. Before they let me drive, I remember being perched up on the mudguard, clinging on perilously as the farmer drove home across the rutted fields. Health and Safety would have a fit nowadays.

Steve Augarde said...

Wow. I never saw a schoolgirl drive a tractor where I came from, Masha - although of course there were plenty of young women that did during the war.

Land Girls, they were called, and they've just received some official recognition of their efforts. 60 years on.

sexy said...