Harry Ferguson and his Mates - Blackbourn 384

By: Rob Blackbourn

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Swallow Doretti Swallow Dorettis shared engines with the TR Triumphs Swallow Doretti

What to do with a bit of spare capacity in a tractor plant? Here's an idea...

A tractor's ability to plough a straight furrow has little to do with sports car performance. Obviously.

It’s a bit of a surprise then that the vast gulf between the approaches to tractor and performance-car engineering has often been straddled successfully by manufacturers.

Lamborghini is the obvious first case-in-point. After his WWII service young Ferruccio Lamborghini started cobbling up tiny tractors in Northern Italy, using components from military-surplus equipment. This backyard set-up ultimately became a fully fledged tractor manufacturing operation. In the 1960s the by-then seriously wealthy Signor Lamborghini started building supercars as well, allegedly because of disappointing Ferrari-owning experiences.

Next, my favourite tractor man, Irish engineer Harry Ferguson, whose legendary ‘Grey Fergie’ tractors, IMHO, deserve a place alongside collectable cars. In the shed of my dreams a Grey Fergie would share a corner with a Moke Californian and a Bren gun carrier.

Ferguson’s innovative take on tractor design – an approach that was ultimately much imitated – established him as the ‘father’ of the modern farm tractor.

Porsche -tractor

A Porsche that's truly "never been driven over 30km/h"

After falling out with Henry Ford II over a deal to build Ferguson tractors at Ford’s Dagenham plant, Harry collaborated with the Standard Motor Company in Coventry. In 1947 the FE20 (the Grey Fergie) laid first claim to Standard’s all-new ‘wet sleeve’ 2.0-litre engine; the following year Standard launched its new Vanguard sedan featuring a highcompression version of the ‘tractor motor’.

Subsequent years saw Standard’s popular Triumph TR2, TR3 and TR4 sportscars powered by uprated twincarb versions of the ‘tractor motor.’ Australia’s radio star of the 1950s, Jack Davey, owned a rare British sportscar featuring the same donk, a Swallow Doretti.

‘Tractorman’ Harry had more to give, going on to build a 4WD Formula 1 car, the Ferguson P99, that Stirling Moss drove to victory in the UK in 1961; it even made an appearance at Warwick Farm for the 1963 Australian Grand Prix, driven by Graham Hill. In 1966, five years after Harry’s death, Jensen Motors launched its FF (Ferguson Formula) Interceptor using his 4WD system.

Now to David Brown of Yorkshire that, interestingly, like Citroen in Paris, started as a gear-cutting business before building vehicles. Its move into tractors came through a joint venture in 1936 with – yep, that man again – Harry Ferguson. After splitting with Ferguson some years later, David Brown went on to become a major tractor builder and exporter. Unlike Lamborghini’s frustration-driven decision to become a car builder, Brown’s move into cars was part of its growth strategy of acquiring other businesses after a profitable WWII – notably including Aston Martin. Under Brown ownership from 1947-72 – the ‘DB’ period – many legendary Aston Martins rolled out of that tractor factory.


Triumph's TR4 was the last to use the 'tractor' motor

Exploring this tractor/sportscar link was prompted by a recent press release revealing that Italian designhouse Pininfarina – of Ferrari, BMW and Alfa Romeo fame – had produced a snazzy concept tractor for the Czech company Zetor.

A surprise lay in wait for me as I fact-checked my recollections of the Lamborghini/Ferguson/ Aston Martin stories. A Daily Mail article – headed: "Is this the slowest Porsche ever?" – featured a Super 308 diesel tractor built by Porsche in 1958, just six years before it launched the 911.

You could have knocked me down with a disc harrow…

Triumph _TR4

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