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Mon, Jul 28, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Massey-Ferguson brings era to an end with closure

RED AND GREY Britain's industrial heritage was symbolized by the famous tractor plant in Coventry, but a legacy spanning 56-years came to a halt Friday


A glorious chapter not only in Britain's industrial heritage, but also the very history of global farming, came to an end last week as Massey Ferguson's famous tractor plant in Coventry closed its doors.

The production lines finally fell silent at the Banner Lane factory in the central English city on Friday, 56 years and an astonishing 3 million tractors after they started up just after World War II.

Although several hundred administrative staff remain at what is now Massey Ferguson's European headquarters, the curtain has finally come down on a technological revolution that changed the way people farm around the world.

At the center of the story is a pugnacious Belfast-born engineer called Harry Ferguson.

In the 1920s he devised a revolutionary method of attaching ploughs and other farming implements to tractors by a patented three-point hydraulically-assisted linkage method, the so-called "Ferguson System."

Although a vast improvement on the previous crude method of towing ploughs on a length of chain, Ferguson struggled to market his invention, breaking off abortive unions with first a British engineering firm and then Henry Ford in the US.

However in 1946 he made a deal with British carmaker Standard to make tractors of his own design at Banner Lane, a vast complex used to make aircraft engines during World War II.

All Ferguson's expertise went into this first model, the famous "Little Grey Fergie," more than 500,000 of which rolled off the production lines in Coventry from 1946 to 1957.

According to tractor historian Stuart Gibbard, who has written a number of books on the subject, Ferguson was "a visionary" whose design changed the course of farming history.

"It's been cited as the machine that revolutionised farming. It brought mechanisation to the small farmer, and it also brought mechanisation to many developing countries of the world," he told reporters.

"A lot of the places the Grey Ferguson went into had never even seen a car, let alone a tractor."

The linkage system meant ploughs could be reversed into every inch of a field, and the tractor's simple design let Ferguson's salesmen boast they could teach anyone to use it -- even someone who had never before seen a machine -- in less than two hours.

In 1953, the by-now elderly Ferguson had sold out to Canadian giant Massey Harris, itself the product of an earlier union between two competing farm equipment manufacturers.

Even then, according to Gibbard, Ferguson's methods were unconventional.

"When he sold out to Massey Harris, there was an argument over a million dollars, and in the end Harry said: `Let's toss a coin for it'," he said. "They did, and he lost."

The newly-minted Massey Ferguson grew rapidly, becoming the biggest tractor manufacturer in the world in 1962 and keeping that position ever since.

Banner Lane was at the very center, rolling out hundred of tractors a day in Massey Ferguson's trademark red and grey colors.

However in 1993 the company was bought up by US agricultural machinery giant Agco.

The new bosses decided that the mid-sized tractors produced by the Coventry site were unnecessary in a market dominated by either giant agri-business machines or smaller models for less developed nations.

These were already produced in France and Brazil, and transferring production to Banner Lane was never an option, said Declan Hayden, vice president of sales for Massey Ferguson.

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