10th July 2019

The Little Grey Fergie

An icon. There are few engineering accomplishments that can be identified by reference only to their size and colour. However, utter ‘Little Grey Fergie’ to the majority of classic car enthusiasts and they’ll instantly picture the Ferguson TE20. The strength of this image, immense it may be, does little justice to the importance of Harry Ferguson’s design and the impact it’s gone on to have on agriculture globally.  

Post-war Britain needed brightening up. Huge factories once used to make munitions to support the war effort lay dormant. It was in one of these facilities, on Banner Lane, Coventry, in 1946 that David Brown Ltd. joined forces with Ferguson to form the Ferguson-Brown Company and manufacture a new small, lightweight and versatile tractor that would go on to change the face of farming forever: the TE20.

So we are talking total tractor here. Key to the TE20’s diminutive appearance was Ferguson’s ingenious three-point hydraulic hitch system, which would go on to adopt the Ferguson System moniker. In essence, this new hitch replaced the drawbar, which was a fundamentally inflexible system that required both more effort (and therefore a larger tractor) to manoeuvre and increased man-time to swap loads or functionality. Although not his idea originally, Ferguson refined and patented the hydraulic three-point hitch and the TE20 provided a perfect route to market for the innovative technology.

The world’s farmers took note, as did the other agricultural manufacturers. The hitch’s design allowed the tow vehicle to be lighter due to its ability to transfer force from a plough, for instance, to over the rear wheels of the tow vehicle, requiring less force from the tractor. The 2088cc engine used in the TE20 may have only produced 20bhp (a variation of which was also later found in the Standard Vanguard car), but in combination with the Ferguson System it provided farmers with a reduced cost tractor that provided greater efficiency and performance than existing models.

The TE20 has been credited with inspiring mechanised agriculture. Other manufacturers recognised the benefits brought by the Ferguson System and started developing tools that could be used in conjunction. The Little Grey Fergie gave agriculture its first truly mechanised, mobile multi-tool. From ploughing to muck-spreading or harvesting, the TE20 could be quickly hitched up with the appropriate hardware to perform any task required. It provided the biggest agricultural step-change since farmers first stopped working their land with four-legged load bearers. They were even used on a Trans-Atlantic expedition led by Edmund Hilary.

The Little Grey Fergie was only built for 10 years, during which time over half-a-million rolled off the production line at the 1,000,000 sq ft Coventry premises. If you can think of a more identifiable British institution that generated such a lasting legacy in such a short space of time, then let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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