Retrotechtacular: Horseless Farming With The Ford Model B

Does everyone watch a load of videos on YouTube that are somewhat on the unadmissibly geeky side? In my case I might not care to admit that I have a lot of videos featuring tractors in my timeline. The mighty Russian Kirovets hauling loads through the impossible terrain of the taiga, tiny overloaded 2WD tractors in India pulling wheelies, and JCB Fastracs tearing around the British Fenland. You can take the girl off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the girl.

Tractor versus Tractor; a guilty pleasure but not Retrotechtacular
Tractor versus Tractor; a guilty pleasure but not Retrotechtacular

So my recommendations have something of an agricultural flavor. Like the video below the break, a 1917 silent film promoting the Ford Model B tractor. This one was eye-catching because it was a machine I’d not seen before, a rather unusual three-wheeler design with two driving wheels at the front and a single rear steering wheel.

During the early years of the twentieth century the shape of the modern tractor was beginning to evolve, this must have been a late attempt at an alternative. Speaking from the viewpoint of someone who has operated a few tractors in her time it does not look the easiest machine to control, that cloud of exhaust smoke surrounding the driver would not be pleasant, and the operating position hanging over the implement coupling at the rear does not look particularly comfortable or safe.

The film has a charming period feel, and tells the tale of a farmer’s son who tires of the drudgery of manual farm labor, and leaves for the city. He finds a job at the tractor factory and eventually becomes a tractor salesman, along the way meeting and marrying the daughter of a satisfied customer. He returns home with his bride, and a shiny new tractor to release his father from ceaseless labor. Along the way we gain a fascinating look at agriculture on the brink of mass mechanization, as well as the inside of a tractor factory of the time with an assembly sequence in which they appear to use no fasteners.

[Image Source: Tractor Industry Fraud on Farm Collector]
[Image Source: Tractor Industry Fraud on Farm Collector]
All of this is very interesting, but the real nugget in the story lies with its manufacturer. This is a Ford Model B tractor. But it’s not a Ford Model B. Confused? So, it seems were the customers. The Ford we all know is the Michigan-based motor company of Henry Ford, who were already very much a big name in 1917. This Ford however comes from the Ford Tractor Co, of South Dakota, an enterprise set up by a shady businessman to cash in on the Ford brand, manufacturing an already outdated and inferior machine backed up by dubious claims of its capabilities.

On the staff was an engineer called Ford who lent his name to the company, but he bore no relation to Henry Ford. The company didn’t last long, collapsing soon after the date of this film, and very few of its products survived. It did have one legacy though, the awful quality of one of its tractors is reputed to have been the impetus behind the founding of the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory, the place where if you sell a tractor in the USA, you’ll have to have it tested to ensure it performs as it should. In their museum they house one of the few surviving Ford Model B tractors.

Meanwhile the Ford in Michigan produced their own very successful line of tractors, and their Fordson Model F from the same year is a visible ancestor of today’s machines. But as the video below shows, there’s nothing new about a fake.

If tractors are your thing, maybe you’d like to take a look at another early mechanized agricultural oddity, the rein-operated tractor. Meanwhile in the present day, we’ve also brought you an autonomous tractor on the Canadian prairie.

39 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Horseless Farming With The Ford Model B

      1. Farmers will be one of the last positions to be automated, if ever. Sure farming can be automated but operating a farm is so much more than just growing things. Farmers will get more AgSci background and use more sophisticated machinery but choosing crop rotations, intuiting weather patterns and outcomes, following what crops sell and what people want grown and rearing stock is a job better left to a human who lives on the land rather than one writing software in a city.

    1. I can definitely see truckers becoming obsolete maybe even in the next 15 years but farming no. while a lot of jobs on the farm will benefit from new technology which may decrease the workforce, I really just can’t see a fully functioning AI controlled farm anytime soon. There are too many different jobs on a farm and a lot of situations I think even tomorrow’s AI will struggle with.
      We are slowly seeing Banks, Shops etc becoming self serving with “self checkout” but even there we still need shelf stackers, security, help desks & self checkout helper’s. while I love to see progress I do fear for the future of low skilled workers as they will be the first jobs to go.

      1. There are dairies where pretty much the only time a human shows up is if there’s an equipment malfunction, a vet to treat the cows, or a removal truck if one dies. Ear tags get automatically read and milk production monitored to provide custom tailored feeding for each cow – and the cows quickly learn where to go whenever they’re hungry or feel like they need milked. Higher milk production can be achieved, partly by less stress on the cows without a fixed and less than optimum feeding and milking schedule.

        Farming crops would be simpler. For anything that’s mechanically harvested and planted, all that’s needed is adding a GPS guided system to pilot the machine – which has been done many times. The issue there is cost, how much for a new unmanned tractor VS the long term cost of a paid employee to drive a standard one?

        Where farm labor is unionized, there’s the possibility of strikes if farms buy large numbers of robot tractors. The jobs that can’t yet be automated would go undone.

        Even crops that have to be harvested by hand will likely see automation in the near future. Look up ABB Flex Picker on Youtube to find robots handling soft and squishy things like pancakes and croissants without damaging them. Now think what a peach picking robot could do, especially if it has the ability to detect with better accuracy than humans which fruits are at the perfect stage to pick – and pick them at a much faster speed while also handling them with more care that causes less bruising.

        Even if an orchard has to lay special track between rows of trees, the higher yield of higher quality fruit, plus the elimination of wages, insurance etc that humans require would have orchardbots being installed.

        There are cargo handling seaports in Europe that are automated. One huge one employs only 12 people where formerly thousands were employed. Automated cranes and trucks replaced the longshoremen, truck drivers and crane operators. The robots never drop containers or accidentally hit things with the trucks. They don’t take lunch, restroom and smoke breaks.

        1. “Farming crops would be simpler. For anything that’s mechanically harvested and planted, all that’s needed is adding a GPS guided system to pilot the machine – which has been done many times. The issue there is cost, how much for a new unmanned tractor VS the long term cost of a paid employee to drive a standard one?”

          DRM comes to tractors (

          1. Deere have shot themselves in the foot with that one, losing the US farmers they’d had in their pocket for years. I read somewhere an older Deere with no DRM is worth more than a newish one with it. Speaks volumes.

            Our Deere outside is a 1980s model. Plenty of life left in it :)

          2. Replying to @notarealemail and Jenny:

            Unfortunately, economy of scale and optimizing out the last droplet will push us towards more DRM.

            John Deere is just the pioneer, early “failures” are to be expected.

            Unless enough of us really *want* it a different way (yeah, Hackaday is part of it).

        2. I should point out….

          Farmers will not buy these machines, the margins are growing too narrow. What’s happening is they’re renting the machines from people who move them from farm to farm all across the country.

          Sure farmers will buy tractors… maybe. But these _specialized_ planters, harvesters, shakers, whatever I’m talking about. A lot of them are rented, automating them won’t change anything about this. I imagine it would actually encourage that kind of thing since they’re likely going to be more expensive than “traditional” farm equipment. It seems like that people are still necessary, just in a different capacity.

          In any case, not all crops will “change” over at the same time, if at all. Lots of crops are still managed or harvested by people strictly because no one has come up with the tech to do so.

          I would also bank there might be push back as well. My town sports dozens of small community farms nestled between homes and businesses and countless backyard gardens. One block of apartments actually gardens in the small strip of soil between the road and sidewalk (I question the safety of the food however). Not sure of the collective crop output of these farms but a number of restaurants sport signage showing they buy vegetables from these localized farms.

        1. I live near a large forest and have firearms. Venison and turkey for lunch with a side of corn from local farms. I don’t really want to bite, LOL.

          If the SHTF for real I could ‘borrow’ propane tanks from a local supplier, but that would be after the generator eventually runs out of gas.

          Keep a few thousand paper dollars in a safe place just in case; I’ve had to dig into the emergency fund before during a week-long power outage caused by an ice storm. The banks were closed and the ATMs didn’t work, but paper did. :)
          Winter is coming…

          1. Well if “the SHTF for real” at least you’ve got toilet paper. Paper money, “I promise to pay”, it’s a fancy IOU backed by something that’s as screwed as you are, if SHTF for real. Glad it was useful for you during that limited local emergency though. If you’re going to keep doing it, then don’t worry about how you used it “immediately” during that storm, that’s what you’ll want to do, get value for it before everybody realises it doesn’t have any.

    2. In some sense farmers have already gone. Most farms are corporate now, with big equipment doing the work of many people. In fact, a “family” farm has a hard time making a go of it anymore. Sure, there are still farmers, but there are fewer of them doing more work with automation and big machinery.

      1. Corporate farms are bad as they tend to be operated in an unsustainable and produce less safe food as the only thing that matters to them is near term profits.
        They do not care if the land become unarable so long as they can still sell it to a developer for condos and track housing and buy new land.

    3. Undoubtedly there where changes, but I have my doubts that farmers and trucker will become obsolete. We had the wettest Spring and Summer we had in years. That had farmers adapting to changing contions to get the Fall crops in. harvesting the Summer and Fall crops, getting next year’s wheat planted. These are conditions that automation can’t manage. While it will take fewer humans,but humans aren’t going to be replace. In many places “farming” include the year round care and feeding of livestock. In much of Rural USA Rail lines have been abanded and the rails pulled up. Only trucking is going to replace that to get farm production to the market. Not to mean all the trucking that exists where there was no rail acces at all, still has to be done. The Noth South US highway here is said to be the shortestes route between I70 & it has Wind turbine components coming from the North Going South and Oldfield Equipment frpm TX &OK headed North. Many farmer will still be the shits as employers, but farmers wont be obsolete as long as there are people who want to eat, and that’s the same reason trucking will not become obsolete.. In the event the plan is to automate trick control on the black top it would make more sense to bring back the rail and modernize it. building who knows how many over passes of the tracks.

  1. Splicing the farming and hacking theme, self made tractors/agricultural vehicles were interesting, common name for them was doodlebugs, but there was another one that’s escaping me at the moment. Usually used automobile parts plus whatever could be scrounged.

  2. For very many years, we used to have a box of “twelve bore” cartridges stashed in a top cupboard. They were green, not red or orange (and yes, I’m still talking about tractors that were available on our side of the pond, Jenny). They were never used because they were rumoured to be detrimental to the reliability of the tractor engine. They were the lazy man’s starter.
    The other essential ingredient to starting this particular beast was a “cigarette paper” (in reality, something a little more like a very slow, smouldering fuse) inserted directly into the cylinder head.
    Now that was a hack …on an industrial level.
    We were told as kids that this particular brand of tractor had been imported from the U.S. during the war years under the land-lease deal. It wasn’t until many years later that I found out that this was total codswallop. They were actually a British rip-off of an original German design.
    What was it? Any takers?

    1. Some old kerosene tractors I hear tell you had to stuff a burning rag in the intake to get them going on cold days, well wasn’t exactly kerosene, but a near derivative called tractor vaporising oil.

      1. Macona gets it in one! :-)
        Yup, a Field Marshall (a brace of them at one stage), bought mainly for their ability to belt-drive a sawmill at a remote location. They also proved very useful as 3-ton anchors when winching out felled timber.
        One of the Field Marshall’s other amusing little foibles was to kick-back on starting and run in reverse (so you ended up with three reverse gears and one forward).

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