When I first saw the old, blue 1922 Fordson model F tractor at the Karen Blixen Museum, I was awestruck by its very sight. To think that such a legendary piece of technology had somehow found its way in to Kenya was beyond me.
This particular piece, I am told, had arrived here in Kenya at a time it was also making its début in 1916 in American and later, in 1917, in European farms as the first lightweight mass-produced tractor in the world.
The Fordson, priced at about USD 750.00, allowed average farmers to own a tractor for the first time. Before this model, tractors were a preserve of the filthy rich – in fact it is said there were only 600 tractors in the whole of the USA by 1908.
The Fordson, as you may have guessed, was another history-making product by the brilliant businessman, inventor, engineer and, ahem, my namesake, Henry Ford. Henry had just released the Ford Model T in 1908, the first affordable automobile in the world that opened up travel possibilities for the masses worldwide.
The Fordson brand name was used on a range of mass-produced general-purpose tractors manufactured by his company, Henry Ford & Son, Inc. from 1917 until 1920 when it was merged into the Ford Motor Company.
The Fordson Model F which was assembled with 4,000 different parts used a 20 horsepower (15 KW) 4-cylinder vaporising oil engine with a 3-speed spur gear transmission that did forward speeds ranging about 2¼ to 6¼ MPH. The Fordson did not have any breaks so in order to stop it the driver had to depress the clutch!
The Fordson F succeeded in being cheaper to maintain than horses, as the Ford T had previously done. A government test concluded that farmers spent USD .95 per acre ploughing with a Fordson compared to the USD 1.46 per acre required to feed 8 horses and pay 2 drivers for a year.
But as much as the Fordson F was revolutionary, it was equally not without its share of flaws. Key among them was the lack of weight, which allowed wheel slippage in some conditions and the habit of rearing over backwards if the plough encountered an obstruction.
Despite numerous design and assembly improvements, Fordson tractors remained very high maintenance machines with costs in some cases reported to be well over USD 1,301.00, which was pretty high by 1921 standards.
Some farmers even claimed the Fordson was a dangerous piece of technology that needed to be banned especially because of its tendency to flip over backwards if sudden resistance on the draw-bar produced excessive torque in the transmission.
Whatever the verdict on the safety and reliability of the Fordson F, the fact remained that, in a stroke of genius, Henry, once more, offered the world an amazing technology that was affordable by average people and helped hasten mechanisation in farms by the masses.
What an amazing opportunity to be able to see such a legendary piece of technology right here at the Karen Blixen Museum. It is only a pity that it lies abandoned outside the museum, wasting away in the elements when it should be preserved for posterity.
Either way, this provides a good reason to visit the museum and catch a glimpse of history before it vanishes!