Big, red and bouncy or… Canadian hybrid

Published: 11:26AM Jul 12th, 2011
By: Peter Henshaw

Sought after now, but the Massey-Harris 744D was a commercial failure – why?
Peter Henshaw tracks down a Somerset-based example with a long family history, to illustrate the point.

Big, red and bouncy or… Canadian hybrid

It’s funny how some tractors that are now well respected and highly sought after, were ‘flops’ in their day. Take the Massey-Harris 744. Smooth and torquey, handsome in its bright red tinwork, an asset to anyone’s collection. But back in the early 1950s when they were new, very few British farmers succumbed to the 744’s charms – Massey-Harris sold just over 16,500 of them in six years, and most of those were exported. By contrast, the competing P6-powered Fordson sold over 45,000. These days, owners love the British-built 744, so why was it a sales flop when new?

Rewind to 1945, and consider the position of Massey-Harris. We now see M-H as the Canadian giant which took over Ferguson, but by the end of the Second World War this long-established company was on shaky ground. Big by Canadian standards, it was small compared to the US colossi of John Deere or International. M-H was more the size of ‘second division’ US firms like Oliver and Minneapolis-Moline, but it had ambitions to leap into the big league.

In some ways, Massey-Harris had a lot going for it. It was very strong on implements and had pioneered the self-propelled combine, allowing it to dominate the vast North American market for this type of machine. And M-H had invested lots of money in 1944/45, expanding production at just the right time to take advantage of the immediate postwar machinery boom, as farmers clamoured for new kit after six years of minimal production during wartime.

All well and good, but Massey-Harris faced some big problems too. Inevitably, rival manufacturers were beginning to muscle in on the combine market, so for the first time it was facing some stiff competition. M-H was also heavily dependent on sales in North America – it had factories in France and Germany, but these had suffered from war damage. As for the postwar sales boom, by 1949/50 that was pretty well over, as tractor and implement makers in Europe and North America came back on stream.

Crucially, Massey-Harris was very weak on tractors. These weren’t a priority for the company, which claimed just 3% of the USA tractor market and spent far more on expanding combine production. True, it had relaunched its line up in 1946/47, as the little Pony, 20, 30, 44 and 55. But really these were little more than updates of the old 102 Junior and Senior, tractors that had prewar roots. They still used separate frames and didn’t have hydraulics until 1951 – and even then without depth control.

The smaller tractors didn’t stand a chance against Ford and Ferguson, now both in full-flood production of modern lightweights with full hydraulics as standard. In the States, Massey’s Pony sold so poorly that the factory had to stop making them for several months while the stocks of unsold machines slowly cleared. (The French-made Pony, by contrast, was a big success, but that’s another story).

The big 55 had its own teething troubles, though the 40-45hp 44 did better. There was a huge range of 44s, all with a four-cylinder Continental engine in petrol, TVO, LPG or diesel form. The first Massey-Harris tractor with a live PTO, the 44 also had hydraulic lift from 1950 (still no three-point linkage of course). Despite lacking some refinements, it was M-H’s best selling tractor at the time, with nearly 20,000 finding homes in 1951. That amounted to nearly half of M-H’s total tractor production, though just to put it in perspective, Harry Ferguson shifted over 100,000 little grey ones in the same year.

Nor were the red Massey-Harris tractors cheap to make, as the company bought many components in – unlike most rivals, it didn’t have its own tractor engine, so had to pay a premium for a bought-in Continental. Even some of the major castings came from outside, all of which added to costs, but making all this in-house would need some serious investment.

Going to Europe

Massey-Harris knew it needed to expand tractor production; a means of doing this was by making machines in Europe, and key to that was Britain. Ford had been building tractors here for years, International was about to start up in Doncaster and Allis-Chalmers in Southampton. John Deere too, was looking at establishing a factory in the UK. And you could see the attraction for Americans: we spoke the same language (well, almost) and Britain’s infrastructure hadn’t suffered as much from the war as other parts of Europe. Supplies of essentials like steel were short, but they were on stream, and Britain had a healthy home market for tractors. Finally, the British Government, doing all it could to build up the home industry, was warning that it might raise import duties on foreign tractors.

At first, Massey-Harris hoped to avoid the cost of building its own tractors in Britain by cosying up to a British manufacturer. Nuffield was approached in February 1947, M-H offering to stop selling its own tractors in Britain, Ireland and other markets, in exchange for exclusive distribution rights to Nuffield – the Midlands men declined. So Massey-Harris made the same offer to David Brown... and got the same answer.

So the Canadians had no choice but to make tractors themselves in the UK. Not that they were starting from scratch. Massey had warehousing space in Manchester from 1919 and began assembling implements there in 1945, spending $100,000 on expanding this production. Within months of the rebuffs by Nuffield and David Brown the decision was taken to make the 44 in Britain, from a mix of imported and British parts.

By this time, M-H had another incentive to build in Britain. The infamous ground nut scheme, an ambitious Government plan to grow peanuts on a vast scale in eastern Africa, had already ordered $5 million-worth of M-H tractors and implements. There was the potential for a lot more, but they would have to come from British factories, not Canadian. Within a few years, the scheme would turn into an expensive white elephant – though M-H wasn’t to know that.

In the meantime, M-H moved fast and a visit to Perkins soon saw the P6 adopted as the 744’s power unit. Not a difficult decision, as the Perkins six would fit the 44 with only minor modifications, plus it was strong, up-to-date and efficient. M-H also knew that the P6-powered Fordson was on the way. GTM Bevan, Massey’s vice-president in charge of engineering and research, was also impressed with the Peterborough factory: “I have seen nothing to equal it or come anywhere near it yet,” he declared. “It could be put down in Canada or the USA and be a show factory.”

If there was a flaw in this plan, it was to make the 744 a diesel-only tractor. While Fordson, Nuffield and the rest were all now launching diesels, M-H kept the petrol and TVO options going too, which better suited British farmers’ gradual shift to diesel power. As it was, the 744 had a great engine, but it wasn’t cheap, with no low-cost TVO alternative.

The next problem was where to put it all together. What with assembly of implements and the 722 combine in Manchester, there simply wasn’t room to make a tractor there as well. The first batch of 16 744PDs (PD for Perkins Diesel) was assembled there, but proper production would start in Kilmarnock, south west of Glasgow.

The Government was keen to encourage new factories in areas of high unemployment, of which Kilmarnock was one. So much so, that it offered to build a suitable factory there for M-H and let the company use it at a relatively low rent. M-H agreed, the factory was built and production of the 744D (it lost its ‘P’ in the transfer up north) began in 1949. The tractor was soon joined by a succession of combines – 722, 726 and 780 – plus the 701 baler. The Kilmarnock factory certainly had its problems, but it would be a centre of combine production for over 30 years.

Production costs were lower than expected, and Kilmarnock was able to profitably export some of its production. In fact, the Canadians had got themselves a bargain, paying less than £10,000 a year in rent and taxes for 180,000 square feet of floor space. Within four years, the original investment had tripled in value.

Disappointment

What a shame that the same couldn’t be said for the tractor. The 744D’s high price, its diesel-only option and maybe the fact that M-H was relatively unknown in Britain as a tractor maker, all conspired to make sales disappointing. In fact, in the UK they were downright disastrous. In 1952, more than 5500 744s came out of Kilmarnock – not brilliant, but good enough. The killer was that just 68 of them were sold in Britain, while Harry Ferguson sold over 17,000 little grey tractors. And at first, you had to pay extra for a three-point linkage on the far more expensive Massey-Harris.

Even its relative success as an export tractor soon faded. M-H did improve the tractor as the 745, fitted with Perkins’ slightly more powerful and frugal four-cylinder L4. The tractor lingered on for another five years, but sold fewer than the 744.

Maybe the final nail in the coffin was the merger (all right, takeover) with/of Ferguson in 1953. Banner Lane didn’t make a direct competitor, though the LTX ‘big Fergie’ was under development. In fact, one of these four-five plough tractors was demonstrated against a 745 for Mr Duncan, president of Massey-Harris. According to Erik Fredriksen, author of The Legendary LTX Tractor the prototype Fergie ‘ran circles’ around the Massey. But of course, it never reached production – M-H thought it was unsuited to the big North American market, and decided to drop the project.

By then, time was running out for the 745 as well – with the Canadian management at the helm, the focus for big tractors switched to Vancouver HQ, with Banner Lane given responsibility for the small machines it was so good at making. Which left the Scottish-built Massey-Harris out on a limb – in 1958, it was dropped for good.

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