A Piece of History Slips Away: Harold Brock Remembered

By Robert Pripps. Published in the N-News.

Portrait of Harold Brock

Longtime Ford (and later Deere) engineer Harold Brock

Harold Brock, Ford tractor icon, passed away January 2, 2011 at the age of 96 years. Harold was the engineer in charge of the design for the famous N-Series Ford tractors. These tractors, introduced in 1939, are considered by many to be the most significant and influential farm tractors of the twentieth century. Harold worked beside Henry Ford (both the first and second), Edsel Ford, Harry Ferguson, and Charles Sorenson. Rob visited Harold Brock at his home in Waterloo, Iowa, where he sat down with Dr. Brock and led him to recall his time at Ford Motor Company and of his early life.

Harold was born November 23, 1914, in Clarksburg, West Virginia. He began his career at Ford Motor Company at the age of 15, when he enrolled in the Ford Trade and Apprentice School, Dearborn, MI in 1929. His education included typical high school curriculum as well as shop subjects with hands-on experience and finally college level courses in mathematics, metallurgy and mechanical engineering.

Initially, Harold worked under the direct supervision of Henry Ford. His duties focused mainly on Model A car drivetrain problems. When work began on the 1933 car models, Harold’s group was moved from the Dearborn offices to the Rouge plant. This was done surreptitiously to avoid “micro-management” by Henry Ford, whose office was at Dearborn. Henry Ford continued tractor experiments with engineers at Dearborn leaving the Rouge group to keep the car business going. Both of Harold’s wives, Juliette (who died in 1990) and Kathleen (who died in 2010), also worked at Ford Motor Company and were close associates of Henry Ford. Rob Rinaldi’s video interview was shot a little less than two years before Harold Brock’s passing and is especially poignant on that account.

Production of the existing tractor, the Fordson, had previously moved to Britain to make room for increased car production. In 1938, however, George and Eber Sherman, who were the national distributors for the Fordson in the United States, arranged for Irishman Harry Ferguson to visit Ford to demonstrate a small tractor of his design. This tractor, then in limited production by the David Brown Company of England, incorporated a revolutionary 3-point implement hitch.

The demonstration so impressed Henry Ford that he immediately shook hands with Harry Ferguson agreeing to produce a Ford tractor with a Ferguson System 3-point hitch.

At this point, Harold Brock was separated from the car group and assigned the job of developing a Ford tractor that would incorporate Ferguson’s implement hitch. He and a support group operated from a small office in the old powerhouse building of the Rouge plant. Harold soon settled on a concept using parts already in production, such as the rear axle and differential from Ford trucks, clutch and spindles from the car, and one-half of the then-in-production V-8 engine. The design was given the designation of 9N (for the introduction year of 1939). The handshake agreement with Ferguson had been made in December of 1938. The 9N tractor, with 2-bottom plow, was demonstrated to the press and put in production just 6 months later – with 10,000 9Ns sold that year!

At the press demonstration, Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson, both experienced plowmen, plowed perfect furrows at a fast-walking pace. Then, to the astonishment of the guests, an 8 year-old boy took the controls and plowed furrows of equal quality.

Ford’s tractors became the world’s largest sellers under Harold Brock’s guidance. In 1961, Ford introduced the Model 6000, probably the most technically advanced tractor of its time. Harold disputed with Ford management the readiness of the tractor’s power-shift transmission to be sold to farmers. Management prevailed and Harold left Ford for John Deere, where he oversaw the perfection of their power-shift transmission.

Meanwhile, the farmers proved Harold right on the Ford transmission and Ford was forced to recall all Model 6000s due to transmission problems.

Harold Brock portrait

Harold Brock: fount of all N knowledge!

Harold completed his career with another 20 years at John Deere. He was a Life Member of the Society of Agricultural Engineers, who published his papers and books. He founded the Brock Family Scholarship Fund at Waterloo’s Hawkeye Community College and in 2009, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of science degree from Iowa State University.

I had met with Harold Brock on several occasions while working on The Big Book of Ford Tractors, which Harold co-authored with me and photographer Andrew Morland. I wish I had had the N-News video interview while in the writing process, because Rinaldi was able to get Dr. Brock talking about some very interesting aspects of his design process that were new to me, including topics such as how the paint colors got to be what they were and how the model designations were chosen.

The DVD has a running time of 1 hour and 53 minutes. Both the interview and the many historic photos make this DVD well worth the price, a percentage of which goes to the Brock Hawkeye Community College Scholarship Fund. This DVD is a must-have for any serious Ford tractor buff – and also a great way to remember Dr. Brock.

Rob Rinaldi Remembers

Though I knew, talked, and corresponded with Harold Brock for years, it wasn’t until the summer of 2009 that I went to visit him in Iowa. The plan had been hatched a year and a half previous. In fact, it was Bob Pripps who pushed me to it. And it was a daunting task. Not only for the expense of taking on a video project – but also because Harold Brock just carried so much history with him – it felt like talking to the founding fathers, both exhilarating and a little scary.

After our initial meeting in which I laid out what I had hoped to talk about Harold made it clear that he really wanted to tell the story. I didn’t need a crowbar for this one. Sometimes, there is a reluctance or a discomfort on the part of the interviewee tell the story with enough details and enough big picture parts to make an interesting discussion, that wasn’t the case here.

Harold made the whole thing easy and enjoyable and I feel honored to have gotten a chance to spend two plus days just talking with him. His expertise, perspective and unique history will be missed.