Machinery Focus: A brief history of New Holland and its rise (2024)

There are people of a certain generation who cannot see a blue and black tractor without immediately thinking it a Ford, which must frustrate New Holland, as Ford have not made a tractor for well over a quarter of century now.

The well-known livery still slogs it out with Massey Ferguson and John Deere to be the most recognisable in the field as well as the highest in the sales charts.

However, the company’s collective angst should be tempered somewhat by the fact that New Holland itself, a company that had been around since 1895, did not apply its name to a tractor until 1986, just years before Ford gave up all interest in the business.

If this sounds as if there might be a rather convoluted tale behind it all, then you would be right for it is hardly the most straightforward story.

As is often the case, it all started with a fellow setting up a blacksmiths shop. In this case it was Abram Zimmerman who set about fixing farm equipment for the locals back in 1895, in New Holland, Pennsylvania.

He also took on the agency for the Otto Engine Company, and then the Columbus engine, which sold well, along with a feed mill of his own design that could cope with a wider variety of crops than competing machines.

Frost proof engine

Abram was an inventive fellow with a good deal of foresight and so his thoughts turned to building his own engine which had, as its major feature, a funnel shaped water jacket which, if left out in a cold barn, allowed the water to freeze and expand upwards and so not crack the cylinder.

Armed with working prototypes, but not the capital to manufacture and market them, he raised the princely sum of $50,000 through incorporation and so the New Holland Machine Company was born in 1903.

In its first year of trading, the company achieved a profit of $1,859, and with that success it expanded its range of machinery, adding rock crushers and wood saws powered by its own engines, to its portfolio.

In 1947, the New Holland Machinery Company was bought out by Sperry Rand, not the most obvious parent for a farm machinery company for it had its roots in high tech products and was founded on the invention of marine navigation systems with gyroscopes at their core.

It was, at the time, a major defence contractor, and still is under the name Unisys, and like many other companies that had enjoyed a lucrative war it had the capital to diversify into other areas of manufacture, agricultural machinery being one.

Sperry expands into harvesting

New Holland itself had boosted its prospects with the introduction of a hay baler in 1940 and then, while under the ownership of Sperry Rand, they developed the first mower conditioner, known as the Haybine.

Sperry were keen to further expand their interests into powered farm machinery and so, in 1964, they bought into the Belgian harvesting company Claeys (later changed to Clayson) who had a factory at Zedelgem, which remains New Holland’s major European facility to this day.

Sperry’s were the subject of a successful hostile takeover bid by Burroughs Corporation in September 1986, however, the move came at a greater cost than anticipated and so the new owner was keen to recoup some of its investment.

One immediate measure was to sell the New Holland agricultural division to Ford who made tractors but not machinery, while New Holland had the machinery but not the tractors. At the time it seemed the perfect fit.

Ford reverts to its roots

In the same period Ford also purchased Versatile Tractors and marketed them as Fords for three short years, before a change of heart saw them sell dispose of their agricultural interests altogether.

Therefore, Versatile tractors were being sold in the blue and white livery of Ford in America and Canada, although the FW articulated models sold in Europe were built by Steiger.

Yet Ford, at heart, was still a car company. Even in Henry Ford’s time the directors were not enthused by his attempts to build a tractor, hence the formation of the separate Fordson company back in 1917, and so the scene was set for another upheaval.

It was now time for Fiat to enter the fray, buying 80% of Ford New Holland in 1991, and with the later purchase of the remaining shares New Holland became entirely owned by the Italian conglomerate, which had been building tractors itself since 1918.

New Holland survives the melee

During the latter part of the 20th century, there was much trading of companies as corporations consolidated, and the economic downturn of the eighties bit deeply into the financial reserves of manufacturers.

FiatAgri itself had acquired, in addition to Ford New Holland, names such as Braud, Hesston and Laverda, which was a rather messy situation so in 1999 they were all placed together under the new Holland name

Later the same year, another round of musical chairs took place when New Holland purchased Case for $4.6bn and combined the two to form CNH Global, being obliged by anti-trust laws to shed Laverda, Versatile and the old International Harvester plant at Doncaster in doing so.

This facility was purchased by Landini which gave rise to McCormick Tractors, a new line of models that the EU insisted upon being substantially different to the Case models which had been produced at the factory.

New Holland is now Fiat’s major agricultural brand and although they have kept the Ford livery it is purely an Italian concern. It’s been an eventful century and a quarter since Abe Zimmerman set up shop, yet his company has survived all that was thrown at it.

Also Read: Consultants’ association launches tax guide for farmers


I'm a seasoned agricultural machinery enthusiast with a deep understanding of the history and evolution of tractor manufacturers. My expertise extends to the intricate details of various companies and their contributions to the industry. Allow me to shed light on the concepts embedded in the article about New Holland and its journey through the decades.

1. New Holland's Origin: The article begins with the establishment of New Holland in 1895 by Abram Zimmerman in New Holland, Pennsylvania. Zimmerman initially operated a blacksmith shop, repairing farm equipment. He later ventured into engine distribution, incorporating the Otto Engine Company and the Columbus engine.

2. Innovative Engine Design: Abram Zimmerman's inventive nature led to the creation of his engine with a unique feature—a funnel-shaped water jacket that prevented the cylinder from cracking in cold temperatures. This innovation played a crucial role in the success of his engines and laid the foundation for the New Holland Machine Company in 1903.

3. Expansion and Acquisition by Sperry Rand: The article highlights the company's growth, profitability, and the expansion of its machinery range, including rock crushers and wood saws. In 1947, Sperry Rand acquired the New Holland Machinery Company, an unexpected move considering Sperry Rand's roots in high-tech products and defense contracting.

4. Sperry's Diversification into Agriculture: Under Sperry Rand's ownership, New Holland introduced a hay baler in 1940 and developed the first mower conditioner, known as the Haybine. Sperry Rand aimed to expand into powered farm machinery and, in 1964, acquired the Belgian harvesting company Claeys (later Clayson), establishing a significant European facility.

5. Ford's Involvement: In 1986, Sperry Rand underwent a hostile takeover by Burroughs Corporation, leading to the sale of the New Holland agricultural division to Ford. This move aimed to complement Ford's tractor manufacturing capabilities with New Holland's machinery expertise. The article notes Ford's brief foray into marketing Versatile Tractors before eventually selling off its agricultural interests.

6. Fiat's Acquisition and Consolidation: In 1991, Fiat entered the scene, acquiring 80% of Ford New Holland and later obtaining the remaining shares. The conglomerate had been involved in tractor manufacturing since 1918. FiatAgri consolidated various brands, including Ford New Holland, Braud, Hesston, and Laverda, under the New Holland name in 1999.

7. Formation of CNH Global: In the same year, New Holland purchased Case, forming CNH Global. To comply with anti-trust laws, the company had to divest Laverda, Versatile, and the old International Harvester plant at Doncaster. This led to the creation of McCormick Tractors by Landini, using the Doncaster plant.

8. Current Status: Today, New Holland is a major agricultural brand owned by Fiat, and it has maintained the iconic Ford livery, symbolizing its enduring presence in the agricultural machinery sector.

This comprehensive overview demonstrates the intricate web of acquisitions, innovations, and corporate decisions that have shaped New Holland's trajectory over the years.

Machinery Focus: A brief history of New Holland and its rise (2024)
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