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A look back at a Massey Ferguson milestone

The company built a state-of-the-art plant in Ontario in the early 1960s to design and build a new line of combines.

BRANTFORD, Ont. — “Get up to date or go out of business.” That quote appeared in one of the many official news releases Massey Ferguson’s public relations people were handing out on June 9, 1964.

It was the day of the grand opening of the company’s combine plant in Brantford, Ont., and the comment, more than any other, seemed to embody the view the company’s management was taking in the early 1960s.

After the farm machinery sector weathered some tough times in North America during the 1950s, things had begun to turn around by the end of that decade. In fact, there seemed nowhere to go but up. So Massey Ferguson decided the time was right for a big investment: build a new combine assembly plant in Ontario.

On Sept, 11, 1962, the company’s then vice-president, J.G. Staiger, sent a memo to all corporate staff announcing plans to have a combine plant up and running by January 1964. The official groundbreaking ceremony was held a month later, on Oct. 12, when about 150 dignitaries watched a backhoe scoop up a bucket full of Brantford soil.

But as one newspaper reporter who attended the ceremony put it, “giant earthmovers were already roaring the background.”

In order for Massey Ferguson to justify spending $13.5 million on a plant that only manufactured a single product — combines — it had to be assured of very wide market access.

Canada and the United States had a free-trade agreement in place for farm machinery since 1944, so the company could ship duty free into the entire North American market from its Brantford location, and it also had its sights set on exporting to Europe. However, developing countries were seen as the big market opportunities of the future.

Despite an extremely tight construction schedule — one many people believed to be unrealistic — the first completed combine rolled off the assembly line on Jan. 13, 1964.

Massey Ferguson had now built a new plant that was going to manufacture a new line of combines in a completely new way.

As the company’s corporate newsletter, View, put it in an issue later that year, this was one of the few times in the farm equipment industry that all three items had been introduced simultaneously and successfully.

Coinciding with the Brantford plant coming online, was Massey Ferguson’s introduction of a new line of combines: the 410 and 510, which incorporated some cutting-edge features. Notably, they were the first combines to use a unitized body design, something that hadn’t yet even taken a major hold in the sports car industry. Instead of the body being built on a sturdy frame, the body components were designed to be strong enough to form a rigid assembly, which made a separate frame unnecessary.

The new combine design had been under development for some time. In fact, there were prototypes in fields undergoing trials as early as 1955. All that time gave engineers a chance to finish their homework on the design of the new models, something that would pay dividends in sales and reputation for Massey Ferguson in the future.

The new 410 and 510 combines, along with model 300 combines, left the plant with a wide variety of engines. Straight-six, V-8 and slant-six gasoline engines as well as Perkins diesels could be found on the assembly line awaiting installation into the appropriate model. To ensure a high standard of quality, each engine was dyno tested before it left the Brantford plant.

 That said, when it was operating, the entire Brantford plant consumed roughly 13 percent of all the electrical demands for the entire city of Brantford.

Justifiably, Massey Ferguson was quite proud of its new facility and published a corporate brochure listing some of the facts about the plant. Among other things, it claimed there were five miles of fluorescent lights, while semi-automated machinery was used wherever practical. That efficiency and automation is really what set Brantford apart from Massey Ferguson’s previous combine manufacturing plants.

Some industry firsts were also incorporated into the plant’s design.

A unique painting system was installed on the second floor where workers painted each component after welding but before subassemblies were bolted together. This was apparently a first in combine production, at least according to the company.

The innovation greatly reduced the potential for rust to develop in unpainted segments where the components came together, which was a problem company publications at the time said plagued competitors’ machines.

And one other thing helped the Brantford plant stand apart from its contemporaries: it used an IBM computer inventory control system to track more than 3,600 part numbers and ensure an orderly flow of components to the assembly line. It was a novelty for its time, considering the home computer was still decades away.

In all, the completed Brantford building was enormous, covering 567,900 sq. feet under one roof, and it was located on a 127-acre site that had its own railway siding to ship components in and finished combines out.

At full capacity, the plant could produce about 15,000 combines per year using two shifts of workers. Massey Ferguson wanted Brantford to be easily adaptable to production changes, so flexibility was incorporated into the building’s design. It really was a plant that was designed for the future.

With so much to be proud of, the company apparently couldn’t help but throw what was described by one U.S. newspaper reporter as “the biggest and most flamboyant plant opening in the history of the farm implement industry.

“I have never seen anything like it.… Plant openings in the States are dull affairs compared to this.”

“The day is long past when you could open a plant with just a pair of scissors and a ribbon. Nowadays, you put the company’s public image on the line,” a Massey Ferguson public relations representative said when asked about the spectacle.

Clearly, the image the company intended to put forward was meant to impress. To do that, the ceremony pampered visitors with a grand opening party.

And what a party it was. A reporter from the Globe and Mail newspaper likened the preparations to what was required for the D-Day invasion of the Second World War.

In fact, the military were involved at the Brantford ceremony. The Royal Canadian Regiment’s brass band was on hand to play for the guests — none of whom, one observer remarked, were wearing overalls. The regiment’s scarlet tunics, however, were a nice match with all the Massey Ferguson red on the combine components that were waiting on the plant’s assembly line.

After the opening ceremonies were over, the roughly 700 visitors from 11 countries walked past the stopped production line, complete with combines in various stages of assembly, to the banquet area where a feast was prepared that included lobster, salmon and beef — elegantly prepared, of course.

In the end, the ceremony had come off spectacularly, with only one minor hitch. As the federal trade and commerce minster was being introduced, an air hose on the nearby assembly line ruptured, making so much noise it drowned out Staiger, who was trying to introduce him. A frantic scramble by staff had that taken care of in short order, and the speechmaking resumed.

The grand opening events lasted a month, in one form or another. There were days devoted to employees and their families, and various groups toured the facility.

With all the pomp and pageantry out of the way after the lavish ceremony, Massey Ferguson executives turned their attention back to the business of selling farm equipment. The following year, 1965, total sales in the U.S. climbed to $US225.4 million, moving the company into third place overall among the major manufacturers. As well, Massey Ferguson was working hard to consolidate its position in many key overseas markets.

As for the new line of combines, farmers seemed to like them as much as the company’s engineers and managers did. Prior to the introduction of the new lineup, Massey Ferguson’s net combine sales had been steadily declining since 1959. By the time the Brantford plant opened, revenue from combine sales had slipped nearly 17 percent, likely due in large part to the dated models the firm had been offering.

But thanks to the new 10-series machines, net sales revenue of grain harvesting equipment in 1964 surged almost 45 percent over levels from only two years prior, and those figures from combine sales continued to climb rapidly through to the end of the decade.

As the 1960s came to an end, Massey Ferguson’s overall net sales topped $1 billion for the first time, thanks in part to the new combines.

By 1967, the company had captured 17 percent of the North American combine market, and that number climbed to 18.6 percent by 1971. Through those years, sales of combines represented more than a quarter of all of Massey Ferguson’s farm machinery sales.

There seemed to be nothing but blue skies ahead for the farm machinery business, particularly for the company’s new and innovative line of combines, although its other farm machinery offerings were also doing well.

Looking back, the opening of the Brantford plant seemed to coincide with good fortune in all sectors of Massey Ferguson’s operations. After the first year of combine production at Brantford had ended, the 1964 annual report showed income up in all sectors, and holders of common shares were enjoying the largest dividend payment in a decade. All indications were that the Brantford plant — and Massey Ferguson — would go profitably into a bright and shining future, and it did, for a while, at least. is Saskatchewan's home page. Bookmark us at this link.