“Do you want to drive my tractor? Let us go and load some hay.” A very brief look at the history of the British firm David Brown Tractors Limited

An advertisement of David Brown (Canada) Limited of Toronto, Ontario, showing the tractors offered by a British sister / brother firm, David Brown Tractors Limited. Anon., “David Brown (Canada) Limited.” Le Bulletin des agriculteurs, February 1962, 75.

Greetings, my reading friend, and welcome to the wonderful world of agriculture and food. This issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee will touch upon, gently of course, the part of the history of a well-known British engineering firm which dealt with its production of farm tractors. Yours truly shall endeavour to be brief.

And yes, the title of this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee can be sung. Do you know Do You Want To Build A Snowman? from the beautiful 2009 animated film Frozen? Go ahead, belt it out. I dare you…

Our story began in 1860 with the founding, in England, of a pattern manufacturing firm by one, you guessed it, David Brown. Sadly enough, yours truly has been unable to find the name of said firm. In any event, as the years flowed, Brown’s firm moved toward the production of gear systems, specialising in machine-cut gears by the time the 1880s ended.

When Brown left this Earth, in 1903, his sons, Frank and Percy Brown took over the reins. David Brown & Sons (Huddersfield) Limited, to use a new company name adopted around that time, prospered and increased the variety of products which came out of its workshops. Indeed, between 1908 and 1915, it produced automobiles. Manufactured in small numbers, the David Brown Valveless was derived from an innovative vehicle designed by a British engineer and inventor named Ralph Lucas.

David Brown & Sons (Huddersfield) grew by leaps and bounds during the First World War, thanks to contracts for the British Army and the Royal Navy. Indeed, it became a world leader in its field.

The firm moved into the world of agriculture and food in 1936 when it joined forces with Irish mechanic and inventor Henry George “Harry” Ferguson.

If that name rings a bell, my reading friend, it is because that gentleman was the first Irishman to design a powered aeroplane and fly in a powered aeroplane, the Ferguson monoplane to be more precise, put together in the premises of J.B. Ferguson & Company, an automobile repair shop owned by an older brother, Joseph B. “Joe” Ferguson. The first flight of the aeroplane in question took place in late, late, late December 1909, incidentally.

Building and testing Ireland’s first aeroplane would be good business, had claimed “Harry” Ferguson. His brother concurred, more or less enthusiastically. Indeed, he had previously concurred to another promotional idea of his younger brother: racing a motorcycle all over Ireland, and winning many races. “Joe” Ferguson was presumably not too thrilled by the moniker chosen by his sibling for that endeavour, namely the Mad Mechanic. Did “Harry” Ferguson have a knack for publicity or what? But I digress.

In October 1910, “Harry” Ferguson lost control of his monoplane and crashed. He was seriously injured. “Joe” Ferguson was beside himself with worry. The two men later had a falling out which resulted from their disagreement about the dangers of flying.

“Harry” Ferguson chose to strike out on his own, founding May Street Motors Limited, I think, and selling automobiles and tractors, more specifically Overtime tractors. The latter vehicles, known in their country of origin as “Waterloo Boys,” were produced in the United States by Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company.

The involvement of May Street Motors, which became Harry Ferguson Limited at some point, with Waterloo Gasoline Engine seemingly resulted from British government efforts to maximise domestic food production during the First World War. Said efforts were linked to the murderous depredations of German submarines which were sinking a multitude of food-carrying merchant ships destined for the United Kingdom.

Given his experience with tractors, Ferguson was approached by the Irish Board of Agriculture in 1917. Would he oversee government-owned tractor maintenance, production records and other things? Of course, he would. Ferguson and a trusted colleague, William “Willie” Sands, were soon crisscrossing Ireland in a government-supplied automobile. They soon heard many farmers complain about soil compaction, a problem caused by the heavy weight of the tractors and ploughs of the time.

A partial way to solve the problem would be to develop lighter tractors. The inexpensive, dependable and available Ford Model T automobile had much to offer in that regard. Indeed, one could argue that this classic machine spurred the birth of automobile to tractor conversion kits. The Eros was among the most successful converted vehicles. With its of large radiator, single seat open to the elements and large chain-driven rear metal wheels mounted on extensions of its frame, the new tractor greatly differed in appearance from the “Tin Lizzie,” or “Ford à pédales.”

The role played by Ferguson in the development of the Eros was / is not clear, at least not to me, but back to the Irish farmers’ soil compaction problem.

Another partial solution to said problem would be to develop a lighter plough. Ferguson asked Sands to design such an implement for the Eros tractor. The latter came up with a doozy of a design. Sands (and Ferguson?) thought that just towing a plough, for example, was not the way to go. Nay. Said plough should be rigidly attached to a tractor. The Belfast Plough, the first wheelless plough in the world and the first mechanically operated plough in the world if you must know, was quite successful. It even improved traction and steering.

The Belfast Plough also solved a safety problem which had plagued tractors since day one. You see, when an implement’s wheels caught an obstacle large enough to stop it in its tracks, the pull of the tractor on the now-immobile implement caused the former to rear backwards, like a rodeo horse. In a worst-case scenario, the tractor flipped over, often seriously injuring its operator – or killing him.

Sadly, only a relatively small number of Model Ts was turned into Eros tractors. This being said (typed?), a version of the Belfast plough was designed for use in the United Kingdom with the very popular and widely used Ford Fordson tractor. That plough proved so effective that an American firm, Sherman Brothers Manufacturing Company, produced it in pretty large numbers, for use in the United States.

The Belfast plough was the first of many farm implements bearing Ferguson’s name. And no, yours truly does not know how deeply Ferguson was involved in its design.

And you have a question. When will we get to David Brown tractors, you ask? Relax, my reading friend. Patientia sit virtus matrem suam. You like Latin expressions, my erudite reading friend? Wunderbar! Here is another: Viri non carborundum! Dare I say (type?) carrucarii non carborundum?

Ferguson perfected in 1928 what turned out to be the ultimate tractor-implement coupling system, a system known as, what else, the Ferguson system, which remained an industry standard in 2022.

Ferguson’s three-point hitch was / is a hydraulically-operated system which turned a tractor and its implement into a single unit. It made implement wheels redundant. It applied a downward force to the front of a tractor, which prevented it from flipping over. It also allowed farmers to lift an implement off the ground using a simple lever whenever they needed to turn or maneuver, which eliminated the need to unhook and reattach said implement. The Ferguson system was, well, revolutionary.

As you may well imagine, several British firms and at least one American firm knocked on Ferguson’s door when they heard about his new system. An agreement seemed on the verge of being signed, with the British automobile maker Morris Motors Limited, when the Great Depression hit.

Certain that his Ferguson system was a game changer, Ferguson decided to integrate it in a farm tractor, designed in his own workshops but somewhat similar in appearance to the Fordson. Completed in 1933, this one-off black vehicle was known as, you guessed it, the Black Ferguson.

It so happened that some of the components of that tractor were made by David Brown & Sons (Huddersfield). The management of the firm was sufficiently impressed to sign a deal with Harry Ferguson, the firm, according to which an upgraded version of the Black Ferguson would be produced by a new firm created for that purpose, David Brown Tractors Limited. Tadaa. Sorry.

The first Ferguson-Brown Type A tractors hit the ground in 1936. They were painted grey, not black. Sadly enough, sales were not exactly spectacular.

Early in the project, it had become clear to the people who surrounded Ferguson and David Brown, Percy Brown’s oldest son and managing director of the firm since 1931, when the latter died, that the two men did not get along. Ferguson was also pretty unpopular with the workforce of David Brown Tractors.

Adding to the worries of both parties was the fact Ferguson and Brown did not agree on the size of the tractors David Brown Tractors should produce. That firm thought that a machine larger than the Type A would sell better. Ferguson disagreed. After all, the whole point of using his system was to reduce the size and weight of a tractor. In 1939, Ferguson simply walked away.

Would you believe that well before Ferguson’s departure, Brown had ordered that design of a new tractor be initiated under conditions of great secrecy, behind the back of his brilliant if temperamental partner? Yea, you should.

Brown even gave the new vehicle a code name, VAK1, which stood for Vehicle Agricultural Kerosene. It is possible, I repeat possible, that the launch of the VAK 1 at the 1939 edition of the ever-travelling Royal Agricultural Show, held in Windsor, England, caused Ferguson’s departure.

Ferguson’s subsequent activities were quite fascinating. The story even had a Canadian component, and what a component it was. Does the name Massey-Ferguson Limited of Toronto, Ontario, ring a bell? Yes, that Massey-Ferguson, but back to David Brown Tractors.

As you may well imagine, David Brown & Sons (Huddersfield) and David Brown Tractors were very busy throughout the Second World War. Would you believe that the former, now known as David Brown Engineering Limited, has provided transmissions used on British main battle tanks since 1941?

Unscathed throughout the conflict, thanks to its good camouflage, David Brown Tractors’ factory continued to produce VAK1s once peace returned. A 1947 version known as the Cropmaster was widely exported until the middle or so of the 1950s.

Over the years, David Brown Tractors produced a variety of models, both big and small. The Trackmaster was a tracked vehicle introduced no later than 1951, for example.

From the looks of it, tractors manufactured by David Brown Tractors began to appear on Canadian soil, in Alberta perhaps, no later than 1950. The firm chose several distributors in various provinces during the following months. Its tractors were advertised in Québec no later than April 1951. A subsidiary, David Brown (Canada) Limited of Toronto, was officially founded in June.

The new crop of tractors introduced in 1965 by David Brown Tractors was quite a remarkable one, both technically and visually. Indeed, the new tractors were white and brown. How this new and quite striking livery came about is unclear but it may well have been influenced by the American market. Even though the firm had a deal whereby it supplied tractors to a well-known American farm equipment manufacturer, Oliver Corporation, an even better deal was signed with a large and quite irate group of Ford Motor Company dealers who had lost their franchise to supply tractors. And yes, Ford Motor was mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since December 2018.

Another phase in the history of David Brown Tractors began as a result of the large financial losses incurred by Lloyds Bank Limited during the development of the powerful, efficient and complex Rolls Royce RB211 turbofan engine, which led to the liquidation of Rolls-Royce Limited in 1971 and the creation of state-owned Rolls-Royce (1971) Limited. And yes again, the staggering collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, includes an RB211.

Having gotten its fingers burned in that aeronautical pie, the management of the bank took a hard look at all their other engineering-based customers. Indeed, it seemingly asked that the sizeable overdraft of David Brown Tractors and / or David Brown Industries Limited, a corporate name adopted no later than 1956, be paid. Even though David Brown, Sir David since 1968, negotiated a way out, it was clear that this was but a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

Brown thus leaned heavily on the British government, then led by James Harold Wilson, to help strengthen David Brown Tractors and create a single large British tractor manufacturer. A proposed merger with the tractor making factory of the newly formed / merged British automobile maker British Leyland Motor Corporation Limited did not pan out. Such a merger needed political clout to make it happen but said clout was seemingly not forthcoming.

And yes, you are quite right, my reading friend, British Leyland Motor was mentioned in August 2018 and November 2019 issue of our yadda yadda.

Mind you, it has been suggested that a small number of Brown Nuffield tractors were actually assembled under great secrecy and shipped to one or more Scandinavian country, but I digress.

The collapse of the merger meant that another way out had to be found. David Brown Industries gradually turned its gaze toward the United States. In order to grab a larger share of that country’s huge farm tractor market, it would need to acquire a factory on American soil, however. Rumours that a well-known American manufacturer of agricultural machinery and construction equipment, namely J.I. Case Company, might be interested in disposing of facilities producing small tractors proved unfounded.

As it also turned out, the British banks toward whom David Brown Industries was indebted forced the firm to sell David Brown Tractors, in July 1972. The buyer was Tenneco Incorporated, a diversified American entity which owned J.I. Case. This being said (typed?), the words David Brown could be found on David Brown and J.I. Case tractors sold in the United Kingdom until the early 1980s.

The sale was caused by what could be described as a perfect storm: increased competition from imported tractors, increased product development costs, a reduced British tractor market, as well as new health and safety regulations.

Oddly enough, the sale of David Brown Tractors had seemingly been mentioned in passing in the spring 1972 issue of its inhouse magazine, Tractor News. Mind you, while an unrelated and innocuous text spoke of the acquisition of a private railway and of the firm’s rosy future, the title chosen by persons unknown, “End of the line,” scared the willies out of workers who had only glanced at the issue in question.

Mind you, again, the banks also forced Brown to sell the British automobile manufacturer Aston Martin Lagonda Limited, a firm very close to his heart, to an investment bank. Deeply embittered, he retired in Monte Carlo, Monaco.

And yes, you are quite correct, my reading friend, the Aston Martin DB5 luxury grand tourer automobile driven in several movies by James Bond, a British super secret agent mentioned since September 2018 in several / many issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, was named after Brown, whose name was Brown, David Brown. Dumm dee-dee dumm dumm… Sorry.

Sometime after Ford Motor acquired Aston Martin Lagonda, back in 1987, its management graciously made Brown the firm’s honorary president for life. Brown served in that most pleasurable function until his passing, in September 1993. He was 89 years old.

The story of David Brown Tractors certainly did not end in 1972 with the sale to J.I. Case. Nay. The change of ownership changed many things, however. Time and motion experts soon flooded various departments, for example, a process or intrusion which annoyed more than a few workers.

An odd customer during the 1980s was the United States Air Force. Most of the tractors it ordered were painted green. A few, however, were painted pink – presumably for use in a desert region of the globe, and…

Why are you rolling your eyes, my skeptical reading friend? You do not believe in pink tractors? Would you believe in pink Supermarine Spitfires? Yea, pink Spitfires. During the Second World War, a number of Spitfires used as photographic reconnaissance airplanes were given an overall pale pink colour scheme. As uncomfortable as pilots may have felt when flying these machines, the truth was that they often proved virtually invisible when flying just below clouds, but back to our tractors.

Would you believe that one or more specialised models of David Brown tractors were designed for… fish farming firms? (Hello, WK!) I kid you not.

In 1984, Tenneco acquired selected elements of the agricultural division of International Harvester Company, an American giant mentioned in June and December 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, and merged them with J.I. Case.

The presence, on English soil, within spitting distance of David Brown Tractors’ own facility, of a factory owned by International Harvester, was seen as a threat by many of the former’s employees. Their fears proved well founded. Layoffs began soon after the merger. The factory itself, quite possibly the most modern tractor factory in the United Kingdom, completed its last vehicle in March 1988. It closed its doors sometime thereafter.

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Rénald Fortier