They shall beat their swords into plowshares; or, A brief look at the Czech state-owned firm Zbrojovka Brno Národní Podnik

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An advertisement from Langlais & Frère Incorporée of Québec, Québec, extolling the merits of the Zetor 25 tractor. Anon. “Advertising – Langlais & Frère Incorporée.” L’Action catholique, 3 March 1951, 14.

Yours truly must admit that I racked my brains to find an agricultural topic for this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. The grayness which affects our little corner of the Milky Way is getting a bit heavy.

This being said (typed?), I think I found a little something in the 3 March 1951 issue of the daily L’Action catholique from Québec, Québec, which might intrigue you a bit.

Our story began in February 1872 with the creation, in Brünn, Austro-Hungarian Empire, of Erste Brünner Maschinen-Fabriks-Gesellschaft, a manufacturer of industrial steam engines, by the merger of Kaiserliche und Königliche priviligierte Maschinenfabrik H.A. Luz and Thomas Bracegirdle & Sohn, firms founded in 1821 and 1844.

Over the years and decades, this important firm diversified its production (steam turbines and industrial boilers, gasoline engines for automobiles, etc.)

Following the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918-19, and the birth of Czechoslovakia, Erste Brünner Maschinen-Fabriks-Gesellschaft changed its name, as did the city where it was located. This being said (typed?), Prvni Brnènská strojirna Velká Biteš Akciová společnost (PBS) of Brno, Czechoslovakia, continued on its way.

In 1937, a big Czech small arms manufacturer, Československá Zbrojovka Akciová společnost, bought one of the PBS factories, and we all know which one, don’t we, and ...

Sigh… The factory which would make the Zetor tractors… Concentrate, my reading friend, but back to our story.

Before resuming the course of said narrative, yours truly would like to mention the fact that, in 1926, Československá Zbrojovka completed the development of a light machine gun which was / is among the best, read deadliest, of the 20th century, and a weapon manufactured in its Brno factory. This ZB vz. 26 was so successful that the British Army adopted a modified version of this weapon in 1935.

This weapon was / is known worldwide as the Bren light machine gun (BRno and ENfield, England, the towns where the Československá Zbrojovka and Royal Small Arms Factory factories were located). It was produced in huge quantities before, during and after the Second World War, in the United Kingdom, Canada and India.

Indeed, the Canadian Army wishing as it had done in the past to standardise its equipment with that of its big British sister, just like the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy actually, it goes without saying that it also adopted the Bren light machine gun.

John Inglis and Company of Toronto, Ontario, initialed the first of a series of Canadian Army and British Army contracts in 1938. These contracts without competitive bidding or competition, obtained by a firm headed by James Emanuel Hahn, a businessman close to the party in power, caused a scandal when the weekly magazine Maclean’s, the spearhead of Toronto’s Maclean Publishing Company Limited, published the results of research carried out by an opponent of said party in power.

A commission of inquiry showed that there had been no collusion but proposed the creation of a body to monitor and control military contracts. The federal government, then led by William Lyon Mackenzie “Rex” King, agreed.

The bill on defence purchases, profit control and financing which it introduced in February 1939 limited the profits of manufacturers of war material to 5 % of the capital used to carry out contracts awarded without a tender.

Deeming this limit too severe, manufacturers pointed out that the bill could harm the Canadian rearmament program. The demands of the military were, after all, high and the profits, unimpressive. The British and American governments seemed to accept profit margins of 10 and 13 %, for example. There was no doubt that the civilian market was much more profitable. These protests, linked to the concern of several high-ranking officers, yielded no result. The Governor General, Lord Tweedsmuir, born John Buchan, signed the Defence Purchases, Profit Control and Financing Act in June 1939.

A Defence Purchasing Board was created in July. This body, under the control of the Department of Finance, would supervise all Canadian military purchases. Such centralisation of national defence orders did not exist in the United States or United Kingdom. The chairperson of the Defence Purchasing Board was Robert Charles Vaughan, vice-president, purchasing and supply, at the Canadian National Railway Company.

As early as September 1939, and the start of the Second World War, however, the federal government readily admitted, if only behind closed doors, that all was not for the best. Many Canadian firms refused to manufacture war material if their annual profit was limited to 5 %, a shameful situation according to members of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a social democratic opposition party. King and his ministers had to take this reality into account, however.

The limit on profits was overturned by a ministerial decree, following the entry into force of the War Measures Act. The CCF was concerned, but as far as King and his ministers were concerned, the time for half measures had passed. Consequently, the profits granted to manufacturers of war material were comparable to those made by all Canadian manufacturers. End of digression.

The dismemberment of Czechoslovakia between September 1938 and March 1939 by National Socialist Germany, Hungary and Poland meant that the factory which concerns us became Waffenwerke Brünn. It was part of a gigantic arms production conglomerate known as Aktiengesellschaft Reichswerke “Hermann Göring” from an undetermined date onward.

Very badly damaged when Germany surrendered unconditionally in May 1945, the workshops of Československá Zbrojovka gradually came back to life. As the year drew to a close, it produced weighing machines, typewriters, tractor gearboxes, motorcycle and automobile engines, etc.

Yet, it was in a different direction that Československá Zbrojovka’s efforts continued. In the weeks or days following the end of the Second World War in Europe, the Czech government indeed wanted to encourage the production of an inexpensive and small farm tractor. Československá Zbrojovka and another firm embarked on this adventure. They apparently had to submit a prototype in no more than 6 months – a tall order.

The 2 prototypes were put to the test in November 1945. As you can probably imagine, it was that of Československá Zbrojovka, later known under the designation Z-25, which won the competition.

The first 3 production tractors were delivered to their lucky buyers in March 1946.

Around July / August, the firm officially adopted the Zetor trademark (ZET for Zet, the pronunciation of the letter Z as in Zbrojovka in Czech and OR for traktor, or tractor in Czech). Mind you, some suggest that the word Zetor actually derived from the term ZEmědělský trakTOR, or farm tractor in Czech.

Československá Zbrojovka began exporting tractors as early as 1947. Its customers were then in Belgium, Denmark, Ireland and Poland. Some of the tools used to produce them came from underground weapons factories set up in Czechoslovakia by National Socialist Germany during the Second World War.

Československá Zbrojovka became Zbrojovka Brno Národní Podnik following a coup orchestrated by the Czechoslovak Communist Party, or Komunistická strana Československa, in February 1948, with the help of the government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

While the number of tractors produced annually increased year after year, the production of other items (typewriters, small arms, motorcycle engines, etc.) did not allow the firm to deliver as many as some wanted.

It should be noted that Zbrojovka Brno opened a research centre in 1954. A Czech-Polish binational research center, the Československo-polski výzkumné stàedisko traktoru, was subsequently established in 1961.

Realising that the development and production of tires suitable for agricultural work did not proceed as quickly as expected, Zbrojovka Brno launched a tracked tractor in 1956. It was not produced in large numbers.

As the 1950s came to an end, Zbrojovka Brno was delivering tractors to countries as far away as Iraq, Ghana and Burma (present-day Myanmar).

Aware of the wish expressed by various developing countries, Zbrojovka Brno helped Burma, India and Iraq to set up assembly factories. At least one of these began operating in 1964. An Iraqi state-owned engineering firm actually began manufacturing Zetor tractors in 1970. An Indian firm, Hindustan Machine Tools Limited, did the same the following year.

In the late 1950s, Zbrojovka Brno became one of the first, if not the first tractor manufacturer in the world to ​​produce unified series of vehicles which used common parts.

In 1968, the Czech state-owned company launched its second unified series, a series which included many innovations:

- an air compressor, very useful for inflating tractor tires,

- a water tank heated by the engine, very useful for washing the driver’s hands, and

- a cab including a rollover protection system, effective sound insulation and vibration isolators, very useful for the safety and comfort of the driver.

These new tractors aroused real interest around the world.

The creation of the aforementioned Czech-Polish research centre gave rise to a collaboration between Zbrojovka Brno and the Polish tractor manufacturer, the state-owned Zakłady Mechaniczne “Ursus.” The first tractor created as a result of these efforts went into production in 1965. Another followed in 1969, and…

You have a question which burns your lips, my reading friend. Yes, yes, don’t deny it. When did Zetor tractors make their debut in Canada, you say? By a remarkable coincidence, we are getting there.

Anxious, as you already know, to increase its production and clientele, Zbrojovka Brno contacted various people and organisations around the world. Langlais & Frère Incorporée of Québec became the exclusive distributor for Canada of its Zetor tractors during the winter of 1950-51 at the latest.

Langlais & Frère was founded in March 1946. This firm, which seemed to specialise in heating and ventilation, had 3 co-founders, a pair of twin brothers, the traders and manufacturers Hormidas and Wilbrod Langlais, as well as the lawyer and naval (civilian? military?) officer Louis Langlais. Langlais & Frère seems to succeed Langlais & Frère Enregistrée.

Born in September 1890, Hormidas Langlais was / is a very interesting character. Member for the Magdalen Islands in the Assemblée législative de la province de Québec between 1936 and 1962, a neck of the woods where he was parachuted by his party, he was / is often referred to, in translation, as the “father of the islands.” Over the years, Langlais succeeded in getting his boss, Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis, to build a hospital, schools and cold stores for fish, not to mention an airport. It is also largely thanks to him that the road network of the archipelago was paved. Langlais died in April 1976, at the age of 85.

A character but not necessarily a gentleman, Duplessis was mentioned in several / many issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since January 2018.

Given the virulent, if not excessive, anti-communism of Duplessis, yours truly wonders how the “Chef” reacted when he learned that one of his men, worse still the whip of his party in the Assemblée législative de la province de Québec, conducted business with a Czech state-owned firm.

Indeed, it should be noted that Zetor tractors did not seem to be mentioned in the daily press or the specialised press in Québec during the 1950s and 1960s. Langlais & Frère may have failed in its attempt to launch these vehicles on the Québec and Canadian markets, but back to our twins.

Less known than his brother, Wilbrod Langlais was obviously also born in September 1890. He was one of the main promoters of a 4-kilometre (2.5 miles) tunnel project under the St. Lawrence River, between the cities of Québec and Lévis, Québec. In fact, he participated in the signing ceremony of a construction contract in May 1954. American investors having decided to withdraw from the project, the Champlain tunnel was not built. Several other tunnel projects have suffered the same fate over the past 65 years, including one defended by Langlais, in 1969. The latter died in September 1982, at the age of 92, but back to the presence of Zetor tractors in Québec.

At the end of May 1958, Gordon Minto Churchill, Minister of Commerce and Head of Government in the House of Commons, in Ottawa, Ontario, inaugurated the second Foire internationale de Montréal, at the Palais du Commerce of Montréal, Québec – a building which no longer exists. Fifteen or 16 countries / territories exhibited for 10 days (30 May to 8 June), in approximately 240 kiosks, a variety of products ranging from books to steel beams.

Oddly enough, the American government was an exception to the rule by presenting virtually no example of industrial production. Anxious to impress, it preferred to put forward propaganda like, in translation, “The American army, a guarantee of peace.” Said government presented a number of films, a rocket or missile, and, if yours truly can quote Le Devoir, a respected Montréal daily, in translation, “a pitiful pulp board replica of Explorateur III.” A slightly mean comment if I may be permitted a comment.

As you probably know, astronautic enthusiast that you are, Explorateur III was in fact Explorer III, the third satellite placed in orbit by the United States, in March 1958, and destroyed during its return in the atmosphere, in June of that same year.

In fact, the replica which concerns us may, I repeat may, have been the first replica / reproduction of an American satellite to be exhibited outside the United States.

Two technicians from the United States Army responded, in English only, to questions put to them by people visiting the fair during the evening. Some of these questions were a bit embarrassing. At least 25 young Canadians men wanted information on the conditions for enlisting in the United States Army.

One of the people ogling Explorer III on 30 May was none other than the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the USSR. Dmitri Stepanovich Chuvakhin was said to have had a somewhat condescending smile. Explorer III was rather small, he added. Let’s not forget that, while Explorer III weighed around 14 kilogrammes (31 pounds), the Soviet satellites launched so far, Sputnik 1, Sputnik 2 and Sputnik 3, tipped the scales at around 85, 508 and 1 327 kilogrammes (around 185, 1 120 and 2 926 pounds). Rather small indeed. And no, I am not a Soviet / Russian spy.

And no, Mrs. and Mr. Everyone did not have access to the Palais du Commerce during daylight hours, a period reserved for commercial transactions.

This being said (typed?), some commercial, or para-commercial, activities also took place in the evening. Just think of the presentation of films on French aircraft and missiles in early June to representatives of the Canadian aeronautical industry in the offices of the French commercial advisor in Montréal.

Would you believe that Czechoslovakia occupied more space at the 1958 edition of the Foire internationale de Montréal than any other country, including the United States? Yet it was true. While the United States apparently came to Montréal to wow the gallery by illustrating the technological advancements of the United States Army, Czechoslovakia came to the metropolis of Canada to sell its products – a curiously capitalist approach if I may be permitted a brief comment.

No less than 5 automobiles manufactured by Automobilové Závody Národní Podnik, a state-owned firm mentioned in March 2019 and January 2020 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, were on display at the Palais du Commerce. And yes, as you can imagine, businessmen, not to mention Montrealers who visited the fair, could also see a magnificent Zetor tractor. At the time, Czech government officials were quick to tell journalists that the tractors produced by Zbrojovka Brno were very popular in Eastern Europe and the Far East.

The beautiful Czech fabrics and glassware attracted more attention, however. Just think of the examples of services produced for the British royal family, both for Queen Victoria, born Alexandrina Victoria of house Hanover, and Queen Elizabeth II, born Elizabeth Alexandra Mary of house Windsor, but back to our tractors.

Informed of the recommendations of the report of the Commission to Inquire into the Costs of Farm Machinery and Repaid Costs tabled in the Canadian House of Commons in January 1970, Zbrojovka Brno hoped to be able to introduce his tractors into the Canadian market.

Said commission, chaired since its creation, in 1966, by Clarence Lyle Barber, a professor of economics at the University of Manitoba and the only member of said commission in fact, denounced the exaggerated prices of tractors imported into the country by American multinationals. British farmers certainly did not pay as much. Zbrojovka Brno’s hopes did not materialise, however.

In fact, the Barber Commission’s recommendations were seemingly largely ignored by the government led by Joseph Philippe Pierre Yves Elliott Trudeau, a character mentioned a several times in our you know what since June 2019.

It was only in 1976 that the tractors of the Czech state-owned firm made their entry into Canada. These vehicles appeared to be imported under the direction of the tractor division of the Saint-Laurent, Québec, and Rexdale, Ontario, based Canadian subsidiary of a Czech organisation working in the field of international trade, Podniků Zahraničniho Obchodu Motokov. Motokov Canada Limited could rely on warehouses located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Calgary, Alberta, and / or Montréal and Toronto.

In 1993, Motokov Canada could count on no less than 20 dealers in Québec.

That same year, Czechoslovakia split into 2 distinct countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The production of some models of Zetor tractors, started in 1973 by the Slovak state-owned form Závody Těžkého Strojárstva, continued.

By the way, it was in 1983 that the tractors of the Czech state-owned firm made their entry into the United States. And yes, the very conservative Ronald Wilson Reagan, an anti-Communist figure mentioned in a May 2019 issue of our you know what, then occupied the White House, but back to 1993.

It was in this year that Zetor Akciová společnost signed a contract with the American giant Deere & Company for the delivery of tractors to Latin America. These vehicles were assembled in Mexico by Industrias John Deere Sociedad anónima de capital variable. In return, the Czech company undertook to no longer sell tractors in South America.

Before I forget, would you believe that Zbrojovka Brno and Deere & Company had signed a similar deal during the 1960s? Said agreement was quickly abandoned, however.

Interestingly, in 1997, the Brazilian firm Agrale Sociedade anónima signed a similar contract with Zetor whose objective was, you guessed it, the delivery of tractors, and…

 What’s wrong with you, my reading friend? You seem puzzled. Ah, yours truly apologizes. I should have mentioned that, following the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989-91, our Czech state-owned company was privatised, which explains the new name mentioned above. A Czech bank, Konsolidační Banka, thus became one of the main owners of Zetor.

In 1998, a Czech firm, Motokov Akciová společnost, acquired the Konsolidační Banka’s interests in Zetor. Very serious financial problems led to the end of tractor production, however. In fact, Motokov had to return the recently acquired interests to the bank.

In any event, tractor production resumed in 1999, with series destined for 2 separate markets, North America and Europe on the one hand, and Russia and Africa on the other.

A Slovak investment firm, HTC holding Akciová spoločnost, a subsidiary of BC FIN Akciová společnost, a Slovak firm involved in many sectors, acquired the Czech government’s interest in Zetor in 2002, thus saving the firm from bankruptcy. This being said (typed?), a third of the staff was let go during the restructuring of the firm.

The financial shock of 2008-09 led HTC and BC FIN to consider the possibility of selling Zetor. A faster than expected return to normalcy meant that the Slovak firms decided to abandon this idea.

Would you believe that, in 2015, Zetor’s management asked Carrozzeria Pininfarina Società per Azioni, arguably the Leonardo da Vinci of automotive bodywork and a world-famous Italian automotive firm mentioned in October 2018, March 2019 and January 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, to offer it a new look for its tractors? Said look pleased it. Since then, several / many Zetor tractor models have been among the sexiest on the planet.

By the way, Zetor could count on 7 dealers in Québec in 2015.

Around 2017-18, Zetor concluded an agreement with Aktsionernoye Obshchestvo Kovrovskiy Elektomeknanicheskiy Zavod, a subsidiary of Aktsionernoye Obshchestvo Vysokotochnye Kompleksy, itself a subsidiary of a Russian industrial giant with an equally gigantic name, Gosudarstvennaya Korporatsiya po Sodeystviyu Razrabotke, Proizvodstvu i Eksportu Vysokotekhnologichnoy Promyshlennoy Produktsii « Rostekh. » Said agreement aimed at the assembly of Zetor tractors in Russia.

Zetor remained in business as of early of 2021, and…

Šťastné 75. výročí, Zetore!

Take care of yourself and your loved ones, my reading friend. See you soon.

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Rénald Fortier