David Brown Tractors 1936-1988 – The Complete Story

David Brown Tractors began in 1936 when Harry Ferguson and David Brown entered a partnership to make a small agricultural tractor powered by a Coventry Climax engine at the famous David Brown Park Gear Works in Huddersfield. Very soon David Brown had introduced his own engine and had secretly begun plans to market his own tractor; the writing was soon on the wall for the partnership with Ferguson.

It was clear from an early stage that Ferguson’s brilliant but temperamental personality did not sit well with the Yorkshireman, nor did the Irish engineer endear himself to the Huddersfield workforce, but until the time was ready Brown undertook the design of his new tractor under clandestine conditions. He even gave it the code name VAK1, which meant Vehicle Agricultural Kerosene. The launch of the new VAK 1 at the 1939 Royal Show brought about the end of the relationship, and Ferguson went off to form another ill-fated relationship, this time with Ford.

Throughout the war years, 1939-1945, the Meltham Mills works not only carried out much needed agricultural tractor production, but it also did a massive amount of war-related work. Thousands of aeroplane gears and tank transmissions were made at Meltham, and it was singled out as a prime target for the Luftwaffe. Yet, as the works were located in a deeply wooded valley, appropriate camouflage measures and the construction of mock wooden buildings on a nearby moor prevented it from being found by the enemy planes.

This did not stop the propaganda machine however, and the infamous Lord Haw-Haw twice announced that Meltham Mills had been destroyed by German action. Unscathed, the works then turned its attention to more peaceful activities, and after replacing the VAK1 with the VAK1A in 1945, it introduced the VAK1C in 1947. Better known as the Cropmaster, this tractor became world-famous, with almost 60,000 produced in just seven years. Crawler, industrial, prairie and aircraft towing versions all appeared.

In 1953 a ’stripped down’ economy version of the Cropmaster was introduced in the 25 and 30 series tractors, whilst a six-cylinder 50D model was produced (primarily for the export market). By 1955 the ill-fated 900 tractor had made its first appearance, but various problems led to all the proposed future developments being incorporated in the 950 model launched in 1958. Meanwhile a little air-operated pneumatic tool bar/small row crop tractor appeared in the form of the 2D in 1956 that remained in production to 1961.

Although it sold well in certain quarters, the 2D’s main competitor was always going to be the second-hand small tractor, but Browns had set their sights on capturing this market with a new model. First of all it brought out a small four-cylinder diesel tractor, the 850 which came out in 1961 and followed it with the three-cylinder 770 in 1965. Also in 1961 came the four-cylinder 880 (which ceased production in 1965 as a three-cylinder) and the famous 990 lmplematic, which lasted in production until 1965. The year 1965 saw the release of an outstanding range of new tractors both visually (with the white and chocolate livery) and technically (with a new hydraulic system).

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Exactly how the ’white’ livery came about is a subject of differing opinions, but it was probably influenced by the American market. At the time we already had a deal whereby we supplied tractors to the Oliver Corporation, but then came an even better opportunity after a large number of Ford dealers lost their franchise to supply tractors.

These dealers banded together and bought a substantial number of white-bonneted diesel lmplematics from Browns. One of these dealers, Mike Pritchard, from Delaware recalls he had tractors with the smart white tin-work, but said that during the mid-19603 they changed from red to black to brown on the castings.

The new tractors introduced in October 1965 were known as the Selectamatic range, and the striking appearance of the new brown and white livery is seen on the back cover. The range consisted of three tractor models starting with the 36hp 770, the 46hp 880 and the 55hp 990. All had the outstandingly simple to operate hydraulic system, which provided the Selectamatic name. This system allowed selection of the different services, depth control, height control, or external services/traction control, by means of a single control lever. Initially, operated by taps, a three-way valve was available to divert the hydraulic flow to where it was required. The 880 and 990 were available with two-speed power take off (PTO). As we have mentioned there had been a demand for a six-cylinder tractor back in the mid-1950s, but the single cylinder head of the 50D had been prone to warping under temperature, and problems with the ’export’ 50Ds had been hard to resolve.

Although the company had discontinued the 50D in 1959, the idea of a large tractor had never completely been discarded. Then, as a result of a re-emerging demand for a larger tractor, the 67hp 1200 was introduced in 1967. This tractor was longer and more heavily constructed than the 990, thus making it more able to handle longer ploughs and heavier equipment. A four-position-sensing unit was fitted as standard. The bonnet top could be removed for servicing access and the battery was mounted on a sliding tray behind the grill. However, the 1200 was found to be underpowered so it was uprated to 72hp the following year. Also introduced was the 780 model, which was basically the 770, fitted with the 880’s 46hp engine.

Two gasoline tractors, the 3800 and 4600, were released for the United States market where petrol was cheap and agricultural petrol even cheaper. In September 1969 Eric Turner from Engine Development and Mike Brogen from our Engineering Department accompanied two of these tractors to the USA for official testing at the Nebraska test station. Interestingly the dynamo-meter car, which was used in the tractor tests, was made on an Oliver 1850 tractor. There had been a working relationship between David

Brown and Oliver in the first half of the 1960s, as the green-liveried Oliver 500 and 600 models were actually the DB 850 and 950 model built at Meltham for the Americans. The Oliver deal came to an end when the opportunity came for DB to have a complete dealership arrangement for the USA, but in the latter part of the 1960s the American market assumed growing importance and David Brown Tractors concentrated a great deal of its attention on its development.

We did everything we could to consolidate this market, and we might give an example of this by way of an incident experienced by one of my former Field Test Department colleagues. Whilst rotovating with a field test tractor, Eddie Herbert noticed that the paint seemed to be peeling around the petrol filler cap and, on investigation, the petrol seemed to be boiling. However, on reporting this to management, Eddie was told it was not possible. However, when the same incident occurred in the States, Eddie was immediately pulled in from the fields and asked to recount his experiences. As a result the problem was solved by fitting an asbestos shield, and a deflector to allow cooling air from the fan to flow across the front of the tank. Thankfully this overcame the problem before any disasters occurred.

Around this time a large experimental tractor was built with a six-cylinder 100hp engine and semi-auto gearbox with a view to the North-American market. Code-named the ’Z’ tractor it was run in the Field Test Department for some time before being scrapped; however, records about this machine are scant and photographs particularly elusive. A lot of the development at the Meltham Mills plant was undertaken with a view to the company’s growing export market, and it was the success of this that spurred on the construction of a massive new assembly line (R Block) at the eastern end of the old factory.

Built over the site of the football and cricket grounds opposite the old Meltham Mills Toll Bar, the new facility was the most modem tractor plant in the world. It was also the beginning of the end as the expansion considerably extended the company’s financial resources.

Whilst things were going well it was no real problem, but as the late Tom Lazenby recalled ’when Lloyds Bank lost large sums of money with the Rolls Royce RB211 fiasco, they took a hard look at all their other engineering-based customers. At the time our overdraft with them was around £30 million and they called it in “on demand”. Sir David negotiated a way out for the short-term but it was obvious that something had to go’.

The late Jack Thompson the former Managing Director said ’we had long known that to justify our new plant, a merger with another manufacturer was essential, and Sir David Brown (knighted in 1968) placed considerable pressure on the Government of the day to help strengthen the business and make one large British tractor manufacturer. Around this time BMC had been merged with Leyland to form British Leyland (actually taking place in 1967), and we knew they were looking to offload their Nuffield Tractor operation. Sir David Brown put it to Harold Wilson (another Huddersfield lad who had made good as Prime Minister) that this might be an appropriate “political solution”!’ The late Alan Earnshaw recalls that, in advance of one of the visits made by BLMC hierarchy to the Meltham works, he and two other trainees were given the task of going round the works to remove any dirty books or ’girlie’ pictures that might be seen by the visitors. He said that they were given the jobs in the Christmas shutdown, and it gave a whole new meaning to having a clean up! Quite what happened to the proposed merger is not known, but Jack Thompson gave some insight saying ’it needed political clout to make it happen but that wasn’t forthcoming’.

One correspondent has claimed that a small number of Brown-Nuffield Tractors were assembled under great secrecy at an aircraft hanger in Burscough, Lancashire. It is also said that these tractors were sent to Scandinavia for testing, and a photograph which appeared in an early issue of the magazine Tractor & Machinery may be evidence that could support the claim. In the absence of a merger, Brown’s move towards the American market was notable throughout the entire group operations, and it is clear that Aston Martin-Lagonda and David Brown Tractors were seen as valuable exporters. It is said that the Government thought that any assistance for the firm should come in supporting this initiative, but otherwise that was all the help they would get, for economically 1969-71 was not a happy time as unemployment began to soar and prices went out of control. If Browns were to widen out in the USA, it would have to consider the acquisition of a plant in America. Some have said that Case considered selling off its smaller tractor production to the company, leaving it to concentrate on the big agri-tractors.

As it was, things went in a completely different direction, and in 1972 Sir David was forced by the banks to sell off both the tractor division and his beloved Aston-Martin factory at Newport Pagnell. When the Labour Government nationalised Vospers in 1977, Sir David bitterly left Britain to live in retirement in Monte Carlo. However, many years later after Ford bought out Aston-Martin Sir David was made honorary president of his old car company, an honour that brought him very great pleasure until he died in 1993 at the ripe old age of 89.

Despite the troubles, the early 1970s saw the development of the existing tractor range, with the introduction of ‘change-on-the-move transmissions’ and synchromesh on all models except the 1212, which featured the semi-automatic Hydra-Shift. The 885 model was also introduced, although this was basically a progression of the 780. A 775, based on the 770, was also made in small numbers for the German market. Having been fully exploited for five years the Selectamatic name was dropped from the bonnet decal in favour of the new DB emblem. The new emblem featured a Greek Delta letter ’D’. It became known as the ’bottle opener’ badge and it is still used at the Park Works, parent company. The new decals were red and white and featured the name David Brown and the model number.

In the spring 1973 issue of the company newspaper, Tractor News, it was revealed that David Brown Tractors was to be affiliated with the J. I. Case tractor division of the Tenneco Corporation. Oddly enough, in a story produced before the news was released, Alan Earnshaw wrote about the old railway line to Meltham, which the Purchasing Department had been looking to buy in order to form a private roadway to connect the works at Scar Bottom, Meltham Mills and Lockwood. His article entitled ’End of the Line’ was bannered on the front page right above the headline discussing the ’merger’. Many workers, not reading the promises contained in the main article security ofjobs, rosy future, etc took the heading to mean that the factory was closing down, but how prophetic it all turned out to be!

As a result of the so-called affiliation or merger, things soon began to change. One of the first was the flood of time and motion men who appeared in various departments, upsetting a fair few workers in the process. As far as the customers were concerned, the most immediate change was the removal of the DB emblem from the tractor decals, although the name David Brown and the nose badge with the DB red and white roses remained. The year 1974 saw another visual change to the range and the chocolate brown paintwork was replaced with Power Red. The white tin-work was retained but the decals changed to black as this was intended to bring the Case and the David Brown colour scheme into line. The Case bonnets had previously been Desert Sunset, but they had used a similar red for the engine blocks, frames, front axle and back end. This year also saw the introduction of the turbo-charged 91hp 1412 and 1410 Hydra-Shift and synchromesh models. These tractors were ‘beefed up’ to cope with the heavier workloads that they would be expected to cope with.

The next big change came in 1976 with the introduction of the quiet cab. Many livestock farmers seemed to resent cabs, saying they were not necessary and the price would be increased. However, most drivers would agree that the quiet cab was a necessary improvement, giving a better environment for the driver. The new DB cab also gave far better all-around visibility due to the higher seating position. On arable farms where tractor driving assumed afar greater percentage of the farmer’s time, the cab was welcomed with open arms. The year 1979 saw our release of the 90 series to a gathering of dealers in Monaco, and in this event we included a new top of the range 103hp tractor, the 1690 with a six-cylinder engine.

The public saw the 90 series for the first time at the Smithfield show in December, where the full range of tractors – the 48hp 1190, the 58hp 1290, the 67hp 1390, the 83hp 1490 and the 1690 was displayed. All of these tractors, except the 1190, were available with front-wheel drive. A feature of these tractors was the bonnet, which a Case stylist had designed to open at the front like a crocodile’s snout, but probably not quite so wide, for birds can get into crocodiles’ mouths to clean their teeth. According to Malcolm Clegg, then in the Design Drawing Office at Scar Bottom Works, the bonnet had to be completely redesigned because of the woefully inadequate access this opening offered. However, apart from a few problems, the 90 series was a fine range of tractors, very good looking and easy to access and operate. As we will see cab temperatures were a problem during hot weather so pusher fans were fitted, but these could cause further problems especially with 4WD models where the front tyre could flick up stubble and trash that was then blown into the radiator. There was even a brief period when the 90 series became the best-selling tractor in Britain, overtaking Ford and Massey Ferguson, but this was undoubtedly helped by heavy discounting and 0% financing.

The 94 series was introduced in 1983 and, although these were very similar to the 90 series, a few changes and new models were introduced. Sadly, the David Brown name, although it was still visible on the engine block casting, was replaced by Case decals. The range was now the 48hp 1194, the 61 hp 1294, the 72hp 1394 (now turbocharged), the 83hp 1494, the derated six-cylinder 95hp 1594 and, at the top of the range, the new mildly turbo-charged 108hp 1694 available with 4WD Hydra-Shift transmission.

Hydra-Shift then became available on 4WD tractors, to meet a growing demand, but we had been running one in Field Test well before the 90 series was released. A big feature on the 94 series was the fact that the paint on all the castings was changed from Power Red to black. The reason given was said to be Government legislation regarding paint containing lead chromate and the expense involved in updating our paint plant to meet the legislation! However, some felt the change was to mask the oil leaks that picked up dust in service. Certainly the colour scheme was smart but it caused some difficulty when working under the cab, because the black paint did not reflect the light like the red. There was some variety on the assembly line, for example there were always yellow Highway Tractors but the Irish airline Aer-Lingus bought bright green tractors and the United States Air Force placed a massive order for the 1390s. These were mostly painted in a drab green colour but a few were painted pink, possibly for desert work as these ones also had air conditioning fitted.

Special models were built over the years. For example, by turning the reductions and modifying the front axle, the 770 was produced as a low profile tractor. The 1390 Orchard Tractor, was also a low profile fitted with a down-swept exhaust. The 885 was produced in narrow form for hop field and vineyard work. High clearance conversions were available for row crop work and a 4WD special was produced with 12x38 equal sized wheel equipment, this also gave high clearance as the reductions were turned to level the tractor. The main market for the ’specials’ was the Californian fruit and vegetable producing area, where David Brown had done particularly well over the years.

But there were other specialised areas where these tractors were aimed including, of all things, fish farming. Other large export orders were obtained, and we managed to consolidate our UK market, despite stiff competition from Ford, Massey, International and the growing influx of tractors from Europe and the communist bloc. Throughout the years, Browns had produced a variety of special tractors for limited markets, and this policy continued after the Case take-over. Many firms also bought Browns power units and transmissions known in the works as skid units -for use in fork lifts, truck loaders, harvesters, generator sets, etc.

However, things were set to change at the end of 1984 when Tenneco acquired the agricultural business of International Harvester, and we knew that when someone in America looked at a map, they would think that the IH plant at Doncaster was almost next door to Meltham. Despite the initial optimism shown for the Scar Bottom works future as the main design and development area, many felt ’the writing was on the wall’ for Meltham. Our fears were well founded and, within a very short time, many apprentice-trained engineers had lost their jobs, including myself. By 1988 the production of tractors at Meltham had ceased completely, and the world’s most modern tractor plant had been closed. Many former workers are still usefully employed; some still in different branches of the engineering industry, some in totally unrelated trades from hat makers to book sellers and insurance agents. Some have now retired, and I myself am happily sweeping chimneys.

After my departure production continued to 1988, but more and more work was being sent across to the IH plant at Doncaster or to other Case plants around the world. The corporate image was now Case-International, and a new colour scheme was brought into being, using red tin-work, black engine and transmission and silver wheel rims. The name now on the bonnet also read Case International. There were obviously overlaps now in the tractor production so a major rationalisation of the Case and International models took place. This meant that the last two models to be produced at Meltham were the 72hp 1394 and the 95hp 1594, but the 1394 was the top selling tractor in the whole Case International range. The final production tractors were all badged as ’commemorative’ and had the DB badge on the bonnet side panels. The final tractor, a 1594 (l54BJB11528785), came off the assembly line in March 1988 and it marked the end of an era.