As the problems with Ferguson became insoluble, David Brown’s design team began the first tentative steps toward the production of their own, independent tractor. However, as work on the Ferguson-Brown was still continuing at Park Works, the project had to be carried out without any publicity. Prior to commencing this project, David Brown had met Alex Taub of General Motors who provided invaluable advice and encouragement. This had finally convinced Brown that his new engine should be made to a completely new design, and use overhead valves and wet sleeves.
Accordingly, David Brown engaged a designer by the name of Albert Kersey who he secreted away in an isolated drawing office at Park Works. To maintain the secrecy, the design team referred to their new project by a clandestine code name, VAK1, which meant Vehicle Agricultural Kerosene One. Leonard Craven remembers the time well, writing ‘During 1938 it became evident that all was not well at the top. Visits by Ferguson and ‘the Cable Street gang’ became more sporadic, and the former spirit of camaraderie and comradeship was noticeably at a premium. What was more I significant however was the ‘cloak and dagger’ activity on the top floor, which was virtually designated a “No Go” area to all but the team of David Brown engineers who were examining in great detail tractors made by other manufacturers.
I remember seeing Ford, John Deere, Allis Chalmers and Massey Harris machines on various occasions. This culminated in the erection of a full sized “dummy” model of a machine which eventually emerged as the new David Brown Tractor.’ The new David Brown engine was completed on 13th December 1938, and it ran on its test-bed with considerable ease which was obviously a great relief to all concerned!
The next stage was the completion of the prototype David Brown tractor, so the small “research and development’ team worked on in secret often working long into the dark winter evenings. As the work on the machine neared completion one evening in January, David Brown told his men to knock off at midnight and finish it off the next day. However, after he had gone they all decided to carry on until the tractor was done. They worked until the small hours to complete the final adjustments and then, on finishing the tractor, Ernest Kenyon got the bright idea to drive it up to David Brown’s house, Durker Roods at Meltham, so that the ‘boss’ could see his new machine. It is reputed that the great man was awakened around 3am by the revving engine and a group of grinning, cheering men. Brown then came down to see his first completed machine in dressing gown pyjamas and slippers, and then they all toasted the success of the David Brown Tractor with his best malt whisky. More work was to be done on the tractor, and several modifications were indicated after its initial field tests. These tests were quite extreme and, as Leonard Craven recalls, ‘It was decided to test the tractor to destruction, to see which components gave up first.
In its grey paint it was taken out on a circuit around Meltham which took it up Wessendenhead Road to the Isle of Skye Hotel; from there it followed the Saddleworth – Holmfirth road back to the Ford Inn from where it returned to Meltham.’ It was a demanding route which reached an altitude of 1,506 feet [460 metres] above sea level, and on one or two occasions it was actually buried deep into snow-drifts and had to be recovered. In view of the secrecy it was run on this route mostly at night time, an unenviable task shared by Bill Harrison and a small team of other drivers who braved the winter weather on the Pennine moors. The tractor was, however, to be kept running for 24 hours a day and some of the testing was carried out on David Brown’s own land or in the quarries at Royd Edge. Then, in even more secrecy, the tractor was taken to a farm at Middleton Tyas in North Yorkshire where it was put under further stress and strain.
Fortunately, these tests and the subsequent improvements were concluded just in time for a re-styled VAK1 to be prepared for the 1939 Royal Agricultural Show which was held at Windsor Great Park that July. The biggest difficulty to be faced by the team was actually what colour to paint their new tractor, and the obvious choice of brown was widely discussed and almost equally rejected. When the decision over the colour scheme became heated, it is said that David Brown sent for his red hunting jacket, and then threw this on to the tractor and said ‘paint it that colour’. A task which was duly completed by Harold Hawkes and Harry Lockley the company’s two tractor painters. Thus was born the unusual and distinctive livery which, quite appropriately, was known to all and sundry as ‘hunting pink’. The models that were to be sent to the show were given much extra detail, and all the external bolt heads that were visible were fitted with bright chromium-plated bolts.
The same bright finish was applied to the headlamps and to other small parts, though these would have normally been painted red or black. This set a trend for many of the show tractors which followed over the years. Bright, stylish and attractive they may have been, but to the down-to-earth Yorkshiremen who built them, they were known inside the works as the ‘pansy tractors’.
With its 3.5” bore petrol or TVO engine and 4-speed gear box, some 5,350 VAK1s were to be produced between 1939 and 1945, including some Utility versions. As Bert Ashfield recalls ‘When we were making the Ferguson Brown we had the advantage of Ferguson patents but after the split we had to get round these; they were mainly concerned with getting weight transfer from the plough to the tractor’s rear wheels, and also with getting the plough to follow. We got over the depth control problem by putting an adjustable land wheel on the implement which completely overcame that part of the patent. The convergent linkage problem was solved by someone coming up with the brilliant idea of parallel linkage and a z-cross shaft.
This meant that instead of the inclination being on the links, it was put on the cross shaft, so when the plough moved off centre the z-shaft fetched it back. That was our way of getting around the Ferguson patents, but virtually every other traction manufacturer, including Ford (after a spectacular law suit), paid him a royalty on his convergent linkage patents. Another matter was the original bolt-on power lift which used the Ferguson pump and a number of Ferguson parts. We decided to put our own control valve on the VAK1, to get round the patent, but this wasn’t really satisfactory. We eventually got the power lift right on the VAK1, but this wasn’t until about the time when we went on to the Cropmaster. So, although we had our trials with the power lift, we did avoid the Ferguson patents; for example, one of these showed that their control valve was on the suction side, so we put our control valve on the delivery side and got over that.’
The VAK made its way to its first public appearance by rail, being sent by the LMS from Meltham station, which was later destined to become the starting point for thousands of tractors which would be despatched by rail. The tractors that were sent were all sheeted over, as great efforts were made to conceal their actual appearance until their arrival at the show ground. However, after the wagons arrived at the GWR station yard in Windsor, it was found that the paint-work on the bonnets had been badly rubbed by the heavy tarpaulin sheets which were used on the railways. Very hasty arrangements had to be made for coach painters to be hired locally so that the problem could be resolved in time for pristine tractors to be shown on the stand. The stand of David Brown Tractors Ltd. Huddersfield carried both Ferguson advertising banners and Ferguson Brown tractors, but the main focus for attention was undoubtedly the VAK1. In its hunting pink livery and with a cockpit arrangement for the driver, it was a truly resplendent and stylish tractor. It was also in stark contrast to most of the other tractors then being displayed, and as a consequence it was an immediate success with both the farming press and those who would actually use it. It is reported that orders for over 3,000 tractors were taken, though Harry Ferguson’s reaction on seeing the VAK1, is said to be entirely unprintable.
The outbreak of war in September 1939 coincided with the formal break up of the Brown Ferguson partnership. Ferguson would have nothing to do with David Brown’s new model, so Brown bought out Ferguson’s shares (and those of his friends), paying them pound for pound on their investment. The threat of war considerably strengthened David Brown’s position, as he believed that hostilities would create a massive demand for all types of tractor. With a lease for the mills secured on favourable terms, orders at hand for the VAK1, and a good design and engineering team established, the tractor operation moved to the 400,000 square feet of the Meltham Mills factory. It is believed that Frank Brown told his son that he would offer a limited amount of support (possibly with a twelve month term being imposed) and, as Albert Kerscy told my father, ‘after that it was sink or swim’. However, David was not idle in this period and he succeeded in getting more work from the various Government ministries. It was, unfortunately, this work which nearly made the dream of a David Brown Tractor stillborn. At the time the war began in September 1939, such tractor production as there was, was still being carried out at Park Works, for the Meltham Mills factory did not exist as such, save as a collection of large abandoned buildings full of redundant textile machinery. After a massive clearing up operation, work began in fitting out the factory for engineering purposes, but the Ministry of Supply were already becoming increasingly reluctant to allow supplies of steel for the manufacture of tractors.
In one conversation, a regional supply officer told David Brown ‘why do farmers need tractors, they’ve used horses for centuries’. Another factor in this attitude against tractor manufacture in Britain was the fact that American tractors were available to Britain via the Lease-Lend scheme, whereas military equipment was not. Bert Ashfield confirms officialdoms approach, saying ‘When I started, the VAK1 was on ration as they were only allowed to make so agricultural tractors a week. They had contracts for Air Ministry tractors, the VIG1, for which there was an insatiable demand. It didn’t matter how many they made, because more were always needed. However, on the back of this production they allowed us to make a set number of agricultural tractors. This was primarily because we used mounted implements behind the VAK1, and these only used about a third of the steel that a conventional implement needed. There was a big demand for ploughs because, due to the massive increase in food production, a lot of pre-war ploughs were rapidly wearing out. As the Government were having to allocate materials to replace them, they decided to send the steel to us as we could produce a plough for the VAK1 for about a third of the cost of a conventional trailed implement. The VAK1 prospered because of this and we made a total of 5,000 in the period of 1940-44.
That’s around 1,000 a year not bad going for the war years.’ Indeed it was not bad going at all, but already a successor for the VAK1 was becoming essential if David Brown were to build on this success and the last build order for this model was sanctioned in October 1944!