With the work that David Brown Gears were doing on tank transmissions in the 1930s, and the firm’s development into agricultural products, it is not surprising that the company would apply this technology to military use in the form of a tracked tractor.
Actually, David Brown wanted to start producing a tracked tractor shortly after his split with Harry Ferguson, but he was initially prohibited from doing so because of the difficulties with his father over space at Lockwood, the subsequent move to Meltham Mills and the outbreak of war.
He held this goal constantly in mind in the late 1930s, because he had a strong feeling that the country would soon be crying out for tracked vehicles as well as agricultural tractors. When the Ministry of Supply assessed the output potential of Meltham Mills, it was patently obvious that the two areas of war production where David Brown could provide both experience and capacity. would be the manufacture of tank gear boxes and aero gears/components.
Indeed throughout the period 1940-45, Meltham Mills turned out 10,000 tank transmissions, 125,000 aero gears, and 6,000 hydraulic pumps for aircraft. However, Lord Beaverbrook (Minister for Aircraft Production) put a forceful argument to Winston Churchill that the tractors he needed for towing medium to heavy bombers, could not be acquired by lease-lend under the terms of the Stockholm Convention which outlined the issues of neutrality. As the aerodrome construction programme was then considered to be of the utmost national importance, a decision was taken to order a tracked vehicle which could then be later used for towing duties. With the experience gained in tank transmissions, the time was indeed ripe for Brown’s to commence production of a tracked vehicle for the Air Ministry. The story of the RAF track-layer is quite fascinating, as it was designed to fulfil the Ministry’s concept of a dual-purpose
tractor with a powerful winch, which could be used either in aerodrome construction or in aircraft towing. Yet both of these roles were, in many ways, completely incompatible with one another. As J. C. R. Birney then Sales Manager of David Browns wrote in Tractor News at the end of the war, ‘the machine was a bastard in more ways than one’. The design had been rapidly evolved in conjunction with experts from the RAF, and it resulted in what was little more than a tracked version of the VAK1. Whilst the tractor performed its tests reasonably well, in service the machine was far from ideal.
As Herbert Ashfield remembers ‘The original aircraft tracklayer the VTK1 may have been a good idea on paper, but unfortunately it was so slow that it wasn’t really a practical proposition on a busy aerodrome. It had been conceived by people who’s idea of an airfield was literally a field, and a tracklayer was not really what was needed at all. Our model had a top speed of five miles an hour, but at anything over this it would shake itself to bits. Sometimes it had to tow an aircraft over a mile, and it took too much time to do this.’
Indeed, in many other ways it was proving itself to be quite unsuitable for the RAF’s purpose, because when they began using crawlers for aircraft towing or bombing up procedures, they found that the metal crawler tracks were not doing a lot of good to the runways and aprons. The Ministry soon decided that it wasn’t a crawler that was wanted at all, but a wheeled tractor – could David Brown’s oblige? They certainly could, and a hasty re-design and conversion programme was set in motion.
All the tracked machines were recalled to Meltham and along with wheeled machines these were then supplied as wheeled tractors. As these were returned to the works, large numbers of them began building up in the goods yard at Meltham station and they were soon found to be clogging up the space needed for tank transmissions that were being brought in for gearbox work, not to mention the tractors which the company were despatching to supply depots around the country. They then began to build up a dump of VTK1s at Lockwood station, then Honley and finally at Penistone. Many of these were then moved to the firm’s Penistone works until the time could be found to convert them. Considerable thought was put into how these tractors might be profitably re-worked for other applications.
Herbert Ashfield remembers the decision was taken to convert the tractors for both industrial and agricultural use; ‘Nearly all the VTK1s were sent back and converted to wheeled tractors, so that alongside the VAK1 and VAK1A we were offering an industrial tractor, which we were able to achieve by modifying Air Ministry tracklayers and tractors for civilian use. After the war was over, we got a lot back and converted them for peaceful use, turning them into threshing tractors.’ It can also be revealed that some of the salesmen were often known to quote a little bit of the Bible when selling these tractors, as they said they were figuratively fulfilling the scripture in Isaiah Chapter 2 verse 4 which says ‘they shall pound their swords into hoes and their spears into pruning hooks’ (Bible In Living English).
In all some 185 VTK1s were produced, and a large number of these were re-worked into conventional wheeled tractors. When the combined production of the Air Ministry and VIG1/100 tractors are taken into consideration, the total production run was 2,400 which, surprisingly compares favourably to almost half the production figure on the VAK1 and two-thirds the total production of the VAK1A, yet these sturdy, handsome looking tractors are often largely ignored in accounts of the company’s early days. Based on VAK1 and 1A tractors, these heavy industrial models had the same 37 BHP petrol engine but were fitted with a low-speed final drive for towing. Some were fitted with conventional clutches, but others were provided with fluid drive torque converters. At least four of these tractors were developed as shunting tractors and one, known colloquially as ‘Muffin The Mule’, spent years shunting the internal railway system at the company’s Penistone Works.