A Brief History of Tractors in Australia
by Bob Kavanagh
After Captain Cook's exploration of the east coast in 1770 the British
Government decided to establish a penal colony in Australia. The first fleet
arrived in 1788 and consisted mainly of convicts who were poorly equipped
and new little of farming techniques. The colony remained far from
self-supporting and it was not until the early 1800's that things started to
improve. Free settlers started to arrive, they followed the explorers across
the mountains and where land was suitable set up farms. The gold-rushes of
the 1850's brought wealth to the colonies and more than doubled the
population, this increased the need for food and farming began to expand.
The export of agricultural products to England on returning ships also
The mechanization of Australian farming was perhaps a bit slower than in
other countries due to the huge distance and the related costs of
transporting farm machinery to the opposite end of the world. It was for
this same reason that Australian farmers, engineering companies, blacksmiths
etc. became experts at adapting and inventing their own machinery. Some of
the early farming machinery included a stripper by John Bull and John Ridley
in 1843, R Bowyer's Stump Jump Plow in 1876, James Morrow patented a
Stripper-Harvester in 1884 and in the same year at the tender age of 19 Hugh
McKay's Stripper-Harvester was produced.
The first steam engines were imported and used mainly in flourmills, the
gold rush increased the demand for their use in water pumping and rock
stamping. In the latter part of the 1800's Australian firms began to
manufacture both portable and traction steam engines. It is believed that
the first internal combustion engine tractor to be used in Australia was an
Ivel from England in about 1903.
A H McDonald began making engines in Melbourne in the early 1900's and in
1908 made Australia's first tractor, the Imperial Oil Tractor EA. The EB,
EAA and some lightweight models followed, they were all powered by their own
kerosene fueled, spark ignition engines. They began experimenting with their
Super Diesel engines before ceasing local tractor production during the
1920's and imported the Emmerson-Brantingham from America and the Advance
from Sweden. They resumed production again with the Imperial Super Diesel T
series in the 1930's, these tractors ran on crude oil, their sales brochures
stated "Cheaper Power Every Hour" The TWB became a popular model, McDonald
continued producing tractors until 1955.
The Caldwell brothers started working on a four-wheel drive tractor around
1906, they later joined Henry Vale to form Caldwell-Vale Motors. Around 1910
they introduced what must have been one of the worlds first tractors with
four-wheel drive and four wheel power steering. They also built trucks with
the same configuration to haul road trains in the outback. A car with
four-wheel drive, four-wheel power steering was also produced. Due to
financial reasons and a law suit the innovative company was taken over and
production of these advanced tractors ceased around 1916.
The Jelbart brothers began their business in Ballarat Victoria and followed
the footsteps of their blacksmith father in making agricultural machinery.
They patented an "airscavenger" engine in about 1910 and a few years later
they fitted one to their first tractor. They made tractors using a range of
their noisy but interesting engines with the stepped pistons until the mid
Jelbart Tractor, Circa 1915
As stated above H V McKays first claim to fame was the Stripper-Harvester,
the demand for this machine grew and by 1915 they had sold thousands of them
overseas. Around 1913 the company produced a Header-Harvester designed by H
S Taylor, a few years later they made their first tractors. They produced a
model A and a more streamlined model O, production continued until the mid
1920's. In the 1930's they sold the Massey Harris Model 25, Pacemaker and
the Challenger tractors. H V McKay became one of Australia's largest
agricultural machinery manufacturers and in the 1950's became part of Massey
Ronaldson Bros. & Tippett partnership began producing agricultural machinery
in the early 1900's and was one of the earliest Australian companies to
design and make internal combustion engines (Austral). They built a
prototype tractor in 1910 but it was not until 1924 that they introduced
their Super Drive. The first tractors were basically American "Illinois
18-30" with Wisconsin engines and larger radiators for the hot Australian
conditions. Eventually most of the tractor was built in their Ballarat
factory, they continued to produce tractors until the late 1930's. The
company manufactured Wisconsin engines under license until 1972.
Another great Australian agricultural engineer was Cliff Howard, he was only
16 when he built his first rotary powered by a motor cycle engine in 1912.
It was around 1921 before he could afford to set up a company to manufacture
some of his inventions. By the mid 1920's he had sold several of his tractor
rotary hoe combinations. He then made a rotary hoe attachment for the very
popular Fordson tractor until they ceased production in 1928. During this
time they had also been making smaller self propelled walk behind rotary
hoes and some three wheeled tractor/rotary hoes. The DH22 tractor was
released in 1930, a Howard 22hp engine was also developed for this tractor.
Some 4WD TUG's were also made for railway work. Cliff Howard spent many
years in England developing Rotary Hoe Cultivators Ltd., after WW2 this
company sold into the North American market. He was also involved with the
Platypus crawler tractor. He returned to Australia in the late 1950's and
regained control of Howard Australia. They produced small garden tractors,
the Kelpie in about 1945 and the Howard 2000 in 1962. The Howard Company
still exists under a different structure and manufactures rotary hoe tractor
The first Chamberlain tractor was conceived prior to WW2 but was not
manufactured until after the war. Bob Chamberlain had spent some time
working as a tractor mechanic and designed the tractor around what he
believed farmers wanted. The prototype 40K was built in Melbourne and became
the first tractor to be officially tested at the ATT station in 1946. The
Western Australian Government persuaded the Chamberlains to set up a
manufacturing plant in Perth, the first 40K were produced in 1949. Over the
next few years several models were produced including a diesel, they also
made some agricultural machinery. In 1955 as a publicity stunt they entered
the new Champion model in the Redex around Australia trial, it became known
as "Tail End Charlie" The Champion model remained in production for many
years, the popular 80 series followed. In 1970 the J Deere Co. of America
purchased a controlling interest in Chamberlain, production continued until
the mid 1980's.
Kelly & Lewis who go back to the early 1900's made the KL Bulldog. They were
mainly involved with engines and in the 1930's became the agent for Lanz
Bulldog. Due to the war production of these German tractors ceased and Kelly
& Lewis decided to make their own version of the 40hp Bulldog. The first
bulldogs came out of their Springvale factory in 1949 and continued until
about 1954. By this time the German company began to produce improved
versions of the tractor and K & L found it hard to sell their stock, a total
of about 900 were made. J Deere took a controlling interest of Lanz in 1956.
Big Lizzie, was a one-of 40-ton monster built by Frank Bottrill in 1915-16.
Earlier he had developed his "Dreadnaugh Wheels" which he fitted to other
large tractors. These of course were fitted to his 34 foot long Big Lizzie.
He worked the tractor till the mid 1920's, by this time crawler tractors
became far more efficient. It is on display at Red Cliffs, Victoria
International Harvester set up a factory in Geelong in the late 1930's but
it was not until 1949 that the first tractor the AW-6 came off the
production line. Production of Australian models continued for the next
thirty years, in the 1980's some American models were assembled in the
factory. In 1986 when Case and IH merged production at the Geelong plant
Two other tractors, Australian in name only were the "Vickers Aussie"
released in 1925, it was actually made in England and based on the
McCormick-Deering 15-30 and also in the 1920's the "Hart-Parr Australian
Special" from Iowa, USA. In the 1980's several large purpose built
tractors were designed and built in Australia they included, Acremaster,
Baldwin, Phillips, Upton, Waltanna etc.
For more info on tractors down under, The Aussie Tractor Page.
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