Traction Engine Club of Ulster Ltd

David Brown Tractors

The David Brown Factory
The David Brown Factory

David Brown-An engineering company with a long history

This year we are celebrating 80 years since the launch of the David Brown tractor in 1939. However the foundation of the company was laid almost 80 years before manufacture of the David Brown tractor began.

David Brown senior, who was the grandfather of the tractor manufacturer, set up shop in Huddersfield in 1860 to make the wooden patterns used as moulds for the production of cast iron gear wheels. Because of the rapidly growing textile industry in both Yorkshire and Lancashire there was great demand for gears. Business prospered and within three years David Brown was carrying out the complete gear manufacturing process. By 1890 David Brown, his sons Earnest and Frank, and seven other employees were at work in the firm. When David Brown senior died in 1903, the firm’s growing reputation for designing innovative gearing had enabled a move to “Park Works” at Lockwood, where gears are still manufactured today. 

Frank and his other brother Percy became joint managing directors of the firm. They expanded into many areas of gear production and patented their own thread patterns for worm gears which were used in bus axles. They also bought the manufacturing rights for Dobson and Valveless cars. Few were built because world war one intervened and all production moved over to war work including gears for ships. During the war years the firm’s staff numbers increased from about 100 to 2000 employees. Several other engineering companies were taken over in the 1920s and early 1930s. It was into this disjointed mix of businesses that David Brown junior, a grandson of the founder, was promoted to managing director. Young David instigated a programme of consolidation and was prepared to take hard decisions employing staff who could move the enterprise forward.

Tractor Manufacture

David Brown junior always had an interest in cars. Much to his father’s disapproval he had secretly tried to build an engine for his own car in Park Works. He believed that if he could make the engine then the rest would be easy. The first involvement with tractors began with an order from Harry Ferguson of Belfast for the transmission and steering gears for a new prototype tractor he was developing. Although the new tractor was very lightweight its performance proved to be extraordinary. The tractor incorporated Harry Ferguson’s patented hydraulic lift and converging 3-point linkage which has been used on most tractors since then. In 1936 David Brown agreed to manufacture the tractor, The Ferguson Type A now commonly known as the Ferguson Brown. Sales of the tractor were a disappointment, probably because farmers needed to buy matching implements to work with them. Early models had a Coventry Climax engine. This was changed later to an engine built by David Brown. Harry and David had many arguments about changes to the design of the tractor but Harry would not budge. Friction between the two men increased and their business relationship ended when Harry went to America and made an agreement with Henry Ford to use the Ferguson patents in a Ford tractor. 

David Brown did a lot of research to find out what farmers really wanted. He decided that the tractor needed to be heavy enough to pull the existing trailed implements that farmers already owned. He wanted an overhead valve engine with wet sleeves that would run on TVO and could perhaps be modified to diesel later on. The tractor should also be easy to overhaul with the engine, clutch and gearbox all easily removed while the tractor remained on its wheels.  The new David Brown Agricultural Tractor was launched at The Royal Show in June 1939. With its streamlined styling and striking Hunting Pink colour scheme the tractor made a big impression on farmers and machinery dealers. Orders for about 3000 tractors were taken. The first batches of the new tractor were built at Park Works. Then the former mills at Meltham were purchased to set up a tractor production line there. Although world war two moved the bulk of production to military and aircraft towing tractors, 6350 agricultural tractors were built during the war years.

During nearly half a century David Brown gained worldwide respect as a manufacture of quality tractors. Eighty per cent of their tractors were exported from the UK.

Today when those first little David Brown tractors seem like toys compared to modern machines, we must remember as one old farmer said, “They were a lot better than a horse”


David Heatley updated 08/05/2019