The Rise and Fall of the Australian Tractor Industry

Remembering the glory days of Australian tractor manufacture from A.H. McDonald to International Harvester.

1906 cartoon

Between 1906 and 1930, Australian industrialists mounted a campaign in the rural press, vociferously contending that Americans – depicted variously as sharks, vultures, wolves, an octopus and grizzly bears – were out to destroy the local farm machinery industry. In this 1906 cartoon, American industry is portrayed as an aggressive octopus.

Image courtesy Graeme Quick

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As mechanization came to the farm early in the 1900s, Australia faced particular challenges in adopting the new technology. Transportation of heavy equipment to the land Down Under was slow and costly. Local manufacturers entered the fray, but struggled to build sustainable business plans.

The first self-propelled farm machine to land on Australian shores was a Boydell-Garrett steam traction engine that was shipped from England by sailing boat in 1852. It took six months to reach the port of Sydney, in what was then a prison colony, the Colony of New South Wales (Australia did not federate until 1901).

Another six months passed while the lumbering machine was driven overland to the Liverpool plains in northern New South Wales. During parts of the journey, oxen were used to haul the engine. Owner Edward Clerk intended to use the traction engine to cultivate his land at Bundarra. The steamer proved so cumbersome, however, that it was used mainly as a stationary engine providing power for a sawmill.

A.H. McDonald & Co. leads the way

Australian tractor manufacture got its start in 1909. The first tractor with an internal combustion engine manufactured in Australia was built at the factory of A.H. McDonald & Co. in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn, Victoria. Engine maker and company founder Alf McDonald was ever on the lookout for equipment that could be powered by his engines.

But McDonald correctly perceived that steam traction engines of the 19th century were totally unsuitable for Australian conditions. They were too expensive, cumbersome and slow, and – although wood fuel was abundant and cheap – they devoured too much clean water on the world’s second driest continent. A steam traction engine could consume some 1,700 gallons of water a day – nearly 7 tons – and it had to be clean water. “If you can’t drink it, don’t put it in the boiler” was apt advice of the era.

The Imperial Oil tractor

The first of McDonald’s Imperial Oil tractors was sold in 1909 to a farmer near Geelong in Victoria. The farmer was impressed with the tractor’s “instantaneous” starting ability. “It took but five minutes to be got ready,” he reported, “there being no loss of time in getting up steam.” The 4-1/2-ton Model EA was started on gasoline and switched over to kerosene when warmed up. The 20 hp engine was a vertical 2-cylinder 4-stroke mounted crosswise on the chassis.

Transmission was through a gearbox well supported in a cast iron housing, but with no bottom. The transmission was accessed by a cover periodically opened for the operator. Armed with an oil can, he’d reach over and lubricate gears and bearings.

Thirteen Model EA tractors were sold over the next three years and a new Australian industry was born. McDonald’s business grew rapidly as new models were introduced and the company expanded into road rollers and specialty machines, including the tracked Steel Horse. In 1917, McDonald launched its own version of a low-speed, single-cylinder diesel engine that would later share design characteristics with the Lanz Bulldog.

The company struggled through the Great Depression and lasted only a few years after World War II. Management abandoned tractor production in 1955 to concentrate on other product lines. Competition from other local makers grew rapidly after World War II, and imported tractors presented a growing challenge. Over time, no less than 25 local tractor makers tried the market Down Under.

Chamberlain heritage

Arguably the most well-known Australian tractor builder in the postwar years was Chamberlain Industries. A Chamberlain Champion tractor was converted to road use with special gearing, tires and brakes to allow it to reach 70 mph. That machine, known as “Tail-End Charlie,” was used successfully as a chase vehicle in three round-Australia motor rallies in the mid-1950s.

There were many exciting episodes during those 11,000-mile rallies, including a narrow escape when the tractor overturned on an icy corner. The occupants were thrown clear, which was just as well as the tractor had only a canvas roof – there was no roll-over protection in those days. On another occasion, Charlie’s bump-bar was used to nudge a large kangaroo out of the way of the rally cars.

Today that restored tractor still runs. Charlie can be seen in the Tractor Museum of Western Australian near Perth. As for the Chamberlain company, it was absorbed into Deere & Co.; local tractor manufacture ceased in 1986. Chamberlain 9G tractors remain prized collector items. An owner’s club continues to host rally runs; a caravan even crossed the U.S. in 2009 (for more on the U.S. caravan, see Farm Collector, June and October 2009).

Collapse of the local industry

The last local maker of tractors in Australia was International Harvester Co. Australia Ltd., which was also the largest. IHCA closed its factory doors in 1986.

The irony of the local manufacturers’ opposition to imported farm machinery – especially tractors – is that today, farmers Down Under are totally dependent on imported equipment.

 The absence of local manufacturing operations has a quiet but profound impact. As a prominent engineer from the Australian Tractor Test Station noted, “There are no technological or economic arguments to support local manufacture, but the loss of engineering expertise with the closure of factories and the reduction of staff by importers will affect the quality of tractor servicing, and the preparation and scrutiny of regulations and standards, to the detriment of the agricultural industry.”

Pioneer tractor maker Bob Chamberlain has the last word from Western Australia. “We seem to have developed, then lost, our ability to design and build tractors in Australia,” he says. “Some years ago I was invited by Soichiro Honda to Japan as his guest. Throughout his organization and at all levels, the workers would be talking about ‘Honda Methods’ – hard work and loyalty to their employer. Australia is well-placed to make bricks and beer competitively – but maybe this is all people here want to make.” FC


Graeme Quick lives in Queensland, Australia. He worked in the U.S. for 13 years, largely at Iowa State University in Ames, and has written 15 books on farm machinery, including The Grain Harvesters with Wesley Buchele. Contact him at g.quick@bigpond.com.