Tales from Wales: Looking at the VAK 1 David Brown tractor, and the oldest survivor in a small Welsh village
David Brown Engineering Ltd. has been at the forefront of the engineering industry for some 150 years, but tractor manufacturing has been but a small part of that history. David Brown tractors may no longer be in production, but the company remains famous for manufacturing gearing systems in Huddersfield, England.
David Brown’s first foray into tractor production was a joint project with Harry Ferguson in 1936, resulting in the Ferguson Brown tractor. The little Ferguson Brown tractor had some innovative features. For instance, many components were made from cast alloy, which meant that they were lightweight but somewhat fragile. New, the Ferguson Brown tractor cost around £224 ($1,113, or $18,095 today), whereas a Fordson tractor from the same period was priced at about £140. In the rather depressed economic climate of the time, it was no wonder that Ferguson Browns failed to sell well.
Only 1,350 Ferguson Brown tractors were built, making them rare little tractors today. At the time, though, the poor sales record led to a disagreement between David Brown and Harry Ferguson about how to increase sales. David Brown began to see that there might be a future in going solo into tractor production, and in secret the company began to build its own tractor, the VAK 1. The first true David Brown tractor was launched at the Royal Show in 1939. It was a bold move, and it paid off, as the VAK 1 was widely acclaimed.
The new VAK 1 looked absolutely nothing like the Ferguson Brown. David Brown had certainly gone its own way: The VAK 1's unmistakable shape continued fairly unaltered in the improved Cropmaster or the VAK 1C, which was introduced in 1947. The new Cropmaster would only run on petrol or TVO (Tractor Vaporising Oil) but a diesel version was added in 1949.
Some tractor manufacturers have to define themselves with colour, as there is nothing outstandingly unique in their styling. Early David Brown tractors, however, are like no other tractor. They have imposing grilles and a grand presence for what is, after all, a small tractor. Best of all though is their shape. Those sweeping curves and rounded edges are so very easy on the eye. The cowling around the dashboard sweeps right down to the footplates and really finishes the tractor off with a flourish. This cowling must have been designed with the idea of keeping the driver’s hands and feet out of the driving wind and rain, but it also served to make the tractor stand out from all of the rest.
The Cropmaster came with a double seat, inspiring the nickname “the courting tractor,” as it was a tractor made for two – though the double seat may have been designed more with the idea of a farmer carrying an assistant on the seat next to him, rather than his sweetheart, but still, it’s a nice idea.
Because the Cropmaster is designed to carry two people on the seat, the driver must ride sidesaddle. By this I mean that the brake and clutch are on one side, so the driver must sit with both feet over on the right-hand side. This feels a little odd to begin with, and in some ways it doesn’t feel as if you are as well balanced as you’d like to be, but I think if the Cropmaster was your only tractor then you would soon get used to the new position. For me, it’s slightly alien, as I’ve only driven one briefly, when some kind person has allowed me a try! To allow for the fact that the driver is sitting on one side of the tractor, the steering wheel is also situated slightly off centre, too. Odd in some ways, but to me this all adds to the charm of early David Brown tractors.
I have looked at many tractor collections, with some very rare and racy machines catching my eye, but it is usually the David Brown diesel Cropmaster that I would most like to take home with me. I’m aware that it isn’t the rarest of UK tractors – they are not as commonplace as the Ferguson tractor for instance, but they are by no means a rarity here. However, I think they are utterly unique and beautifully styled, and I would own one tomorrow if I could justify the money and shed space. The petrol models are the most commonly seen examples, but it is a diesel one I would rather have, given the choice.
During World War II, David Brown built many tractors for use by the Royal Air Force. These tractors, sometimes referred to as the Tugmaster or the Taskmaster, were used as aircraft tugs, and again they have that unmistakable David Brown shape. Looking like some sort of wartime truck/car/tractor hybrid, these aircraft tugs are fantastic machines. They are built like tanks, and they have a real 1940s look to them. The heavy-duty tinwork has enabled many examples to survive until today in original condition. Many David Brown aircraft tugs were later converted into threshing tractors.
By the late 1950s David Brown began to change the shape of its tractors, and the 900 Series, which came out in 1955, had lost those oh-so-special curves. Perhaps the old shape looked just too outdated and quirky, and perhaps David Brown wanted to develop a modern and workman-like look for its new tractor. It is understandable of course, but I can’t help thinking that the 900 Series, and all those models that came after it, looked much like any other tractor, and that for me the charm had gone.
I’m proud to say that here in Wales we have what might well be the oldest surviving David Brown tractor. Welshman and tractor enthusiast Aled Rees from North Wales owns an extremely well-preserved and well-loved VAK 1 dating to 1940. Although some VAK 1 David Browns were made in 1939 there are no known survivors from that year, so this could well be the oldest of its kind. But what is more amazing is the fact that this early survivor has remained in the same picturesque little Welsh village of Pennal for its whole life. To Aled, this is more important than anything, as this tractor is a part of the history of this village. Somehow it seems so right that it’s still in the village, still owned by a local family and still in excellent order.
The tractor was bought new in 1940 by the late Harry Edwards, who owned the sawmill in Pennal village. Harry Edwards was well known in the community, and he would no doubt have traveled to the fantastically grand sounding Automobile Palace in Llandrindod Wells, the main dealer for David Brown tractors in the area, to buy the tractor.
The tractor was used in the sawmill until the 1960s. Aled remembers seeing it power a huge band saw, and being quite in awe of it and all that was going on in that busy sawmill. Little did the young Aled then think that one day this tractor would be his. However, it was many decades before it did fall into Aled’s hands, as in the 1960s the tractor was sold from the sawmill to a farmer called Meirion Jones from the same village, with whom it remained for a couple of decades. As time went on, Meirion came to realize that the tractor was an unusually early model, and he decided that it should be properly looked after.
Meirion knew certain collectors might be keen to own the old David Brown, but he wanted two things for the tractor. First, he wanted it to be taken care of, and second, he wanted it to remain in the village of Pennal, as its history was so much a part of the place. By the 1980s Aled Rees had become known in the community as someone who liked restoring and collecting old tractors, and so he seemed the perfect person to cherish this old David Brown. There really was no one else for the job!
Aled decided that if he was going to restore the tractor, he’d better make sure he did a proper job of it. It took him 10 years to collect all of the parts for the restoration project. Aled made sure that every bolt that he’s used on the tractor has been of the correct sort for the age of the tractor, even if this has meant sourcing and cleaning up tiny parts that would never be seen by anyone once on the tractor. “I could have used modern copies,” he says. “No one would have known, but I would have known and it wouldn’t have felt right.”
This attention to minute detail meant that the restoration took many times longer than it otherwise might have done. It is very hard to source original parts for early models of tractors, as of course they have either long since gone to the scrap-man, or they are part of a treasured antique that is never going to be broken up.
The worst part of all was the grille. All pre-1941 David Browns have a barred-style cast iron grille. It looks robust enough, but in practice it was quite a fragile item, and many of them were broken and replaced with the later style “bullet hole” grille. Modern copies of the old barred style grilles are available, but for a man who had gone to the lengths of using original nuts and bolts in the restoration of the tractor, it was going to be agony to have to use a cheap copy of a grille!
Aled’s perseverance finally paid off. He eventually sourced an original grille in England. There were other parts that Aled couldn’t find, but he was lucky enough to know of a local engineering firm that made parts for him. They made exhaust valves and main bearings, and they also repaired a cracked engine block and damaged manifold. Aled couldn’t fault the firm, as they fully appreciated the fact that some of these parts were irreplaceable, and they were extremely careful in their work.
Aled enjoys taking the little David Brown to local shows, where it always gets plenty of attention. Just occasionally someone realizes that this is a very early model, and they make Aled an offer, but he’s never ever tempted. The tractor is a part of the history of this little village, and it’s a part of Aled’s childhood memories, and for those reasons alone it will always remain in Aled’s family, and in the village of Pennal. FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at email@example.com.