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A British Tractor with a French Connection

Author Photo
By Josephine Roberts | Feb 4, 2021

Herbert Austin was born a farmer’s son in Buckinghamshire, England, in 1866. At 18, he went to Australia, where he worked for several engineering companies before gaining a position as a manager at an engineering workshop owned by Richard Pickup Park, who was then developing a new sheep shearing machine for Frederick York Wolseley. Wolseley later became famous as inventor of the world’s first commercially successful sheep shearing machine, a revolutionary labour-saving device that would change the face of the entire wool industry.

Edwin Hughes of North Wales is the proud owner of this handsome pair of Austin tractors. The blue tractor on the left was built in England, and the green tractor on the right was built in France, but both are the work of 1st Baron Sir Herbert Austin, automobile designer and builder, and founder of Austin Motor Co. Photo by Josephine Roberts

From early adulthood, Herbert Austin was mixing with some real talent in engineering circles, and he learned all he could from those around him. After his work on the new shearing machine, Austin was given a role at Wolseley Sheep Shearing Co. in Sydney. While there, Austin made improvements to the shearing machines in his own name, which he patented and later sold to Wolseley in exchange for shares in the company.

Edwin’s French-built Austin SA3 was produced in the late 1920s. The French factory continued in operation right up until World War II, and eventually produced diesel models too. Photo by Josephine Roberts.

Austin and Wolseley moved to Britain in 1893 to set up a factory in Birmingham producing sheep shearing machines. Because the machines tended to be a seasonal product, the company built bicycles during slack periods. However, Austin was an ambitious man, keen to expand into motor car production. In 1905, he left Wolseley to set up Austin Motor Co. By 1908, the company was producing several models of cars, and in 1913 it began to produce trucks.

French connection gives Austin a boost

With the advent of World War I, the factory shifted to production of munitions. During World War I, Austin also became involved in the sale of imported American tractors to British farmers. Inspired by these machines, when the war ended he began to design his own tractor.

Although this tractor was built in France, all of the instructions on this tag are in English. Photo by Josephine Roberts.

Instead of designing a new engine for his new tractor, Austin opted to use the proven 20hp engine he was already using in his cars and trucks. The result was the Austin Model R tractor. Launched in 1919, it was very similar to the Fordson Model F. Some say that the Austin tractor was superior to the Fordson and that it had more power, but one way in which Austin’s tractor definitely could not beat the Fordson was in price. Henry Ford was already established as a master of the assembly line technique. With his factories adept at mass producing vehicles, Ford was able to offer his vehicles at a far lower price than his competitors. As a small-time newcomer, Austin could not begin to compete with Ford.

The pulley is perilously close to the operator’s trouser legs whilst driving. At least on the SA3, the pulley can be put out of motion, whereas on the earlier Model R, it was always in motion when the tractor was in use. Photo by Josephine Roberts.

Despite their rather hefty price tag, Austin tractors were successfully exported to Australia, South Africa and South America. One place where they proved to be particularly popular was France. France, however, was imposing very high import duties at the time, so to overcome this problem Austin opened a factory in Liancourt, just north of Paris. Parts were initially were shipped to France from the U.K. for assembly at Liancourt. Patriotic French farmers tended to prefer tractors built on their home turf, so Austin’s Liancourt- France. The country’s high import duties worked in Austin’s favour, helping to keep other overseas companies out of the picture. In the mid-1920s, Austin’s British tractor production ended, but by this time the Societe Anonyme Austin (as the Liancourt Austin factory was known) had developed its own models, making several improvements on the original British design. By the end of the 1920s, the company offered a range of tractors, including industrial and vineyard versions. In the 1930s, the company introduced diesel tractors, and these were on sale up until the Liancourt factory fell into the hands of the German army during World War II. Herbert Austin died in 1941. In 1952, Austin Motor Co. merged with the Nuffield organization to form British Motor Corp. (BMC).

An eminently collectible tractor

When retired farmer Edwin Hughes was a child on his family farm in North Wales, Fordson Model N tractors were a common source of power on the farm and most farmers, including Edwin’s father, owned one. Edwin’s family bought the farm from the Duke of Westminster over a century ago. Overlooking the Wirral peninsula and the Dee Estuary, the farm remains in the family today. Edwin has spent his working life farming there, seeing tractors and machinery gradually increase in size and complexity over the years. As the tractors became increasingly modern and sophisticated, Edwin’s interest shifted to the old relics of his and his family’s farming past, and he began to appreciate the simplicity of the little old tractors.

The Austin badge. The steering wheel represents control, the wheel and axle represent motion, and the wings represent speed. Photo by Josephine Roberts.

As his fascination with the quirky relics of yesteryear grew, a collection developed. Today, Edwin’s barn is full of vintage and classic tractors and there’s not a modern workhorse in sight. Now retired, he drives tractors for pleasure rather than for work. Reliability and strength are no longer factors as he makes tractor purchase decisions. It no longer matters to him if a machine is temperamental, awkward to start, tiring to drive or impractical for modern farming. This freedom from practicality has allowed Edwin to indulge his fondness for the real antiques of the tractor scene, and Austin tractors tick all of the boxes in that they are fascinating, old and rather unusual.

Austin tractors were never sold in vast numbers, so today they are quite an unusual sight on the rally circuit. Because of that, they tend to attract a lot of interest, as not everyone has seen one of these tractors in the flesh. “Ironically, the tractors that didn’t sell well at the time are often the ones that we collectors go crazy for today,” Edwin says with a laugh. Edwin knows that all too well. Some of the unusual tractors in his own collection are those that failed to catch on and didn’t sell well at the time. Today these oddities and rarities are expensive collectibles, much sought after by those who like out-of-the-ordinary tractors.

Austin Motor Co. built cars and commercial vehicles in Britain, including our famous Mini, and most people assume that their tractors too were all made in England, so at rallies, the French script on Edwin’s tractor always attracts a lot of questions. Photo by Josephine Roberts.

Tractors approaching 100 years of age don’t come cheap, and when it comes to restoring them it is often difficult (sometimes impossible) to find spare parts. Parts might have to be made from scratch and finding people willing and knowledgeable enough to work on such antiques can be difficult.

Something just a bit different

Despite having an interest in unusual tractors, Edwin wasn’t actually on the lookout for an Austin. In fact, an Austin tractor hadn’t crossed his mind until he happened to be at an auction and saw an Austin SA3 dating to the late 1920s just about to go under the hammer. “And I just found myself bidding on it,” he says, laughing. The tractor failed to meet the reserve, but Edwin tracked down the owner, and a week later they came to a deal.

The Austin’s wooden steering wheel is a signal of an early tractor. Photo by Josephine Roberts.

Edwin readily admits that he really knew nothing about Austin tractors at the time, only that they were unusual. “I’ve always been drawn to the more unusual tractors,” he says, “and for me, the older they are, the better.” Austin tractors aren’t common on the rally circuit, so for Edwin the Austin was something that bit rarer to take to shows, and something that would certainly attract a lot of interest.

By the time Edwin’s SA3 was built, Austin tractor production had ceased in the U.K., but the company’s French factory remained in operation. The earliest Austin tractors (those built in France) were basically British-built Austin tractors assembled in France, but by the mid-1920s, the French factory began to produce its own tractors. These have an oval-shaped frame surrounding the radiator. In the late 1920s, the SA3 model was produced, featuring three forward gears and an improved air cleaner.

The quest for a British counterpart

The British Austin badge. Photo by Josephine Roberts.

After acquiring the French-built Austin, Edwin began to think he would like a British-built Austin to complement his first Austin, but he was well aware that he would have to pay more for a British-built model. “The British-built Austin tractors are more collectible here,” he says, “and they can fetch around twice the price of a French-built one.”

It seems it isn’t only the French who are patriotic. We Brits are too, and collectors like to feel they own a “good old British tractor” as opposed to a French-built model, even if the company that produced them is essentially one and the same.

So, in 2016, Edwin attended an auction, planning to bid on a British-built Austin. “I failed to get it,” he says, “but then a man who’d been behind me during the bidding tapped me on the shoulder and said that he had a 1920 Austin Model R for sale at home if I was interested.” Edwin was of course very interested, so he went to see the tractor, struck a deal with the owner and brought it home to North Wales.

The view from above on the 1920 Austin Model R. Photo by Josephine Roberts.

Century-old tractor cloaked in equal parts history and mystery

Austin Model R tractors were produced in Britain from 1919 to approximately 1924. The model featured a 4-cylinder petrol/paraffin Austin engine with a 3.75-by-5-inch bore and stroke. The gearbox offered two forward speeds and one reverse gear, plus a cone-type clutch. It was fitted with a tubular radiator and large belt pulley. A Zenith carburetor and North & Sons (Watford) Ltd. magneto were used.

Close-up of the Austin Model R showing the straight-through exhaust and the repair patch on the side of the block. Photo by Josephine Roberts.

Edwin’s Austin tractor was over 96 years old when he bought it, and the years had well and truly taken their toll. Whilst the mudguards were intact, the rest of the tin work was missing or beyond hope. More of a concern was the fact that the engine was only just turning. Edwin called in the help of an expert, taking the tractor straight to well-known “antique tractor doctor” David White, who specializes in early tractors and is well-versed in their fickle ways.

Wear-and-tear is always going to be an issue on tractors of this age, but as well as the usual signs of age, David found that the head was cracked. He also found that casting sand inside the block had set and gone hard over the years. “So, bizarrely, it seems that the casting sand must have been left in there when the tractor was built, and it had gone all those years with sand inside it,” Edwin says. “I think of it as a real ‘Friday afternoon’ tractor. One can imagine someone rushing his work in a bid to get finished and down to the pub!”

The sand inside the block remains a mystery. Was it the work of a distracted factory employee? Or was it the work of a disgruntled employee about to walk out of the factory after an altercation with the boss? We shall never know now, but it certainly provides a talking point.

After acquiring his French-built Austin, Edwin Hughes set out to find an English-built example. He found this 1920 model in 2016, but the engine was only just turning, and the tin work was poor, so Edwin had it fully restored. Photo by Josephine Roberts.

Edwin wonders if that sand had been causing trouble throughout the tractor’s working life, because at some stage in the tractor’s history it has definitely encountered engine problems. There is a large welded patch on one side of the engine for a start. Edwin guesses it must have been fitted as a repair when a con rod went through the side of the engine at some point.

The patch, like the sand story, is part of the history of this quirky little machine. The tractor runs well now, but like a lot of antiques, it isn’t always straightforward. The more Edwin uses the tractor, the more he realizes that one has to have a feel for these machines. They take a while to warm up, and they need a careful, thoughtful sort of owner who will listen to them and make adjustments accordingly. Thankfully we have wonderful collectors like Edwin who take the time to preserve these beautiful relics of our rural and industrial history.FC


Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at pheenie@ talktalk.net.

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