The Rise and Fall of the Australian Tractor Industry

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


| July 2015



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

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.