The David Brown Tractor

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Josephine Roberts
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Close-up shot of the David Brown tractor’s serial number plate.
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There is some seriously boggy ground up here in Snowdonia and it’s very easy to get stuck. A small, light tractor like the David Brown is handy, as is a neighbor with a 4-wheel drive tractor for those moments when you get it wrong and have to be pulled out.
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The tractor starts on petrol, but when it has warmed up, a tap can be turned to allow it to run on another tank containing TVO. Tractor vaporizing oil can no longer be purchased here, so we use our own “recipe”: 1 gallon of petrol to 4 gallons of “28-second” kerosene, plus half a pint of diesel thrown in for lubrication and good measure.
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At the wheel of my David Brown tractor.
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 Unfortunately our little paddock is home to rather a lot of moles this winter, and we have to flatten the molehills out as regularly as time allows. The chain harrow is ideal for this, and we leave the back box on the tractor while we harrow because it enables us to carry the harrow down the road afterward.
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The base the seat sits on had almost completely rotted away and a copy had to be made. I always wanted a tractor with a “bottom-shaped” seat and now I have one!
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 Not a problem for the smaller person, dismounting requires some squeezing between levers.
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Alistair and I differ as regards the question of painting the tractor. I prefer it as it is, but he thinks it looks uncared for and that we should spray it the bright red color it would have been when new.
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Whilst the David Brown tractor certainly can’t be described as restored, we have given it quite a service. Apart from repairing the mudguards, manifold and radiator, we also fitted a new seat base, brake shoes, linings, rods, springs and kingpin bushes. All the oils were drained and the filters were replaced, for the first time in what looked like 50 years! We also bought new front tires and secondhand ones for the back.

When my partner, Alistair, and I first got together, we used to wander around shows and rallies discussing which of the display tractors we liked best. At some stage I would find myself standing in front of a David Brown tractor saying, “Ahhh, look at that, isn’t it lovely,” and he would say something like, “You really like those, don’t you?” I would invariably recite the story of how I was offered one, some seven years ago, for the humble sum of £50 ($100 U.S.), and how I turned it down, because at the time I felt a diesel tractor would be handier for me.

I ended up buying a Massey Ferguson 35 instead, and I was undoubtedly right: It was a more useful tractor than the earlier David Brown. But in hindsight I wish I’d bought both tractors! After all, the David Brown was only £50 and even if I hadn’t used it, I could just have put it away for a rainy day. Still, we can all kick ourselves for the opportunities we’ve missed over the years. At the time, I was largely ignorant of the fact that old tractors were about to jump from being rusty outdated relics to being highly collectible antiques. So, prices rose, Alistair and I ended up starting a family and I never did get my 1950s David Brown.

A year and a half ago on the morning of my birthday, I joyfully tore open my present and was rather surprised, or dare I say it, slightly disappointed, to find that my present consisted of a pair of bonnet (hood) latches for a tractor, and not, I might add, for any tractor that we happened to own. By way of explanation Alistair told me that if I ever did get a David Brown tractor, then these would be the sort of latches that would fit. “Gee thanks,” I remember thinking, “… only another 500 pieces to collect and I’ll have the full tractor.”

Then, after breakfast, as I was taking the ash pan out to the yard to empty it, I heard what can only be described as a loud, spluttering vehicle coming up the lane. I stopped to listen closer, as whatever it was sounded as though it was totally devoid of an exhaust and deeply unhealthy.

Alistair is one of those chaps who loves to work out what every vehicle is by the noise it makes before it comes into sight as it passes our house, and I couldn’t understand why he was so uninterested in what was coming up the road that morning. Next thing there was a grinding gearbox noise, an almost stalling noise, then a very loud revving noise, and in a plume of black smoke the beast in question lurched around the corner into our driveway. It was a David Brown tractor, one that looked as though it had been through a war and then rested under the sea for several decades.

The tractor was driven by my brother Bob, and since I knew Bob would never buy a David Brown, I turned to Alistair to ask if this was anything to do with him. He just smiled and said, “Happy birthday, darling!” I think my words were “Oh no – you haven’t?!?” I’m not sure whether those words were due to disbelief or to the fact that I was thinking, “Oh no, now we have to restore this thing, and we can’t!”

As Bob pulled up in front of me on the absolutely deafening tractor, I noticed that the entire tractor was wrapped in a piece of pink cord, like the sort you get around the bottom of a couch. Unable to find a ribbon, the two men (bless them) had decided to remove the trim from Bob’s furniture and use that instead. There was still one final surprise in store: Just as Bob pulled the handbrake on and was about to dismount, flames started leaping out of the side of the tractor. “It’s on fire!” I shouted unhelpfully – after all this was proving to be a rather peculiar morning, what with one thing and another.

We soon managed to douse the flames, which turned out to be nothing more than a bird’s nest that had ignited. The tractor had been left standing in a shed for many years, and Alistair had only picked it up, got it running and hidden it down the lane at Bob’s place the night before, so he hadn’t had a chance to remove any wildlife before delivering it to me.

Of course I was excited to be the owner of a 1953 David Brown 25. I have always thought these little tractors have real presence, and the slope and shape of the grille is nothing less than cool. But at the same time I felt it was a bit naughty of Alistair to buy another tractor at a time when we had plaster hanging off the bedroom wall and a leak in the house roof. But he assured me we’d get the David Brown in working order bit by bit in our spare time and as we could afford it. So, for many months “David” sat outside my kitchen window wrapped in an old silage bag, looking far worse than he had done on the day he arrived.

Actually the tractor wasn’t as bad as it looked. The stalling and spluttering was due to 50 years’ worth of muck in the tank, the very loud sound was due to the fact it was missing most of its exhaust, and whilst it was covered in rust, the only places with real deep-down damage were the seat base and the bottom of the mudguards. A clever friend made us a copy of the seat base, and one of my brothers welded patches onto the bottoms of the mudguards. The trouble is, Alistair works full time, and I work part time and have a smallholding and two small children to take care of, and because of that there isn’t really such a thing as “spare time.” So David took a long time to get sorted out.

From time to time we’d have to move him around, and due to the lack of seat and seat base, we’d have to sit on an upturned bucket to drive him, which was amusing to say the least. Eventually though, David was ready to do a bit of work, and I was finally able to see what he was like to drive. Even with the new exhaust and repaired manifold, this little tractor was considerably louder than I expected a petrol-powered tractor to be, and it was nowhere near as smooth to drive as my MF 35. The thing is, I’d been spoilt really: My 4-cylinder MF 35 runs like a watch and is immensely smooth and quiet to drive. After that, anything else, particularly anything older, feels a bit rough, if you know what I mean.

But there’s no denying that the David Brown has a certain charm, and you can’t help liking it, despite the fact that it isn’t as user friendly as the MF. To start with, it runs on petrol and TVO (tractor vaporizing oil), so that means starting it up on petrol and then switching over to TVO when you think the tractor is warm enough. Because of that, it is usually easier to fire up the Massey Ferguson for quick jobs around the smallholding.

Also, handsome as it is, the David Brown tractor just isn’t as well designed as the MF. For instance, when you step down from the David Brown, you have to be very careful to squeeze in between the levers. It would be very easy to catch yourself on the throttle as you squash past. This isn’t a huge problem for me, as I’m quite small, but a large person with big feet might find it a bit tight. All in all though, David is a winner. Despite the fact that Alistair has said he wouldn’t mind if we sold it, I think this little tractor is here to stay, because the memory of the day he arrived makes him quite special.

When it comes to the question of whether to paint this tractor or not, we can’t agree. Alistair likes to paint everything. He sees no beauty in leaving things in their aged and weathered state. In fact, he isn’t happy unless he can cover things in layers of shiny paint. I’m the other way: I like old things to look old, and whilst I don’t want the tractor to rust away, I don’t particularly want to paint it the garish, almost pinkish red these tractors are meant to be. I’ve suggested we oil or wax the surface of the tractor, so it can be preserved yet retain its un-restored look. To Alistair this is “failing to finish the job properly,” but since it was my birthday present he’s so far had to give in to me, and at the time of going to press David is still in his original work clothes!

Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. E-mail her at

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