Tractors and Cars

Posted on June 2nd, 2008 in Driving Emotion by Julian Edgar

I recently bought an interesting publication from the bookshop of the Australian National Library in Canberra. (Incidentally, this is a fabulous bookshop for all things Australian – political, historical, the arts, sport, and so on.)

The book is called Australian Tractors and subtitled Indigenous Tractors and Self-Propelled Machines in Rural Australia. It’s an interesting examination of the tractors that have been built in this country.

Written by Graeme Quick, an agricultural engineer and historian, the book covers some wonderful examples of Australian ingenuity and doggedness; people making – often with relatively primitive machine tools – tractors that could work the fields, day-in and day-out.

The book is full of interesting contemporary advertisements and accounts of the machines, including excerpts from magazine articles in a time when it didn’t look like horses would be replaced by the (so much more expensive) machines.

But the reason that I am mentioning the book here is not because of those general interest aspects. Nope, what is most relevant is the way that the Australian tractor industry so parallels our declining domestic car industry.

Like cars, Australian-built tractors were forced to compete with the best that worldwide mass-production had to offer. When Henry Ford released his Fordson tractor in Australia (and incidentally, the story of why it was called Fordson and not Ford is interesting in itself), the tractor sold for 180 pounds. The equivalent Australian-built tractor cost 500 pounds…

In 1923, production of the US-built Fordson Model F peaked at 100,000 units – no manufacturer in the world (let alone Australia) could compete with such mass production scale economies.

But it’s the stories of the Australian manufacturers like Chamberlain that have the greatest parallels to our current car industry. Beginning their tractor designs immediately after World War II (within just a few years of the first mass-produced Australian car), Chamberlain was encouraged to set up its factory in Perth – almost as far from the main Australian farming market as it was possible to get and still stay on the continent! The state government offered great inducements for that manufacturing location – a perfect parallel for the way that state inducements caused Australian car manufacturers to originally have plants in Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney.

Chamberlain had problems coping with farm income downturns, competition from internationally owned tractor manufacturers, and justifying their state support following a change of government… Gee, that all sounds familiar!

I won’t continue to highlight the parallels with the Australian car manufacturing industry – they’re clear for all to see.

Mr Quick in his concluding remarks says:

Some 25 local manufacturers have attempted to make a business out of building tractors in Australia.

None have survived.

A dozen makers of self-propelled machines have had a very small piece of the local market and a handful survive with some innovative machines.

There have been no Australian breakthroughs in tractor design, although there were many initiatives aimed at this turbulent, isolated and, by world standards, comparatively small market.

In 1988 WT Brown wrote: ‘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.’

However, pioneer tractor designer Bob Chamberlain should be allowed the final word on Australian tractors: `Manufacturing costs in Australia have greatly increased … We seem to have developed, then lost, our ability to design and build … tractors in Australia.’

In fact, the only real difference I can see in the two industries is that the Australian car manufacturing industry has opened-up some major export markets, something it appears tractor makers never did. It will be exports – and exports alone – that save the Australian car manufacturing industry.

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