A short history of Australian tractors

A short history of Australian tractors

Every Australia Day Chris Holmes settles into the seat of his Chamberlain Super 90 tractor fully expecting to win the tractor pulling competition.

It’s the event of the year for the town of Wombat, 15 kilometres south of Young in the South West Slopes region and it draws tractor enthusiasts from all over south eastern NSW.

Chris Holmes in his Chamberlain Super 90, competing in the annual tractor-pulling competition in Wombat, NSW.

This year, 2021, there was a fear that the pandemic would mean the event would not go ahead, but an all clear was given by the council in the nick of time. 

For Chris, who currently has more than 100 vintage tractors on his block, it is always a chance to show off the best Australian built machines and to provide a walk-through of the history of local and imported tractors.

“We have Chamberlains, AW6s, Internationals and well over 100 other tractors,” he said.

“The Chamberlain Super 90, which is an Australian made tractor from the early 1950s, is still our best pulling tractor. Up against some of the modern tractors of its own size, it goes pretty well.”

Tractor collector Chris Holmes.
Chris Holmes and his brother with their father in the 1960s – possibly when his passion for tractors began.

Chris says that he buys his tractor exhibits from farmers around the country where many an historic gem can be found rusting away and forgotten in farm sheds.

“We just started out with a couple of tractors we were trying to get parts for and it grew from there. We are always looking for more,” he says.

Tractor talk

The oldest tractor in Chris’s collection is a 1920s Ford and a McCormick-Deering. He explains that these tractors have now entered the antique market and that over the years there has been a lot of trade internationally in vintage machines. In fact, he gets people coming from all over the world just to look at his tractor collection.

Last year a tractor made in 1912 by Melbourne company, A.H. McDonald, sold for more than $400,000 at an auction in the US. 

Twelve months ago, the auction house Donington sold more than 100 restored tractors – some of them classic Australian tractors.

The Imperial EB model internal-combustion tractor is a two-cylinder, 20 horsepower machine and state of the art in its day.

A. H. McDonald was Australia’s first tractor manufacturer, starting production in 1908. There were numerous others as the delivery of tractors and other farm machinery from England was expensive and took many months.

Most Australian tractor brands, like Chamberlain, were bought up by large US and European manufacturers. Chamberlain was purchased by John Deere in 1970.

But the traditional source for machinery including tractors was England, and the first internal combustion tractors to be sold in Australia were English Ivels which arrived in 1903. 

Twelve months ago, auction house Donington sold more than 100 restored vintage tractors.

Donington Director, Cameron Sabine says, “We sold everything and at good prices too. All of the tractors came from a single collector and most were in good running order. While some of the tractors went overseas, a vast majority went to collectors in New South Wales and Victoria.”

Cameron says his background is in classic cars, however, the wide interest in tractors meant that he would be running more auctions for vintage farm machinery in the future. “There are definitely a lot of people interested in tractors,” he says.

Chris Holmes has more than 100 tractors in his collection.

A silver lining in tractor town

While COVID-19 almost derailed the Wombat Australia Day Tractor Pulling Competition, 2020 had something of a silver lining for the tractor and farm machinery industry. 

According to Gary Northover, Executive Director of Tractor and Machinery Association of Australia (TMA), a record number of tractors were sold in 2020 to farmers taking the opportunity to capitalise on the wet and the optimal growing, planting and general farm maintenance weather.

The addition of the federal government’s Instant Asset Write Off Scheme made it a perfect time to buy. The Asset Write Off provided a much needed boost to both farm machinery sales organisation and farmers.

Essentially the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) allowed eligible businesses to claim an immediate deduction for the business portion of the cost of an asset in the year the asset is first used or installed ready for use.

According to Gary Northover (above) Executive Director of Tractor and Machinery Association of Australia (TMA), a record number of Australian tractors were sold in 2020 to farmers taking the opportunity to capitalise on the wet and the optimal growing, planting and general farm maintenance weather.

Claims of up to $150,000 for each asset are allowed and businesses can claim multiple assets, such as new or used farm equipment, utes, tractors etc, with the proviso being that the cost of each individual asset must be less than $150,000. 

This allowance is available for assets bought before 30 June, 2020 and first used or installed ready for use between 12 March 2020 until 30 June 2021.

“2020 didn’t start out well for tractor people, but then the instant asset write off and the rain helped to make it the best year.”

Gary Northover, Executive Director of Tractor and Machinery Association of Australia (TMA).

He says the major growth sector has been in the smaller acreage and the development of the ‘leisure market’ for tractors and farm machinery.

“The broadacre farmer is a steady end of the market. The growth is in the 60 horsepower sector which is expanding each year. They are the lifestyle, hobby, vineyard and orchardist farmers, not the big end in terms of land holdings. This market also includes councils and private use.” 

Old Australian tractors on Chris Holmes’ property near Wombat.

Overall Gary says this group constituted the majority of tractor buyers in 2020, and he says NSW farmers were the major buyers with sales up 84 per cent on the same period in the previous year. 

He says that Australia has always had a role in the tractor and farm machinery industry and although the days when tractors were made in Australia are long gone, local input to research and development for future tractors is driving the global manufacturing innovation.

“We’ve been working with the Department of Environment looking into emissions and we are now looking at product too,” Gary says. “Over time there will be an evolution with electric tractors coming on to the market for some early adopters who are always going to be there.”

There are already a number of electric engine battery powered tractors on the market and hydrogen fuel cell drive train tractors are beginning to emerge as hydrogen fuel sources becomes more available.

However no matter how shiny, slick and fancy the new breed of tractors might be, it seems there will always be a special place in the market for tractors of yesteryear.

If you enjoyed this feature on Australian tractors, you might like our story on seed singulation.

3 thoughts on “A short history of Australian tractors

  1. I have a lovely gentleman living here in our Nursing Home, he has a love of vintage tractors, do you have more information sheets or booklets that would be available for him.. Many Thanks.

  2. Very interesting I have the first tractor I ever drove.it was my grandfathers . Instruction book also.McCormick-Deering Tractor Model W-30 purchase date is 19th April 1941 It was an age when drove it when I was11yr.guess I should do something with it.Rather than have it site in a shed on the farm.

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