14th August 2019

David Brown, from Tractors to Aston Martin

The initials DB have graced every iconic model of Aston Martin from 1950 to 1972, and again from 1994 onwards. They have become so widely known that few car fans these days stop to question what these initials stand for. However, for fans of classic machinery whether lithe and sporting or solid and agricultural, the meeting of these two names provides a fascinating snapshot into how a small family business from Yorkshire ended up leading the world in both exotic cars and agriculture at the same time.

Based in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, the family-owned David Brown & Sons foundry and metalworks had forged a cast iron reputation as a leader in the production of heavy-duty parts and machinery. As the steam age drew to a close, and in the run up to World War Two, however, the UK’s rising demand for food production meant that the manufacturing of tractors seemed a logical route into diversification for the company. An initial foray into this world of farming was trialed with a failed partnership with Harry Ferguson (of Little Grey Fergie fame), however when this relationship broke down, and the short-lived Ferguson-Brown tractor sold more than 1000 units, it led to the first-ever in-house designed David Brown tractor being launched in 1939.

The VAK 1 (Vehicle Agricultural Kerosene 1) tractor may not have had a snappy name, but it was an instant success. Well priced, reliable and well built, its distinctive bright red paintwork was reputedly taken from the colour hunting jacket worn by Sir David. The VAK1 tractors were both stylish and practical at the same time, with farmers wowed by the engineering of its power take-offs and easy-to-operate linkage arrangements, more than 3000 orders were taken at its launch. The press at the time loved it too; of great note was the arrangement of the cockpit for the operator, which offered farmers a shelter from the elements for the very first time – it had never been considered of importance before that point. 

Sales were helped in no small part by World War Two, which saw a further 4000 of these tractors sold in just six years. Alongside the lucrative contracts that were won for the production of military spec units alongside the civilian VAK1s meant that by the end of the war, Sir David Brown was a wealthy man at the head of his own a manufacturing empire.

Sportscar history was set in motion in 1947, when Sir David responded to an advert placed in The Times newspaper proffering a ‘High Class Motor Business For Sale’. Sir David’s wealth allowed him to snap up the beleaguered sports car company Aston Martin for the reasonable sum of £20,500, at a time when few others in the country would have had the funds to do so, and he followed this up with the purchase of Lagonda a year later. By combining the Aston Martin brand with the Bentley-derived engines of Lagonda, a winning formula was hit upon, and a new range of cars were launched with the model designation of DB, or David Brown.

Under his ownership, the sportscar brand flourished, producing winning racing cars and sportscars for the road throughout the 50s and 60s, a winning streak that continued until sales faltered and Aston Martin hit difficulties in the early 1970s. While the company was sold off in 1972, the DB model designation had become so firmly ingrained into the brands identity that it was re-introduced two decades later with the launch of the DB7. Though the connection to David Brown tractors, and the tractor company itself had long since disappeared by 1994, a legend had been born, which lives on to this day. 

Did you grow up with a David Brown tractor, or do you own one now? Let us know your memories and stories in the comments below.