Aussie-made horsepower history

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The Phillips Acremaster tractor.

PHOTO: Brad Collis

Farming is heading towards an era of driverless tractors, but it is not so long ago that we were all just as mesmerised by the era of the monolithic 4WDs – many the product of a local tractor manufacturing industry. So, how many people remember the Big Bud, the Steigers – with model names such as ‘Panther’ and ‘Tiger’, reminiscent of World War II Panzers – the Russian Belarus, and the ambitious Aussie makes including the Waltanna, Acremaster and Phoenix?

One of the pre-4WD icons was also Australian-made – the Chamberlain. The Chamberlains, manufactured in Welshpool, Western Australia, were the near-ubiquitous power units in front of tillage implements, seeders and PTO headers from 1949 until the company succumbed to the 4WD wave in the mid-1980s. The make also became famous as the ‘tail-end Charlie’ rescue vehicle for a series of around-Australia car rallies in the 1950s and 1960s.

But by the 1980s the big articulated 4WDs delivering up to 500-plus horsepower were capturing a whole farming generation’s imagination.

Inside a Phillips Acremaster cab. No GPS or monitors, or even speedometer – just a console connected to raw power. Oh, and an ashtray.

PHOTO: Brad Collis

The first of the Australian 4WD makes was the Phillips Acremaster (pictured), with models generating up to 515hp. The Acremaster was an articulated 4WD tractor manufactured from the mid-1970s by Laurie Phillips in Merredin, WA. It was back when most people couldn’t actually afford a Steiger but needed a big 4WD for the massive tillage implements being introduced.

In 1984, Laurie Phillips sold his company to Don Zanetic, who used the Acremaster business to manufacture tractors for International Harvester. After a year or two the company was sold again, this time to South Australian manufacturer Horwood Bagshaw. Meanwhile, Laurie Phillips had moved on to build the Phoenix articulated 4WD tractor.

It was a heady era as the ‘get big or get out’ mindset swept the grainbelt and massive machinery and technologies such as Spray.Seed® herbicide ushered in the minimum-tillage revolution – first with blade ploughs and then with direct-seeding implements.

In the mid to late-1970s in WA, the giant 4WDs were opening up vast swathes of cropping land in marginal areas and in the first few years, before the intensive wheat-on-wheat system collapsed, there was a wave of prosperity in these regions. Not far from Merredin where the Acremaster was trundling from its bespoke facility was another company, in the town of Mollerin, manufacturing the ‘Mollerin Monster’ airseeder. As the name implies, it was suitably massive.

The machinery was helping people push the boundaries of agriculture to the very edge of the desert and one poignant sign of the resulting, fleeting affluence was that the little town of Mollerin’s school became the first in Australia to have a computer. Today there is no town. That dream came and went, but not the surrounding grains industry, which continues to march ahead as part of one of the world’s most technically advanced agriculture sectors. Just as 4WD was a byword for a past generation, today it is the sophistication of water use efficiency and precision agriculture: today’s biological and digital building blocks for the future.

Our industry history is fascinating when you pause for a moment to look back and appreciate the knowledge that continues to be built up by successive generations and understand that what we are innovating today is also destined to be an inspiring history.