The Great Sur­vivor

1970s-era David Brown 990 Selec­ta­matic trac­tor

Farms & Farm Machinery - - Contents - Pho­tos by Andrew Brit­ten

arm­ers all over Aus­tralia reck­oned the post-1970

David Brown 990 Selec­ta­matic trac­tor was re­li­able and hard­work­ing. I know this for a fact be­cause we had one and it was a rip­per.

The two-wheel drive did jobs that I thought would be way be­yond its ca­pa­bil­ity – and, de­spite get­ting zero main­te­nance, it’s still work­ing to­day.

The fact it has never been parked in a shed dur­ing its 47-year life has cer­tainly con­trib­uted to its de­te­ri­o­rated ap­pear­ance, but not its per­for­mance.

For the last 10 years of its time with us, we only pulled it out of re­tire­ment on a bian­nual ba­sis. Each win­ter it pro­vided PTO drive to a saw bench for fire­wood, then in the sum­mer months we hitched it up to a 20-foot trailer to cart in rolls of hay.

The starter mo­tor was bug­gered so it took about 10 min­utes of tow­ing to get some fuel flow­ing through the sys­tem be­fore it would fire up. Once it burnt off all the wa­ter and muck that it had sucked in through the bro­ken oil-bath-type air cleaner, it ran like a dream.

When it last left our prop­erty about 12 months ago, the bat­tery was stuffed, the brakes were jammed, the air-cleaner was full of wa­ter, the power steer­ing pump was shot and the rear link­age was frozen up.

So you can imag­ine my sur­prise when I dis­cov­ered that it is up and go­ing again and per­form­ing hay-cut­ting du­ties thanks to a bit of handy work by Peter Gar­diner from Co­lac Trac­tor Wreck­ers. Who says mir­a­cles don’t hap­pen any­more?


Man­u­fac­tured by David Brown in its Hud­der­s­field fac­tory in Eng­land, the 990 Selec­ta­matic has a 3.2-litre, 4-cylin­der David Brown en­gine pro­duc­ing 58 net en­gine horse­power and tests 45.6hp and 53.77hp at the draw­bar and PTO re­spec­tively. The par­tially syn­chro­nised trans­mis­sion has three for­ward gears and one re­verse in each of four ranges: high, high slow, low and low slow. All up we had a to­tal of 12 for­ward and four re­verse gears to play with.

The trac­tor has Cat­e­gory 2 rear link­age, 2-speed PTO, hy­dro­static power steer­ing and fea­tures a David Brown Selec­ta­matic hy­draulic sys­tem.

The gu­rus at David Brown claimed that the selec­ta­matic hy­draulic sys­tem brought sim­plic­ity to the sys­tem which in­cluded lift, hold, drop, height po­si­tion, TCU (weight trans­fer) and cer­tain ex­ter­nal hy­draulic equip­ment.

A three-po­si­tion pointer is used to al­ter­nate be­tween the var­i­ous sys­tems.

It in­cor­po­rated a full-flow pa­per el­e­ment suc­tion fil­ter as well as mag­netic fil­ters to main­tain proper op­er­a­tion of the high­pres­sure hy­draulic valves.

Max­i­mum hy­draulic oil flow was only 28 litres per minute, which is pretty or­di­nary in to­day’s terms but it seemed more than ad­e­quate for what the im­ple­ments de­manded back then … and we didn’t know any bet­ter.

The rear link­age can be locked in the top po­si­tion when not in use — or used as a safety mea­sure when parked with a raised im­ple­ment.

A dump valve was in­cor­po­rated into the hy­draulic sys­tem to re­duce the re­stric­tion on the oil flow. It al­lowed for rapid low­er­ing of a tip­ping trailer or loader af­ter dis­charge.

The new sys­tem switched hy­draulic flow from the hy­draulic cou­plers to the link­age and var­i­ous modes of op­er­a­tion.

While it may have im­proved re­li­a­bil­ity, it was any­thing but easy to op­er­ate.

‘Sim­plic­ity’ is def­i­nitely not the word that springs to mind when I re­flect on my long ex­pe­ri­ence of try­ing to mas­ter con­trol of its op­er­a­tion.

Tom Dick­son tracks down his fam­ily’s old 1970s-era David Brown 990 Selec­ta­matic trac­tor, and says the old girl is still ca­pa­ble of hard work

The link­age height con­trol lever and the se­lect lever had to be in the cor­rect po­si­tion be­fore the de­sired hy­draulic func­tion would work.

Af­ter ages of muck­ing around putting the levers in all dif­fer­ent po­si­tions I al­ways got the de­sired re­sult but I could never re­mem­ber how I did it, and 35 years later I am still no closer to mas­ter­ing the cor­rect pro­ce­dure.


My fa­ther bought his David Brown sec­ond hand but it was only a cou­ple of years old so it still looked brand new. As a mere 10-year-old I had no idea of the jour­ney that David Brown, the com­pany, had trav­elled prior to our ac­qui­si­tion.

David Brown part­nered with Ferguson to pro­duce its first trac­tor in 1936, but the com­pany had a long his­tory in the pro­duc­tion of gears, bear­ings and shafts dat­ing back to 1860.

It was dur­ing both the first and sec­ond world wars that saw mas­sive ex­pan­sion of the com­pany when it com­menced pro­duc­tion and sup­ply of propul­sion units for war­ships, gun train­ing and el­e­vat­ing mech­a­nisms and trench mor­tar bombs.

World War II saw an­other mas­sive in­crease in pro­duc­tion for the com­pany, when the aero di­vi­sion pro­duced over 500,000 gears and the gear­box di­vi­sion pro­duced over 10,000 tank trans­mis­sions and was the sole sup­plier of gears for the Spit­fire fighter plane for a pe­riod dur­ing the Bat­tle of Bri­tain.

Both these di­vi­sions be­longed to the Trac­tor Com­pany, a sub­sidiary of David Brown.

David Brown was en­trusted with plan­ning and co­or­di­nat­ing the pro­duc­tion of tank trans­mis­sions com­po­nents by all other Bri­tish firms. The work­force, in­clud­ing trac­tors and foundries, grew to al­most 7000.

Look­ing back, I have come to the re­al­i­sa­tion that the David Brown 990 was in­deed well ahead of its time. It was al­ready im­ple­ment­ing power steer­ing, flow con­trol on the link­age, sus­pen­sion seats, syn­chro gear shift­ing, the trans­mis­sion had four ranges, and a few ex­tra gauges were in­cluded to what used to be a fairly bare in­stru­ment panel. It even had lights blink­ers and a re­view mir­ror.

While most of these fea­tures were man­u­ally op­er­ated – as op­posed to mod­ern-day elec­tronic op­er­a­tion – it proves that David Brown was forg­ing ahead, giv­ing us an in­sight of what trac­tors might be ca­pa­ble of in the 21st cen­tury.

In 1972 the trac­tor op­er­a­tions were sold to Case, re­sult­ing in David Brown for­ever los­ing its iden­tity in the trac­tor mar­ket. You could say David Brown was swal­lowed up then spat out by Case. The 990s man­u­fac­tured be­tween 1971 and 1980 went all up­mar­ket with a new deluxe in­stru­ment panel de­sign. It pro­vided much more in­for­ma­tion than the pre­vi­ous run of 990s that were built from 1965 to 1970.

There was no speedo, but an ac­cu­rate in­di­ca­tion of for­ward speed could be read from the tachome­ter. If it gave a true in­di­ca­tion, the top speed was a very healthy 16mph or, in to­day’s mea­sure, about 25km/h.

It also pro­vided a clear in­di­ca­tion of the en­gine rev re­quire­ments for the de­sired PTO speeds to be achieved.

The nee­dle on the fuel gauge used to flick around as the diesel sloshed in the tank but it pro­vided a rough in­di­ca­tion of what per­cent­age of fuel was left in the 68-litre tank. It meant we could throw away the fuel tank dip­stick that ev­ery­one had stashed some­where on the trac­tor.

Look­ing back, it seems so ba­sic and unim­pres­sive but at the time it seemed to be so ad­vanced. We never imag­ined in a mil­lion years that trac­tors would be so tech­ni­cally ad­vanced as they are to­day.

The 990s weren’t a very heavy trac­tor, so it was com­mon to fill the tyres to about 75 per cent full with wa­ter. This was an

One of my ear­li­est mem­o­ries of the 990 that my fa­ther proudly ar­rived home on is sit­ting on the square-top mud­guards with my sis­ters, head­ing off down the track.

ef­fec­tive means to in­crease trac­tion and sta­bil­ity. To­day’s ra­dial tyres don’t han­dle wa­ter quite as well as the old ones be­cause the wire that is used to strengthen the walls de­te­ri­o­rates quickly and rusts from the wa­ter.


One of my ear­li­est mem­o­ries of the 990 that my fa­ther proudly ar­rived home on is sit­ting on the square-top mud­guards with my sis­ters and head­ing off down the track.

I cer­tainly wouldn’t rec­om­mend pop­ping your kids pre­car­i­ously on the mud­guards now, but those were the times. The 990s man­u­fac­tured post-1970 did away with the shell-type guards and re­placed them with the big square-type ones, in­ad­ver­tently cre­at­ing a plat­form for pas­sen­gers to ride on. It could be said they cre­ated the first farm­ing-fam­ily peo­ple mover.

When it comes to trac­tors, or all farm equip­ment for that mat­ter, oc­cu­pa­tional health and safety reg­u­la­tions have been the sin­gle great­est fac­tor in re­duc­ing in­jury and death on farms. Gone are the days when you would throw your eight-year-old son into the driver’s seat and send him off plough­ing for the day, cut­ting hay or god for­bid any of the other high-risk op­er­a­tions that oc­curred on prop­er­ties.

There was lit­tle in the way of safety pro­tec­tion fit­ted to trac­tors in the early ‘70s. Only those with a cabin had any sort of hope of sur­vival if the trac­tor top­pled over. For safety rea­sons, and a bit of peace of mind, we fit­ted and in­stalled a ROPS bar some­time dur­ing the late ‘80s or early ‘90s.

My first les­son in driv­ing came be­hind the wheel of an old grey Fergie. I re­mem­ber hav­ing to get it turn­ing over then flick the de­com­pres­sion lever off to fire up the en­gine. It was a great lit­tle trac­tor that made me feel, at the ten­der age of seven, like I was six feet tall. It was a dif­fer­ent time when op­er­at­ing heavy and dan­ger­ous equip­ment quickly turned boys into men.

While the lit­tle Fergie in­tro­duced me to driv­ing, it was on our David Brown that I mas­tered the art. Dou­ble clutch­ing to re­duce the gear crunch­ing on down­ward shifts, en­gine brak­ing and us­ing mir­rors be­cause we even had a lit­tle rear-view mir­ror mounted on the mud guard. And, be­cause the power steer­ing was stuffed, I learnt quickly the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of over­cor­rect­ing on the steer­ing wheel and how easy it is to break a thumb if you rest it on the inside of the wheel.

That trac­tor of ours did thou­sands of hours pulling a shearer plough, a 28-disc off­set har­row, New Hol­land baler; a De­larue mower then fed out rolls of hay all win­ter. When the starter mo­tor or bat­tery chucked it in, we would park it on a hill each night ready for a re­li­able roll start the next morn­ing.

One night af­ter we had left it rolled off down the hill and started be­cause some­one had left the ig­ni­tion and fuel on. When we found it next morn­ing it was nudged up against a tree, en­gine still run­ning. The rear wheels had con­tin­ued to turn all night just about bury­ing it.

A real life skill I quickly learnt from that trac­tor as a young fella was how to bleed the air out of a diesel fuel sys­tem.

The only way to get it go­ing again af­ter it ran out of fuel was to crack the cou­plings on the fuel pump and in­jec­tors and com­pletely ex­pel all the air.

Un­der the hot sum­mer sun, our only pro­tec­tion was a wide­brimmed hat. In the long, wet win­ter months I clearly re­mem­ber wear­ing a sin­glet, tee shirt, flan­nelette shirt, two jumpers, a coat, and my fi­nal layer was an ex­tra-large oil­skin coat pulled on over the top in an at­tempt to stay warm and dry.

All day I would bounce around on its prim­i­tive-style sus­pen­sion seat en­dur­ing bouts of rain, hail and sun­shine, but never once con­tem­plated go­ing home till the job was done.

Per­haps my big­gest crit­i­cism, and fear, of that old trac­tor was that ev­ery time I’d jump off, I al­ways seemed to trip or get my full-length oil­skin coat hooked up in a gear­stick, clutch pedal or any of the nu­mer­ous other levers and get­ting dragged back un­der the wheel.

The kids of to­day don’t ap­pre­ci­ate just how comfy they have it now with mod­ern sus­pen­sion, heat­ing, cool­ing and the en­ter­tain­ment pack­ages that come stan­dard.


While I wouldn’t want to give up the lux­u­ries that the mod­ern­day trac­tors of­fer, I would rec­om­mend a David Brown 990 as a great trac­tor for restora­tion pur­poses.

Ours proved that the mo­tor, gear­box, hy­draulics, PTO and link­age re­mained ba­si­cally sound even af­ter pretty or­di­nary treat­ment and zero main­te­nance, mean­ing a restora­tion may only en­tail some rust re­moval, a spray paint, a visit to an auto elec­tri­cian, and a new bear­ing or two.


1. Peter Gar­diner of Co­lac Trac­tor Wreck­ers with the 1972 David Brown 990. He reck­ons trac­tors from this era were the most re­li­able ever built

2. Link­age speed con­trol is stan­dard on all trac­tors now but back in the 1970s it was a real in­no­va­tion

3. The ‘be­fore’ pic — the 990 sit­ting ne­glected

in Tom’s pad­dock

4. Power steer­ing on trac­tors marked a sig­nif­i­cant evo­lu­tion in op­er­a­tor com­fort and con­trol, not to men­tion a re­duc­tion in bro­ken thumbs

5. The se­lec­tomatic hy­draulic sys­tem on the David Brown trac­tors was ca­pa­ble of cen­tral­is­ing all the hy­draulic and link­age func­tions to the one lever 2 3 4 5


6. De­press­ing the 2-stage clutch lever half way down stops drive to the trans­mis­sion, while the sec­ond half of the stroke en­gages the PTO clutch

7. To our amaze­ment the David Brown 58hp en­gine runs as well to­day as it did 45 years ago

8. In ad­di­tion to the rel­e­vant en­gine per­for­mance in­for­ma­tion the in­stru­ment panel in­cluds gear and range lever po­si­tion­ing for the

12-speed trans­mis­sion 8


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