Week by week, we will be delving into the back stories of some of the greatest Yorkshire companies – finding out about the people behind them, their humble beginnings, how they became household names, and where they are now. Today we take a look at David Brown, discovering how a 19th century pattern maker gave us James Bond’s most iconic car.
In 1860, the 17 year old David Brown began making wooden patterns in his landlord’s stable. He formed a partnership with his landlord, Thomas Broadbent who ran a foundry. Brown wasn’t happy working for others so saved up enough money to start his own business, which he did in 1873, employing two men. He moved to new premises in Chapel Street, Huddersfield, where he concentrated on gear systems.
The company became a limited company in 1879 – David Brown & Company registered at his home in South Street. By 1898, the company was producing machine cut gears buying a machine from Germany for £500 (around £50,000 in today’s money). In 1902, the family built a brand new factory in the town at the Park Works site in Swan Lane, Lockwood where the firm is still based today.
David Brown died a year later in 1903, aged 60, leaving the business to his sons Ernest, Percy and Frank. Although Ernest had also inherited the pattern making business, he was soon bored with the venture and left the firm. Percy and Frank became joint managing directors.
The company’s first venture into the overseas market came in 1913 when they formed a partnership with American company Timken, to produce worm drive gear units. They also acquired manufacturing rights to two cars – the Dodson and the Valveless – but production ceased at the outbreak of the First World War. The war was actually a boon for the company with a five-fold increase in the workforce from around 200 to over 1,000 as they produced warship propulsion units and armament drive mechanisms. By 1921 they were the world’s largest manufacturers of worm gears.
In 1930, the company took over another local firm, P.R. Jackson Ltd. The year after, Frank became sole chairman following the death of Percy, appointing his 28 year old son David as managing director. In 1934, they formed another overseas partnership with Australian company, Richardson Gears (Pty) Ltd, and then opened a second Huddersfield factory at Meltham.
One of the company’s biggest developments came in 1935, when they obtained a patent for the Merrit-Brown differential steering system for use in tanks. It was first used in the Churchill Tank, but has since gone on to be the standard for the Centurian, the Conquerer, and the Tortoise heavy tank. A new era of production began in 1936 when they started building tractors at their new Meltham site.
Initially tractors were built jointly with Harry Ferguson, but a disagreement over design led to Brown going solo in 1938 (Ferguson formed a short lived partnership with Ford). The David Brown VAK1 Tractor was launched at the 1939 Royal Show, eventually selling over 7,000 units. During the Second World War, David Brown again increased production, building aircraft tugs for the RAF, as well as being the only producer of gears for the Spitfires’ Merlin engines. By the end of the war, they employed over 6,000 people.
In 1947, David Brown saw an advertisement in the Times offering a ‘high class motor business’ for sale. This was Aston Martin, which he purchased for around £20,000 (£650,000 today). The following year, he also bought Lagonda for almost three times as much. Along with the acquisition of Transvaal based Precision Equipment (Pty) Ltd, the company was able to produce the best sports cars of the era. Many of these were favoured by Ian Fleming for the James Bond novels including the V8 Vantage, V12 Vanquish, DBS and 007’s most famous car of all in the films, the Aston Martin DB5. Following financial difficulties in 1972, the car business was sold to a Birmingham based consortium, and the tractor business to Tenneco Inc. in America.
Despite contracts to supply gearboxes for the conversion of warships to gas propulsion, the company faced increased competition from imported machinery and stricter Health and Safety laws. This led to the company floating on the stock market in 1993 and being acquired by Textron Inc. The company maintained its head offices and continued to manufacture in Huddersfield; and in 2008 returned to British ownership when it was purchased by Clyde Bowers. Today it is still recognised as a leading specialist in gear engineering and innovation with manufacturing plants in 18 countries around the world. In 2010 the company celebrated its 150th year, a firm now changed beyond recognition since the seventeen year old boy in his landlord’s stable.
In the next post in this series, we will look at estate agents Dacre, Son & Hartley.
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