McDonald EB 1912 vintage oil tractor highlights change in the farm industry

One of the earliest surviving tractors manufactured in Australia has been acquired by the National Museum of Australia in Canberra

The McDonald EB Tractor on display in the National Museum’s Gandel Atrium – Photograph: Jason McCarthy, National Museum of Australia

Everybody should go and see this tractor. It represents the most significant transformation of Australia’s early agricultural industry at a time when horse power was replaced by oil and steel.

The extraordinary McDonald Imperial 1912 oil EB tractor is now on display in the National Museum’s Gandel Atrium until 23 July 2023.

The tractor, built in 1912, substantially adds to the Museum’s National Historical Collection and supports its mission to tell remarkable stories from Australian history.

It was acquired by the National Museum for $250,000, with the support of the Australian Government through the National Cultural Heritage Account, a grant program that assists Australian cultural organisations to acquire significant cultural heritage objects.

The McDonald EB oil tractor is one of three complete examples manufactured in Australia by AH McDonald & Co at Richmond Victoria.

The National Museum has pulled off somewhat of a coup, as compared to the McDonald Imperial EB we lost to a US collector back in 2020.

There was a major uproar from vintage enthusiasts at the time, but little could be done once the hammer fell. See our story about the priceless Imperial EB on this link.

McDonald EB tractor at work at Pine Creek in the Northern Territory, approximately 1910s – Sourced from: PH188/0062 and 0071, William Charles Miller, Library & Archives NT

In 1908, innovative Melbourne engineers Alfred and Ernest McDonald produced the first Australian-made, oil-powered tractor, known as the EA. The improved design of the EB followed in 1912.

It provides a revealing insight into the global transformation in automotive and agricultural practices enabled by the invention of the oil-driven, internal combustion engine in the 1870s.

National Museum director Dr Mathew Trinca thanked the Australian Government for its financial assistance with the purchase of the tractor, which he said is an unrivalled example of Australian ingenuity and design.

“The McDonald EB oil tractor represents a theme of Australian innovation in a revolutionary era for engineering. This acquisition represents our agricultural history, and we are thrilled to share it with Australia,” Dr Trinca outlined.

The tractor was originally purchased new in 1912 by Frank William Chilcott for use at ‘Lillesdon Park’, his 163ha (403-acre) farm located on French Island in Victoria’s Western Port Bay.

It was likely used for land clearing as part of the local chicory cultivation industry, which was a prolific industry on French Island until the mid-1960s.

Three men, possibly Bennetts family members, with this EB tractor at French Island Vic, 1926 – Photograph: G Bennetts Museums Victoria MM 6538

Museum curator Dr Ian Coates, who coordinated the acquisition of the tractor, said it has historic significance because of its association with Australia’s first tractor manufacturer.

“Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the early tractors produced by AH McDonald & Co was the relative sophistication of their engineering, which included coil ignition, a three-speed gearbox and automotive rack-and-pinion steering.

This reflects Alf McDonald’s capacity to improve the contemporary design of imported American tractors,” Dr Coates concluded.

It was acquired with the support of an anonymous benefactor.

The McDonald Imperial 1912 oil EB tractor will be on display at the National Museum of Australia until 23 July 2023.

Read more about the history of the McDonald Imperial 1912 EB tractor at this link.

History of the McDonald Imperial tractor

  • The tractor was built in 1912 by engineers Alfred and Ernest McDonald.
  • Alfred McDonald set up his own engineering workshop in 1903.
  • In 1908, innovative Melbourne engineers Alfred and Ernest McDonald produced the first Australian-made, oil tractor, known as the ‘EA’.
  • The improved design of the ‘EB’ followed in 1912.
  • The tractor was originally purchased new in 1912 by Frank William Chilcott for use at ‘Lillesdon Park’, his 403-acre farm located on French Island in Victoria’s Western Port Bay.
  • The arrival of the tractor on French Island was a memorable event that required a police escort. Local Ruth Gooch recounts that ‘When Frank’s small nephew (Garth Bennetts) saw it coming over the hill to his island home, he took fright, ran inside, and hid under the bed.’
  • Mr. Chilcott passed away in 1919, and the tractor passed to his brother-in-law, Richard Bennetts.
  • Its survival is a testament to many local enthusiasts who are committed to preserving important early agricultural machinery.

It was acquired by the National Museum of Australia in 2021.