How Corowa's Upton tractor family business built a rare beast and powered Australian farming
Vintage tractor enthusiasts are a passionate lot.
Some even fly across the globe to Corowa, New South Wales, to view one particular make: the Upton, a beast of a machine, named after its makers, the Upton family.
It's rare — only about three dozen Uptons were made over two decades — and a little quirky, with early models painted a distinctive shade of pink.
But Upton tractors hold a revered place in Australian agricultural history for their design and pulling power.
"It's unique, to say the least," Corowa local Bill Petzke said.
Mr Petzke owns dozens of vintage tractors but his early-model Upton, dating from the mid-1960s is perhaps his favourite.
"Mine's a 180-horsepower one with the four-cylinder UD, still in its pink colours," Mr Petzke, a retired farmer, said. 
The "UD" originally referred to a Uniflow scavenging Diesel engine, though it said to have earned other variations over the years, including "Ugly Duckling" and "Ultimate Dependability". 
And for its day, powered by that superior two-stroke UD diesel engine, the Upton workhorse was years ahead of its time.
So how did this Corowa-based engineering works end up making tractors?
It began with the late Arthur Upton, who started the firm in 1944.
He was a born wheeler and dealer, with entrepreneurial flair and an ability to repurpose all sorts of spare parts and pieces.
He had a knack for finding army surplus gear, mostly from World War II, and much of it in unused, pristine condition.
"His skill was he could see a use for something that no-one else could and that was his forte," Carl Upton, Arthur's son, said.
Arthur Upton bought equipment by the truckload, including dozens of army tanks, and found new uses for them.
"Initially he just cut off all the armour that wasn't required and they had two diesel engines so he pulled out [one] and just left one engine in there and put a big scrub rake on the front to clear Mallee scrub," Mr Upton said.
The other engine would be adapted as a water pump for farm irrigators.
In the early 60s, massively powered tractors didn't yet exist, but the firm was getting enquiries from large-scale grain growers.
So in 1962, Arthur Upton built a prototype tractor, the Upton 180.
At 180 horsepower, back then it was three times more powerful than its nearest Australian-made rival.
"At that time everyone wanted to be able to cultivate more or quicker or easier or whatever," Darrell Leahy, a retired engineer, said.
Mr Leahy spent his younger years at Upton Engineering, designing and building tractors.
He can spot at a glance the other quirky features of the early Uptons.
Some of their key components came from army tanks.
"There were variations of the Sherman, the Grant and the Lee tanks, they had the same final drive and gearbox parts, all made by Mack in America," Mr Leahy said.
"The very first tractor, it was cobbled together over a number of years, just because they would work on that when there was not much else to do. It wasn't a priority," added Mr Upton.
The firm invented and made every type of rural machinery from the mid-1960s, making irrigators, notably a travelling type, propelled by the water it was emitting.
But demand for these powerful tractors, with their robust military parts, steadily grew and the Uptons made them to order.
In 1973, a 225-horsepower model emerged, still using some tank parts, along with some cutting-edge components.
By then Carl Upton had joined the firm, designing and building ever bigger, more powerful tractors.
"In 1977 I'd built the HT series, which was 350 horsepower, and I've got a tractor that could weigh 20 tons," he said.
The later Uptons' pulling power, a combination of a powerful engine and good design, set them apart.
They're still the biggest two-wheel-drive tractors in the world.
"The Upton was a big banger for open country and there would have been a lot more around. Circumstances just sort of stopped them making them," Mr Petzke said.
Only eight MT models were ever built, and the firm stopped making tractors in 1981.
By then, similar tractors were being imported at a lower price and the rural economy was going through some tough times.
But Upton Engineering remains, and is now a thriving third-generation business.
Carl's sons Paul and Marc are one of Australia's largest manufacturers of high-tech irrigation equipment, with distribution nationwide.
They've just made an irrigator for a cotton farm that spans 850 metres, and a remote-controlled racecourse irrigator for Caulfield Racecourse in Melbourne.
Paul Upton is proud of the family's tractor heritage.
"I have very fond memories of tractors in parades down the main street on Australia Day and things like that," he said.
Over time, most of the tractors the Uptons made have been tracked down and restored by keen new owners.
When Henty Machinery Field Days — billed as southern Australia's biggest agricultural event — recently celebrated its 60th anniversary, the organisers assembled five Uptons in a special display.
Meantime, the ethos of this third-generation business remains as always, to give anything a red-hot go.
"People think that you invent something and then go back to the public and sell it, but it's driven the other way round," Paul Upton said.
"We just respond to what customers ask for, so if someone wants something, yeah, we'll build it."
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