Laurie Phillips, Merredin, plans to resurrect his iconic Acremaster tractors

By Mal Gill
April 26 2022 - 9:30pm
An early promotional black and white photograph of the Phillips Acremaster tractor.

WHETHER a collector's item or Plan B for when the electronic-controlled modern-day farm workhorse fails, older, big horsepower, purely mechanical four-wheel-drive tractors are in demand.

Inevitably, when the big, old articulated beasts - responsible for redefining 'broad' in broadacre farming in Western Australia in the 1970s and '80s - do come up at clearing sales, they are catalysts for bidding contests before being snapped up.

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On rare occasions when traded in on newer machines, more often than not they never actually reach dealers' yards, on-sold immediately to buyers who put word out they were after a big old tractor that does not need a factory-trained technician with a multimeter and laptop computer to keep it ticking over.

Merredin inventor, designer, manufacturer and two-times producer and marketer of big, simple, 4x4 articulated tractors beloved by many Wheatbelt farmers - first the Phillips Acremaster, followed by The Phoenix once he lost the right to use Acremaster as brand name - Laurie Phillips hopes to capitalise on sentiment supportive of simplicity.

As a marketing stunt to demonstrate how simple the Acremaster tractor was, a team of four people pulled one apart and then rebuilt it at a Dowerin machinery field day.

He plans to build a third generation of Acremaster tractor - The Phoenix was essentially an Acremaster under a different name - and Mr Phillips has bought back the name Acremaster to use again.

"It will basically be back to the future - that could be my new motto," Mr Phillips said when Farm Weekly visited recently to see how his plans were progressing.

Any new variant will follow the same rugged but simple design and engineering principles as the 160 Phillips Acremasters he built in Merredin between 1975 and 1984.

Also, the 23 or 24 - he cannot remember exactly how many - units of The Phoenix he built with local support as farmer company Farmers Tractors Australia Pty Ltd, from 1987 to 1991.

The Phoenix was constructed after an "unpleasant situation developed" which Mr Phillips described as "best forgotten", involving the then Bourke State government, a business associate and the Phillips family partnership which ended his original involvement with Acremaster tractors.

Number one, the first Phillips Acremaster tractor built in Merredin is still working, albeit with its original 186 kilowatt two-stroke six-cylinder Nissan diesel engine replaced some years ago with a four-stroke Cummins six of similar power rating. Donated to the Merredin Community Men's Shed by local farmer Bryan Davies, the big four-wheel-drive articulated tractor was used again this year to harrow a council-owned paddock at the edge of town in preparation for planting a community wheat crop to raise funds for the Men's Shed. A more powerful later model Acremaster number 77 also owned by the Men's Shed, was used to pull the seeder rig to sow the crop. Pictured with Acremaster number one are retired farmer and Shire of Merredin councillor Romolo Patroni (left), Acremaster designer and builder Laurie Phillips and Sam Teasdale and Shane Thomas from the Men's Shed.

Born and raised in Collie where he completed his apprenticeship, Mr Phillips came to Merredin with a wife and two young children 55 years ago and began a general engineering business serving local farmers.

"I started with an old Austin A40 car, a little trailer, a few tools and that was it," he recalled.

"After a while we bought a block of land and put a shed on it."

Contractor Philip Overington, searching for more pulling power, asked him to connect two tractors together to create a tandem tractor and they became an annual production run of "10 or 20 tandem tractors" for his growing engineering business in the early days.

But it was when he inspected the first of the big 4x4 articulated Versatile tractors to come to Merredin in early 1975 that he thought "we can build that" and his fertile mind began designing a worthy competitor.

Like its predecessors, the new generation he proposes to build will have a proprietary engine and transmission - he plans to use turbocharged V6 and V8 DEUTZ diesels this time instead of the Mercedes Benz engines he used previously.

An early 1980s model Phillips Acremaster, number 77 was purchased by Merredin Community Men's Shed from Peter Craft of Trayning. Like most Acremasters, it is powered by a Mercedes Benz diesel engine, in this instance a V10 OM423 engine that could be specified up to 384 kilowatts.

They will be coupled to 16-speed powershift transmissions sourced from Caterpillar this time, a step up from the nine and 12 speed transmissions offered before.

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Heavy duty front and rear differentials, axles and housing assemblies rated up to 60,000 kilograms have also been sourced.

"They're used in huge Chinese front end loaders," Mr Phillips said.

He said there would be a minimum of electronics - the Caterpillar transmissions have electronic control to allow them to "talk" to the engines.

"I was looking for an engine I can run without electronics and with DEUTZ I can do both (no electronics or some electronics)," he said.

"Because of the transmission, I'll go with some electronics on the engine."

The hydraulic steering system will be the same design he used previously and it predates the Phillips Acremaster version one.

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It was developed for his tandem tractors, then adapted for the big 4x4 tractors, proving over time to be ideally suited and trouble free.

Inventor, manufacturer and designer and builder of the Phillips Acremaster four-wheel-drive articulated tractor, Laurie Phillips, shows off an 11.9 litre V6 turbocharged DEUTZ diesel engine he plans to use to power a possible third generation of Acremaster tractors. He also plans to offer a 15.9 litre turbocharged V8 DEUTZ, producing up to 440 kilowatts of power and 2500 Newton metres of torque, as an engine option.

While the next generation Acremaster is proposed as very much to the same recipe for success as before, there is one significant difference - "I was 36 when I built my first one (Acremaster)", the now 83-year-old said.

But he is undaunted by the challenges of manufacturing on a large scale - both in size and numbers - and prepared to delegate responsibility to enthusiastic managers and staff he hopes to recruit to supplement his existing team of six.

"I'm not a control freak, I'd rather let a manager manage so I can get on with development," Mr Phillips said.

"I firmly believe in the ability of Australian workers to perform when they are faced with a challenge - I also believe that this project will generate its own energy as things get moving.

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"I can still see the looks on workers faces when they started up a new tractor and drove it out of the factory."

Mr Phillips' plan is for the chassis, cab and other bodywork to be fabricated and painted and the tractors assembled in a purpose-built new factory he proposes to construct on land he is buying on the outskirts of Merredin township.

If he gets sufficient confirmed orders for a third generation of Acremaster tractor, Laurie Phillips plans to build a new factory at Merredin to assemble them. He is pictured at his existing domed-roof factory, originally built in 1943 during WWII as a Royal Australian Air Force stores depot.

The greenfields site is close to his existing Phillbourne Manufacturing business.

Philbourne produces Retrodrum and Phillips Rollerdown Pickup products for combine harvesters and custom-builds agricultural machinery to order in one of two distinctive domed-roof former Royal Australian Air Force depot store hangers.

They were built beside Merredin-Nungarin Road in 1943 after the bombing of Darwin alerted defence force 'brass' to how exposed Australia's important WWII infrastructure was, being scattered around the coast at that time.

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Mr Phillips believes he can build a suitable factory in Merredin "for about the same cost as a house in Perth".

In December in advertisements in three editions of Farm Weekly, Mr Phillips briefly outlined his plans for a third generation of Acremaster tractor and called for expressions of interest.

"I have established a supply of suitable quality components and believe that we can offer a quality, competitive tractor to the local market," his advertisements stated.

Lesley and Laurie Phillips. According to Laurie, his wife questions his sanity at age 83 for planning to build a third generation of Acremaster tractor. He was 36 when he built his first Acremaster.

"We can eliminate or minimise electronics to keep farmer service a reality.

"I am looking at 250-590 horsepower (186-440 kilowatts)," they stated.

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Despite most farmers concentrated on bringing in a record harvest in mid December, his phone started ringing within two days, with callers from five States offering encouragement and support and some enquiring about buying.

On the strength of that initial enquiry, Mr Phillips started work on a prototype pre-production unit, with the aim of having it completed late March or early April and being put to work immediately hauling a seeder rig on a farm close to Merredin so he could monitor its performance.

Unfortunately, supply-chain issues that have plagued industry around the globe, including mainstream tractor manufacturers in the United States of America, Europe, Japan and China - a flow-on from the COVID-19 pandemic and closed borders - thwarted his plan.

Mr Phillips admitted "immediate supply was the problem".

"I could plan ahead and get components here, but not at short notice to build a tractor for this season's seeding," he said.

So for now a DEUTZ powerpack sits covered by a tarpaulin in the middle of Mr Phillips' cavernous factory.

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Nearby are a twin-disc transmission and heavy axle and differential assemblies.

But the chassis remains a bundle of laser-cut shapes of thick steel plate, laying on pallets on the other side of the factory beside a production run of Retrodrums.

The steel plate shapes still have to be welded together on a jig to form the two halves of the chassis that pivots in the centre to change direction.

But Mr Phillips has his own Plan B.

"Due to the immediate shortage of components I am borrowing a twin-disk powershift transmission and two Rockwell axles from a Phoenix collector's item tractor that previously belonged to the Butenica brothers at South Hyden," he said.

Mr Phillips said he would still use those components, along with the new components he has already sourced and the chassis waiting to be assembled, to construct a "demonstrator" tractor.

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"This tractor will be number one of the next generation of Acremasters and will be available for sale some time after seeding - preferably for local sale - at a special price," he said.

That plan certainly harks back to the future.

Mr Phillips' original Acremaster tractor number one was taken to local farmer Bryan Davies' property east of Merredin for a demonstration run and did not return until last year.

Impressed by its power and traction pulling his pair of Chamberlain 354 tandem tractors and dual sets of ploughs behind them out of a bog, Mr Davies bought it on the spot and used it as his main tractor for more than 40 years before donating it in late 2020 to the Merredin Community Men's Shed.

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