Europe’s oldest farm toy maker - Part 2

09 November 2021
As Britains turns 100, we pick up the story in the 1970s and follow the developments through to the present day
Europe’s oldest farm toy maker - Part 2 Images

Dennis Britain, grandson of the founder and the last family member to manage the firm, retired in the late 1960s, so Britains entered the 1970s under the joint management of Joe Thake and Roy Selwyn-Smith.  Under their management, the farm model expansion that began in the 1960s continued.

The first models to appear were a JCB 3C tracked excavator and the Massey Ferguson 135 tractor, now fitted with a front-loader. The excavator was the first of many JCB models Britains released in the following years. Dropped in 1973, Britains reissued the excavator in the late 1980s and used the tooling for the Little Farmer excavator released in the 2000s. Finished in yellow and red, it’s thought Britains based its Massey Ferguson 135 tractor with front-loader on the 2135 highway tractor.

The only new agricultural tractor released in 1970 was a Ford 5000.  Unusually it was a 1/43rd scale plastic kit and the only tractor Britains added to the low cost, entry-level ‘Mini series’ introduced in the late 1960s.  The series was not popular and dropped in 1973.

Reflecting changes taking place on farms, Britains introduce many new 1/32 scale tractors during the 1970s.  With tractors now needing a ROPS (Rollover Protection Structure) or safety cab, Britains updated its Ford Force 5000 tractor (9527) in 1973 and added the latter. To allow the tractor to be steered without removing the cab, Britains added lugs to the front axle. These turned the axle as the tractor was rolled from side-to-side. Marketed as ‘steer-O-matic’ steering, a name probably inspired by Ford’s use of ‘select-O-speed’ to describe a gearbox, it was not a great success and soon dropped. It would be 12 years, and the Renault 145-45 tractor launch, before another steering solution was found.

Also on the Ford 5000 tractor, Britains added a pickup hitch to its two-point linkage, removing the need to provide a drawbar pin - a design Britains continues to use today. The Ford Force 5000 tractor was replaced with the Ford 6600 in 1976.

With Massey Ferguson phasing out production of its 135 tractor, Britains introduced a model of the company’s 595. It was the first model tractor Britains fitted with a ‘Q’ cab. Strangely, the model tooling was based on Massey Ferguson’s 590 tractor - a model Britains released for a short time only.

Ford and Massey Ferguson remained market leaders in the UK, in the 1970s, but European tractor brands were becoming common on UK farms. With these brands being popular in Europe, Britains introduced models of the Mercedes nimog, the Deutz 110 and the Fiat 880DT. The Deutz was the first model fitted with four-wheel drive.

During the ’70s, twenty new implements appeared. These included a Lely hay tedder, two different seed drills, a manure spreader, a forage harvester, buck rake, a disc mower, a reversible plough, a post hole digger, a transplanter, disc harrow, a Bomford chisel plough, rolls and a front-end loader. The detachable loader fitted various tractors in the range and was supplied with bucket, bale grab & pallet forks. Although horse-drawn equipment was no longer seen on farms, a tumble cart with new carter (9567) was also introduced.

The most significant release of the decade was the Massey Ferguson 760 combine, launched in 1978.  It was Britains’ first combine and reportedly Massey Ferguson helped fund its development. At the time, it was the largest model Britains had made and this presented production challenges. To reduce tooling costs, Britains fitted the combine with the tyres from its Massey Ferguson 595 tractor. Then, to give the impression the tyres were wider than they were, Britains recessed the front-wheel rims. The combine was a great success and only minor production changes were made during its long life in the range. It won Britains the National Association of Toy Retailers ‘Toy of the Year’ award in 1978.

The 1970s also saw revision and extension of the figures, animals and accessories. Perhaps most notable of the new models were the two Atcost building sets - the first time Britains provided realistic durable buildings. They would remain in the catalogue for many years.

Britains in the 1980s

Under new ownership, Britains’ farm range remained popular. In a report in Power Farming, at the end of the decade, Britains’ factory was producing up to a million tractors per year - double the western world real-life output at the time. Fifty percent were exported to 62 countries, with France and Ireland being the main markets.

In the first two years of the decade, Britains introduced 11 new implements - including a Farmhand round baler, Chafer sprayer, Fyson elevator, Howard rotary spreader, Pöttinger loader wagon, a helicopter with crop sprayer, a second combine a New Holland TR85, a Kidd flat roll, a Grays buckrake, Twose transport box and mini trailer. A new farm lorry, 25 years since dropping the last one, was also launched. This was available with different bodies.

The tractor range was also revised and extended.  New features were added to the new tractors. On the Massey Ferguson 2680 tractor, Britains added a lever that created an engine noise as the tractor was pushed along. The Renault 145-45 and Valmet 805 tractors also had the lever and introduced a new system to allow the tractor to be steered without removing the cab. On the Renault, the front axle was steered by turning the air cleaner while the exhaust was used to steer the Valmet tractor.

The Ford TW-35 Power Farm Series tractor, introduced in 1987, was the significant development of the decade. It had a battery hidden under the bonnet and a motor that drove both the rear wheels and the PTO. Without the battery, it could still be pushed along just as any other Britains’ tractor. Two new implements were also introduced - a Howard rotary spreader and a Vicon fertilizer spreader, that were driven, like real tractors, by the PTO shaft.  

The following year, a New Holland combine harvester - a Claas self-propelled forage harvester and power harrow - were added. Although further models were added in the early 1990s, the series was soon dropped as the models proved unreliable.

In 1984, the construction models Britains had marketed as part of the farm range were moved into their own range.  Marketed as the Autoway Series it included both new models and some models from the farm range.  To reflect the construction theme all were finished in yellow.  The series was re-launched in 1987 as the Road Series.  This included a much reduced model range and was dropped after four years.  Some models were then incorporated back into the farm range for a while before being dropped.

Content continues after advertisements

Britains in the 1990s

After the move to Nottingham, a review of the product range was undertaken and changes implemented to standardised parts used to produce the tractor range. Also, to reduce development costs, the same basic casting was used to create different tractors by fitting alternate plastic body panels and cabs. For example the Ford TW-35 casting was used for the Ford TW-25, Ford 8830, Ford 8730, County 1884, Hürlimann Prestige H468, Fendt 615LSA, Deutz DX6.50, Same Galaxy 170 and Lamborghini 1706 tractors.  

In 1993, Britains was celebrating 100 years since launching its first toy soldiers. To mark this occasion, a special Ford 5610 tractor, finished in silver and gold, and labelled as the Britains 100 tractor, was released. It did not appear in the annual catalogue - being released during the year.

One completely new tractor for the 1990s was the JCB Fastrac 1135. It was the first tractor Britains offered with Ackermann steering. The tractor would be revised in the following years as JCB introduced the 3185 and 3220 Fastracs.

With a growing interest in collecting, Britains introduced the Vintage & Home Farm Series, in 1996, to meet collectors’ needs. To distinguish them from the standard farm range, Britains marketed them under W. Britain branding and did not appear in Britains’ farm model catalogue. As well as releasing models such as a horse plough set, tumble cart and blacksmith forge, the series included a Ferguson TE-20, a Fordson Major, David Brown 900, Marshall M, Lanz D6006 and a Land Rover Series I. All the tractors were supplied with a figure of the tractor firm’s founder. The Ferguson TE-20 sold well but others were less successful. Models such as a Fordson Standard tractor, a David Brown tractor, a Bamford mower and a Ransomes mounted plough were considered, but never made, as the Series was dropped in 2000. The Land Rover Series I, the only diecast model in the series, survived and would later reappear several times in Britains’ catalogue.

The change in ownership, in the mid-1990s, saw big changes to Britains’ farm model range. At first, some existing Ertl’s 1/64 and 1/32 models were introduced and sold under Britains branding. For the 1/32 models, Britains created a new Elite series to market them, including John Deere and Case IH tractor and equipment models – brands Britains had previously been unable to get licences for.

Britains continued to develop and add models to its 1/32 scale farm range. Although, following Ertl’s lead, providing a driver was gradually phased out. More recently, this policy has been reversed and Britains now offers them as an accessory.  

There were several significant releases during the 1990s. To replace the ageing 760 model, there was a new Massey Ferguson 7200 combine and a Land Rover Discovery. The Discovery was available as farm, rally and police vehicles. Britains also developed a working front linkage to fit the mounting points, first fitted on the Fordson Power Major tractor, it still had on some tractors.  There was a front mounted cultivator, press and plough released for the linkage.  

Britains from the 2000s to present day

From 2000, Britains and Ertl began working closer together, splitting model development between the UK and North America. Some 1/32 scale model releases were available under Britains branding only, with others under the Ertl brand. In North America, 1/16 and 1/64 are the popular farm model scales and Ertl started marketing its 1/32 models under both Ertl and Britains branding. However, more recently, Ertl has reverted to using its name only on these models.

Britains continued to develop models with companies it had been working with for many years such as JCB, Massey Ferguson, Land Rover, Ford and New Holland. It has also re-established its links with Valtra, Fendt, Claas, Vicon and Kverneland and built new links to brands such as John Deere, Case IH, Vaderstad, Bobcat, NC Engineering, Keenan, Kane trailers and Kuhn. As in the past, the Britains model line-up included models of the latest tractors and equipment. However, it has also started to introduce a heritage line with models such as the International 56XL tractors and Ford 6600 tractor.

Alongside models it developed, a number created by Ertl have been sold under Britains branding. Like the real tractors, combines and forage harvesters, these were specced differently from those sold by Ertl in North America.

To again address the need for entry level models, Britains launched the Little Farmer range in 2002. Britains did not develop any new tooling and the range consisted of simplified versions of previous models. It did not prove as popular as expected and only lasted a few years. However, Britains returned to the idea in 2008, launching an all-new 1/16 scale Big Farm range alongside Ertl.

This year, Britains celebrates it being 100 years since launching Home Farm. To mark the anniversary, Britains has recreated a model of the Fordson E27N tractor it released in 1948. Production of the tractor has been limited to 7,500 and, for a lucky few, Britains has randomly inserted 100 gold tractors within the run.