Czech Made: Zetor – one of Czechoslovakia’s greatest export articles

Traktor Zetor 25 A, photo: Hana Ondryášová / Czech Radio

The Zetor tractor, which started to be produced nearly 75 years ago, is one of the most famous Czech trademarks and one of Czechoslovakia’s greatest export articles. Find out more about the iconic tractor in this edition of Czech Made! 

For many people here in the Czech Republic, the Zetor brand is synonymous with the word tractor. The first Zetor tractor rolled off the assembly line in Brno’s Zbrojovka plant nearly 75 years ago, on March 15, 1946. Over the next few decades, it became one of the most famous Czech trademarks and one of Czechoslovakia’s greatest export articles. In its heyday in the 1970s, the company produced more than 77,000 tractors a year and exported them virtually all around the world.

Zetor 25,  1946,  photo: archive of ZETOR TRACTORS a.s.

The history of Zetor tractors started in the post-war period, when the Czechoslovak industry faced the challenge of constructing a cheap, low weight tractor that would be suitable for mass production. The task was entrusted to mechanical engineer František Musil from Zbrojovka Brno, who was given just six months to come up with a solution.

The competitors for the role of sole future manufacturer of tractors included Zbrojovka Brno and Škoda Pilsen. It was Musil’s prototype "Z", featuring a two-cylinder diesel engine with 26 horse power, that came out as the winner, marking the birth of the world-famous Czech trademark. Dominik Moser is from the company’s PR department:

“In terms of construction, it was a very modern tractor in its time. The technical solution and lifespan of the engine outstripped most of its competitors.

“It was one of the first tractors with one-gear shift. Its maximum speed reached 32 kilometers per hour, which was about 12 kilometers faster than its competitors. So it really had no match worldwide at the time.”

Zetor Z-25,  photo: Miroslav Kobza / Czech Radio

Zbrojovka Brno produced its first Zetor Z25 model on 15 March 1946. Five months later the Czechoslovak Chamber of Commerce and Trade issued a trademark for the Zetor brand name.

It consisted of a transcript of the letter "Z", used in the logo of the Brno Zbrojovka engineering plant, combined with the last two letters of the word "tractor".

Since the launch of its production in 1946 until the start of its serial production in 1961, the company produced more than 160,000 Zetor 25s. More than 100,000 of them were destined for foreign markets, mainly to Poland, Belgium, Denmark but also overseas.

Just a few years after designing the iconic Z25, František Musil and his team came up with another improvement, Z30, which drew on his experience with designing diesel engines.

Zetor 3011,  photo: archive of ZETOR TRACTORS

It equipped with a hydraulic plough lift with a new construction and used a revolutionary system of direct fuel injection. But despite receiving the gold medal at the agricultural exhibition in Prague in 1948, its production was soon halted, says Dominik Moser:

“Zetor was one of the first in the world to use direct injection for fuel consumption reduction. Unfortunately the communist authorities decided that tractors of higher power categories were needed. The model was used as a basis for the development of a more powerful Z35 model.”

Another milestone in the history of Zetor came in the 1960s, when the company introduced a unique concept considerably simplifying the process of manufacture and servicing, explains Mr. Moser:

"The 1960s marked the introduction of a unique concept of using unified elements in tractor manufacture, that means the use of identical parts in different models, which considerably simplified the tractors’ manufacture and servicing. The first series was later followed by second and third series, which are still used today."

Zetor Crystal 8011,  photo: R~P~M,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In its most productive years in the 1970s, Zetor produced more than 77,000 tractors a year and exported them to 80 countries around the world. And it was also in the 1970s, in November 1976, to be specific, that the already world-famous Zetor brand became the name of the company.

To expand overseas without the risk of high costs of transport, Zetor established local assembly lines based on licensing contracts with local manufacturers. Such assembly plants were built in India, Indonesia, Iraq, and Mexico - countries which needed tractors that were simple, but would last.

In the 1970s, Zetor also supplied tractors to Japan. To sustain the work in the watery rice fields, they were equipped with cage wheels and a special brake system.

One of the best-known model produced by Zetor in the 1970s was Crystal, which marked another world primacy, says Dominik Moser:

Photo: Jørgen Schyberg,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

"Zetor Crystal was the first in the world to be equipped with a safety cabin. It was supposed to protect the driver in case the tractor overturned. Prior to that, cabins were mainly there to protect the driver against bad weather, but this was a real safety element."

After the Velvet Revolution, which led to the fall of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1989, the state-owned manufacturer drastically reduced production and stopped completely in 2000.

In 2001, Zetor was privatised and bought by the Slovak company HTC Holding, which saved the company from bankruptcy and gradually picked up production. Dominik Moser again:

Photo: Fruitman cz,  CC BY-SA 4.0

“Overall, to this day, we have sold over 1,300 000 items to over 138 countries around the world. So we really exported them everywhere.

“So of course we want to continue the long tradition and at the same time, keep up with the customers’ demands. And we want to stick to our core values, which are power, durability and effectivity.”

Due to their durability, many of the older models of Zetors, including the first Z25s are still being used today, not only in the Czech Republic, but also in other countries around the world. Many of them are also being collected as veterans, says Mr Moser:

“We get lots of photos on our social media sent in by fans. So the fan base is huge and the tractors can be seen to this day. There is even a pub in Finland dedicated to Zetor.”

One such dedicated Zetor fan is Martin Havelka, who underwent several adventurous expeditions with his Z25A veteran model:

“I bought it from someone who inherited it. These tractors, made just after the end of the war, were made without a cabin. I guess men back then were tougher than today and comfort was not the most important thing for them. It was about the work that had to be done.”

Mr Havelka’s old Zetor has travelled not only to Sweden and to the Baltic Sea, but also to the top of the highest road in Europe, the Gross Glockner High Alpine Road in Austria.

To mark this year’s 75th anniversary, the Zetor company has prepared a number of events, including the launch of a special website, dedicated to its history.

Called zetor75.cz, it outlines all of the company’s milestones. It also features photos of all the tractors, from the iconic Z25 to the most recent Proxima series, designed to comply with the current stricter emission limits.