John Deere’s Model D was anything but a technological marvel. Nor was it an immensely popular tractor.
True, the D was in production longer than any tractor in history. During its 30-year run some 160,000 Model D’s were sold. That figure, however, is a fifth the number of the Fordsons that went to work on farms in just a 10-year period.
Instead, the D achieved greatness by serving as the archetype by which all other John Deere tractors would be fashioned until 1959. The D’s devotion to simplicity of design, economy in operation, and long life gained Deere a reputation as a manufacturer of reliable tractors – a notoriety that still favors the company today.
More significant, however, is the fact that during the time when the D was built, John Deere metamorphosed from a manufacturer of mostly farm implements to a world leader in horsepower. This then is the tractor’s greatest claim to fame.
In the beginning
The D was not the first tractor designed entirely by John Deere engineers. That honor goes to the ill-fated All-Wheel-Drive. In fact, historical documents reveal the D was already in development by Waterloo Gas Engine Company.
Deere bought Waterloo Gas Engine Company in 1918 not realizing that purchase gained them several prototype tractors.
Along with these designs came their creators, Louis Witry and Harry Leavitt. These innovative engineers continued working on a successor to the Waterloo Boy. Their efforts utilized the state-of-the-art unitized (frameless) design first seen on the Wallis Cub.
Three major prototypes evolved under Witry and Leavitt’s direction, each smaller and more powerful than the last one.
Their efforts couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
Deere needed a change
By 1920 Deere was hard-pressed to find a replacement for the Waterloo Boy. Henry Ford had launched his Fordson several years before, and it was outselling the Waterloo Boy by the thousands. “There is a national demand for tractors,” Deere director Leon Clausen told the company’s Board of Directors. “When a suitable tractor is built at a reasonable price . . . it can be sold.”
Witry and Leavitt were given their marching orders: Produce a new tractor and do it soon. They did not disappoint the Deere board. Their final design was lithe (weighing just 4,000 pounds), powerful (at 22½ hp.), and it could be produced at a reasonable price (eventually selling for $1,112).
The Board approved, and Deere’s new tractor was launched March 14, 1923.
At first, sales were slow. The first production run was a scant 900 models. But the D was getting noticed by farmers looking for a hassle-free tractor built for heavy tillage. The tractor could lug a three-bottom plow with ease and turn out respectable work through its belt.
Witry and Leavitt worked tirelessly tweaking the D design, making it even more rugged while slicing its production cost.