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Deere's Watershed Tractor

In the early 1930s, Deere & Company faced one of the most daunting challenges to affect that firm during its then 90-plus-year history. 

The Great Depression had assaulted Deere’s sales. While not financially strapped, Deere still faced a funding shortfall from the failing U.S. bank system. Its chief competitor, International Harvester, had just introduced the game-changing row-crop tractor, the Farmall Regular, in 1924.

Deere responded to the Farmall with its General Purpose. But the GP was quickly outclassed by IHC’s F-12 and F-20, while firms like J.I. Case and Oliver came out with row-crop machines of their own that offered more fit, finish, and features.

Deere’s president, Charles Wiman (John Deere’s great-grandson), had worked tirelessly to elevate the importance of tractors in the Deere product line before taking over the reins of the firm in 1928. He wanted a line of tractors for all farms and every crop.

Wiman’s go-to guy was engineer Theo Brown, who’d been working on an advanced tractor line since the introduction of the Farmall. Brown knew Deere’s next tractors couldn’t just meet the competition – they had to surpass it convincingly. 

Brown and his engineers set out not only to create a successor to the GP that could compete with the Farmall but also to start off an entire line of tractors. 

Wiman’s trust in Brown was well warranted. Brown was a consummate engineer (he died with over 100 patents in his name), a Deere man through and through, and a born leader. He took the ideas from his team and developed a design that could be used as a platform for future tractor expansion.

That design took life as a prototype (designated the GX) in 1932 and then as a production tractor (as the General Purpose Wide Tread tractor, or GP-A) on March 19, 1934. Farmers with a penchant for Deere green power immediately took notice of the 23½ (belt) hp. machine’s numerous advances, which included:

  • A one-piece transmission case with high under-axle clearance.
  • The Power Lift hydraulic system that replaced a muscle-dependent mechanical design.
  • Differential brakes geared directly to the large drive gears, which increased mechanical efficiency and ease of operation.
  • Rubber tires.
  • Centerline positioning of the hitch and PTO, which reduced side draft for tillage operations taking place on hills.
  • An adjustable rear tread.    

To correct a common misconception, the Model A was not the first tractor to offer an adjustable rear tread. That honor goes to J.I. Case and its Model CC. 

But the design of the A’s rear tread set it apart from anything on the market. It employed axle splines (10 at first; 15 in 1942) that provided for easier adjustment between 56 and 80 inches. So a farmer could adjust to run down 40- or 42-inch rows for cultivation and then widen the tractor for fall plowing.

Nine Model A Variations in All

Sales for the A were immediately brisk. And within a year, Deere was bringing out configuration variations (narrow and wide fronts, orchard, and high-crop versions). In all, nine configurations of the A were sold, including one with a liquid-propane engine.

The A’s durability and long life spurred on the model’s popularity. By the end of its 18-year production run in 1952, over 320,000 Model A’s had been sold, making it Deere’s most popular tractor of all time.

Read more about John Deere's history in Elvis Presley's John Deere 4010.

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