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Did Deere Build The First Utility Tractor?

With the Great Depression’s stranglehold on the farm economy loosening and a sense that better times would return, John Deere took a gamble in the mid-1930s on developing a tractor that would appeal to small farms and truck-garden operations. In 1935, Deere set out to create a small, affordable utility tractor based on the model B, one of the most popular tractors in that company’s history.

The concept of a truck-garden riding tractor wasn’t entirely a Deere innovation. Central Tractor Company, maker of the Centaur tractor, began selling what could be considered an early truck-garden tractor in the early 1920s. Cletrac offered a miniature crawler, the model F, aimed at the small farm market in 1922.

The First Full-Featured Utility Tractor 

What Deere engineers would create in 1936 (the year the model Y was introduced) qualifies as the first successful utility tractor. This is a claim backed by the full-size tractor features offered in the Y as well as its immediate successor, the model 62.

Only 26 model Y’s were built in 1936, and then almost immediately recalled by Deere. Typical of the company’s devotion to “building the best,” the company summoned all the model Y’s back to Moline where they were built. This location was unusual, because up to this point in time, all of Deere’s tractors had been built in Waterloo.

The company decided that the Y and its prototypes be fabricated at the former Velie Motors Corporation facility, which Deere had purchased and had converted over to its Wagon Works.

All the Y’s were promptly remodeled  with the addition of a 10½-hp., 66-cubic-inch Hercules model NXA two-cylinder (vertically operating) engine mated to a three-speed transmission via a big-boy-tractor-like driveshaft. The Y’s had previously employed a Novo two-cylinder that was experiencing excessive wear problems.

Vertical Cylinders

The vertically operating engines of the Y and it successors were certainly unique to Deere’s common use of horizontally operating power plants. 

Also unique was the use of a foot clutch positioned to the left side of the operator’s seat to mimic cars. The Deere engineer in charge of the utility design, Willard Nordenson, felt that this tractor should mimic the operation of a car as much as possible.

The remodel of the Y and other engineering changes created the model 62 (shown left), which was introduced in 1937. With that inauguration, John Deere firmly anchored its stake in the small-tractor market supported by the fact that the $500 price tag caught the attention of enterprising small farmers tired of trailing behind a pair of horses or a walk-behind garden tractor.

Next Came the L

Few model 62s sold in the half year they were built. Deere marketers recognized a good thing and encouraged the creation of an immediate successor. As such, the model 62 was replaced the same year it was introduced (in 1937) with the model L.

The L was an instant success, and for good reason. It was a $465 machine that was rich in big-tractor features including individual rear brakes, an adjustable rear tread, and optional belt pulley and electric starting. Much to the delight of vegetable producers, the engine on the L was offset to the side; this provided better visibility while cultivating.


The Dreyfuss Touch

In its first full year of production, some 1,500 model L’s sold. Upon the first anniversary of the model, a styled version of the L fashioned by famed industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss was introduced.

Even more successful was an industrial version of the L, the model LI, which featured a lower seat and wider wheel tread topped off by the advantage of hydraulics. All told, over 2,500 model LI’s were built.

The start of a new decade saw a new and improved baby Deere, the model LA. Here was an all-original Deere utility tractor hosting a Deere-built transmission and engine, complete with a generator and starter, that turned out 14¹⁄3 belt hp. That extra horsepower allowed the LA to pull a single 16-inch plow. (The L only had enough power to handle a 12-inch plow.)

The LA also discontinued the use of a tube-steel frame that had been in use since the introduction of the model Y. Instead, the LA was fashioned from solid-bar frames riding on 24-inch rear wheels featuring removable rims.

Features Galore

Much like its big brothers, the LA was also feature-rich. Options included a variety of tire sizes, front and rear wheel weights, adjustable front axle, two sizes of belt pulley, and electric starting and lighting.

Most importantly, the LA offered an optional rear PTO, allowing it to fully mimic a full-size tractor. The model LA was an unqualified success for John Deere. Nearly 12,500 of the tractors were built during its five-year production run that ended in August 1946.

For more on the history of John Deere read Deeres Diesel Pioneer. 

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