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John Deere's First Tractor
Both ignored and maligned, the All-Wheel-Drive tractor gets its due not only as the first original John Deere tractor but also as a significant advancement in horsepower, due to the efforts of historians like Randy Leffingwell. His book, John Deere, A History of the Tractor, devotes an entire chapter to this engineering marvel.
Calling the All-Wheel-Drive a marvel is more than appropriate. When built in 1917, the tractor boasted an impressive list of rare (for its time) advances including:
- All-wheel drive. Heavy drive chains transferred power to each of the tractor’s three wheels to produce outstanding traction in the field. That made the tractor more fuel efficient than other models of this time.
- A friction-drive transmission. This advance allowed shifting from low to high speed while the tractor was moving. The design used a double clutch with faces on both sides of the clutch. Each clutch had an inner and outer shaft that worked to keep the low and high gears in mesh. The All-Wheel-Drive represented the first tractor with a synchromesh transmission.
- A high-speed four-cylinder engine. There were other four-cylinder engines in use on tractors at this time, but the All-Wheel-Drive’s power plant featured advances such as forced lubrication and the ability to be overhauled without tearing the engine down since it had removable cylinder heads, pistons, and connecting rods. To top that off, the tractor was highly styled, reflecting the trend in the 1910s to model tractors after car lines.
What killed such an advanced tractor?
What prevented the All-Wheel-Drive from succeeding for Deere was the economy at the time.
Farmers used to horses and mules found the All-Wheel-Drive’s hefty $1,200 asking price hard to justify regardless of its many advanced features. As a result, few of the 100 All-Wheel-Drives built were sold. Embarrassed, management swept the tractor under a carpet. The firm had spent six years and $250,000 developing the All-Wheel-Drive.
Its replacement, the Waterloo Boy, was acquired with Deere’s March 1918 purchase of the Waterloo Gas Engine Company. The Waterloo Boy was simple, rugged, and, more importantly, cheap to build, selling for about $700. At this time, the John Deere board of directors needed something to compete with a herd of other tractors on the market. Ford, in particular, was vexing Deere with the success of its cheap Fordson tractor. Like the Waterloo Boy, it was crude, but unlike the Waterloo Boy, it was compact, lightweight, and designed to be built on an assembly line. Subsequently, thousands of Fordsons were sold for each Waterloo Boy that found a home.
In response, Deere shelved the Waterloo Boy, replacing it with the model D in 1923. The D reflected much of the Fordson’s size and horsepower. Unlike the Fordson, the model D used a horizontally operated two-cylinder engine, a design it kept from the Waterloo Boy.