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100 Years of John Deere Tractors

In 1912, John Deere faced a huge challenge. While the company was highly successful producing implements and resided as the number one manufacturer of plows in the world, it lacked a tractor to complete its product lineup.

The pressure from dealers to include a tractor to that equipment line was considerable. The demand for horsepower in the marketplace was strong, and all of Deere’s major competitors offered tractors.

The need for a tractor, dealers felt, was essential for Deere to hold on to its plow business. This was due to the fact that a tractor and plow were typically sold together in those days.

Succumbing to this pressure, the Deere board of directors agreed in March 1912 to develop a tractor.

In the next couple of years, Deere engineer C.H. Melvin toiled to develop a three-wheeled tractor plow. This failed to gain traction. 

In stepped Joseph Dain, a board member who had sold his company, Dain Manufacturing, to Deere in 1910. A member of the board of directors and an innovative tinkerer, Dain convinced the board in 1914 that he had a concept for a tractor that would put the company at the forefront of tractor design.

the go-ahead was given 

During the next four years, Dain and his engineering team worked on a three-wheeled design based on state-of-the-art engineering. Dain’s effort bore fruit, and on November 19, 1917, Deere’s board voted to “manufacture 100 tractors of the Dain type” for sale.

The “Dain type” would be later labeled the All-Wheel-Drive. With its manufacture, Deere entered the tractor market.

The All-Wheel-Drive (shown below) 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. This made the tractor more fuel-efficient than other tractors of this time.
  • A friction-drive transmission. This allowed shifting from low to high speed while the tractor was moving. 
  • 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.

john-deere-all-wheel-drive

Too pricey for the times

To top that off, the tractor was highly styled, reflecting the trend of modeling tractors after automobiles.

Unfortunately, the All-Wheel-Drive had an Achilles’ heel in its price. Farmers used to horses and mules found the All-Wheel-Drive’s hefty $1,200 asking price hard to justify. Also during its introduction, the general economy was suffering a recession. As a result, only 90 All-Wheel-Drives built were sold.

enter the waterloo boy

Embarrassed, Deere management swept the All-Wheel-Drive under a rug. The firm had spent six years and $250,000 developing the All-Wheel-Drive, and sales were disappointing.

Still, Deere needed a tractor, and its dealers wanted it now. The solution to the problem was found in the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company, which was up for sale at the time.

Deere’s board didn’t hesitate in purchasing the company and, in doing so, acquired the Waterloo Boy tractor in March 1918. To its credit, the Waterloo Boy was a simple, rugged, and, more importantly, cheap tractor to build. Deere could sell the machines for about $700. The purchase also came with a manufacturing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, ready to turn out tractors.

john-deere-waterloo-boy
The Waterloo Boy finally gave John Deere a toe in the market. It was soon replaced by the vaunted model D.

Waterloo Boy years

For the next six years, John Deere aggressively marketed the Waterloo Boy while refining its design. During that time, Deere introduced more than a dozen variations of the tractor, increasing its engine size to as much as 465 cubic inches. 

A thriving farm economy inspired sales of the machine, which helped firmly establish the company in the tractor market. 

However, the Waterloo Boy couldn’t compete with Henry Ford’s assembly tractor, the Fordson, which, at one time, was selling for less than $400, considerably less than the Waterloo Boy.

The Fordson’s compact design and price tag appealed to tractor buyers, a point not lost on Deere management. So the company initiated a tractor revamp.

Using prototype plans obtained with the acquisition of the Waterloo Boy, Deere engineers fashioned a tractor that was not only more compact but also more powerful. Capable of pulling a three-bottom plow, this tractor employed a rugged two-cylinder engine that could burn any low-cost distillate fuel.

Impressed with its engineers’ efforts, the Deere board approved the manufacturing of what was designated the model D, and it hit the market in 1924.

For the next 29 years, Deere dealers would sell over 161,000 D’s. This helped established the company as a market contender and inspired a tractor culture. 

By 1928, Deere launched an addition to the D, a general-purpose tractor, the model GP, that featured a power take-off to drive mowers or combines and a power lift system to raise implements such as planters and cultivators. 

A narrow-front version of the GP came on the market the next year. Mirrored in that tractor was the basis of an all-purpose tractor that would become the best-selling Deere of all time.

launch of the Model A 

In 1934, Deere introduced to its dealers a tractor as modern as anything on the market. At 23½ hp., the model A offered high-crop clearance due to an innovative one-piece transmission. Deere’s previous mechanical lift system was replaced with a hydraulic design. Also, the A readily offered adjustable rear-wheel tread, allowing it to be custom-fitted to any crop-row spacing.

The growing popularity of the A led to a number of variations, including orchard (AO), narrow-front axle (AN), wide-front end (AW), and high-crop versions of the N and W.

Two years later, Deere introduced a smaller version of the model A whose 14¼ hp. was suited for small farmers. Described as “two thirds the size of the A,” the model B had all the advances offered by its big brother. 

The popularity of both tractors was immediate and long lasting. When both were retired, over 620,000 versions of each had been sold, making them some of the most popular models in the entire industry.

Spurred on by this sales success, Deere engineers continued to innovate two-cylinder designs. The model G was next in 1938, followed by the H (1939), M (1947), and R (1949). To expand its presence to the truck farming and utility markets, Deere added the lithe model L in 1937.

series of upgrades

Almost seamlessly, Deere upgraded its tractor line with the numbered series starting in 1952. The models 40, 50, 60, 70, and 80 packed engines and transmissions that were refined. Expanded conveniences included power steering, a three-point hitch, and a fully independent PTO. 

In 1956, another round of improvements came when Deere launched its 20 series with the 320, 420 520, 720, and 820. Two years later, this line was upgraded to the 30 series.

Deere’s continued use of the two cylinders, however, was costing it market share. Farmers wanted more responsive and powerful engines, and the only solution was to drop the two-cylinder design for a four-cylinder platform. 

Truly a new generation of tractors came out of advanced engineering efforts. Beefy four-cylinder gas and diesel engine designs were employed in this new line of machines. Striving to create a line of tractors with high horsepower-to-weight ratios, Deere succeeded with the introduction of the 1010, 2010, 3010, and 4010 in 1961. 

john-deere-3010-4010
The new generation of Deeres was led by the 3010 and 4010.

hp.-to-weight ratio 

The 4010 diesel illustrates the advantages of the new power plant. The 4010 had 37% more horsepower than its predecessor, the model 730, but only 3% more weight. Backed by myriad other advances, this new generation of power would define Deere horsepower for the future while firmly placing the company as the number one horsepower manufacturer in the world. 

TOP 10 DEERE MODELS

Of the 694 models John Deere has built in the last 100 years (according to tractordata.com), the following versions claim the top spots in sales. To be fair, some of these models’ long production cycles contributed heavily to them being named as the “most popular” based on sale figures. The impact these tractors had on Deere’s success in horsepower is undeniable.

  1. Model A: 313,232 built from 1934 to 1953
  2. Model B: 309,921 built from 1935 to 1952
  3. Model 2240: 239,310 built from 1976 to 1982
  4. Model 2040: 239,182 built from 1976 to 1982
  5. Model 4020: 195,791 built from 1964 to 1972
  6. Model D: 161,038 built from 1924 to 1953
  7. Model 2640: 153,034 built from 1976 to 1983
  8. Model 1020: 142,608 built from 1965 to 1973
  9. Model 2150: 128,532 built from 1983 to 1986
  10. Model 2350: 128,527 built from 1983 to 1986

john-deere-model-a
This is a high-crop, wide-stance version of the John Deere model A.

Counterfeit Deeres

So popular were the models A and B that a Swedish company tried to cash in on their huge sales by making a counterfeit. The GMW model 25 and model 35 were engineered by Gnosjo Mekaniska Verkstad. The Swedish manufacturer fabricated the GMW 25 and 35 to mimic the A and B in every major aspect, except that each part on the tractor had a slight variation from its Deere original. Verkstad did this to avoid being sued by Deere for patent infringement. Unfortunately for Verkstad, his GMW tractors used gas engines at a time when European farmers were switching over to diesel fuel. As such, his venture in copying John Deere tractors was short-lived. Verkstad built about 200 of each of his models in the 1950s and then quit the tractor business.

Design Firsts Among Deeres

  • First John Deere tractor with a diesel engine and factory cab: the model R Diesel (introduced 1949).
  • First John Deere tractor with an adjustable rear-wheel tread and one-piece transmission case (which provided for high under-axle clearance): the model A (1934). Both innovations were also industry firsts.
  • First with a three-point hitch: the model 40 (1953).
  • First four-wheel-drive tractors: the models 8010 and 8020 (1960).
  • First models with closed-center hydraulics (that greatly enhanced hydraulic performance): the models 3010 and 4010 (1961).
  • First garden tractor: the model 110 (1963).
  • First tractor with a factory-installed turbocharger: model 4520 (1969).
  • First series to offer a powershift transmission: optional on the models 4050, 4250, 4450, 4650, and standard equipment on the model 4850 (1982). 
  • First tractor offering front-wheel drive as standard equipment: the model 3150 (1985). 
  • First tractors equipped with rubber tracks: the 8000 series (1997).
  • First use of an automatically shifting transmission: the 8000 Ten series of tractors (2000).
  • First tractor with front axle suspension: the 6020 and 8000 series (2002).
  • First model series to offer a continuously variable transmission: the 7020 series (2003). 
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