Inventor of Spin-On Oil Filter Deserves Spot in Hall of Fame

In the pantheon of great inventors, along with the likes of Edison, Bell, Ford, and the Wright brothers, there should be a place for the person who invented the spin-on oil filter.

One evening, I decided that I had delayed the inevitable long enough and it was time to try starting the diesel engine. I had the air filters installed, everything full of oil, coolant in the radiator, and an oil pressure gauge installed. I poured five gallons of diesel fuel into the tank and got ready to bleed the system. I had already installed the two fuel filters. Getting one filter canister tightened up against its gasket securely without getting something off-center is bad enough, but two is worse. Still, when I finally got them secured, I felt that they would probably keep most of the fuel in. I chuckled when I read the instructions on bleeding the fuel system. One of the ways to make the job go faster was to fill the canisters with fuel before installing them. Are you kidding me? Balance two canisters full of fuel on their pointy ends while trying to get the two-bolt brackets started and then tightened. No thanks.

The original strainer in the sediment bowl was a rusty, smashed mess when I got the tractor. The good news is they are still available from Deere. The bad news is they want $65 for them. Instead, I ordered an R54026 plastic fuel strainer that is used in the sediment bowl of a 4430 or 4630. Retail price: $3.15. I also picked up a plastic fitting from the local hardware store that has a one-quarter-inch pipe fitting on one side and a barbed end on the other. Retail price—about a dollar. I cut off most of the barbed end and what was left fit snuggly into the hole in the screen. I used a little epoxy glue to keep them together and had a new screen while saving $60.

The method that the operator’s manual details for bleeding the diesel system is to open up the three bleed valves on the filter casting and then motor the diesel engine until fuel flows from them. The term “motor” or “motoring” in this case means to turn the diesel with the starting engine while decompressed and the throttle in the off position. This process, the manual states, can take up to nine minutes. While it wouldn’t hurt to have the starting engine running and the diesel engine motoring for nine minutes, I quite by accident found an easier way. I was looking for something else in an old book of service bulletins when I came upon a short article introducing the new type of fuel shut-off valves on “R” tractors serial number 15851 and above (that would include my tractor). It tells us that an alternative method to motoring the engine is to remove the bypass ball and spring from the transfer pump. This sounded slightly familiar and sure enough, after rereading Ron O’Neill’s article about his 820, he had written about it. I am guessing this method made it into the 820 operator’s manual, but since it is a late change on the “R,” not into the older tractor’s manual. As soon as the filters were full though, I noticed that I had a few drips. I loosened up the filters, tightened them again, and got it down to a (for now) tolerable one drip per second.

It was now showtime. I started up the pony and let the engine run for a few minutes while I opened up the doors to let the smoke (and unfortunately heat) out. I went back to the tractor and grabbed the decompression lever and then the starting engine clutch and began turning the diesel engine. The pony barely noticed that it was now turning the big engine and I waited and watched the oil pressure gauge. Slowly, slowly, eventually it registered oil pressure. As the diesel engine motored, I decided to take a last look around the tractor before hitting the throttle and trying to start her up. Unfortunately, what I saw was a puddle of oil on the floor beneath the oil filters. One of the filters was dripping a bit; the other was dripping a lot.

I shut everything down, dammed up the oil, and removed the filter and cover. I could see that the gasket wouldn’t seat properly in the groove. I should have done a better job of cleaning the fossilized remains of the old gasket from the groove before trying to install the new one. I guess that the road to oil leaks is paved with good intentions. I spent the next couple of hours lying on a creeper under the tractor, using a steel brush and various sharp objects to clean out the groove that the gasket sits in. To break up the monotony, every now and then a drop of oil would hit me as I scraped and picked at the old gasket pieces that just happened to be at that magical distance from my eyes where I can’t see clearly with my glasses on or off. Restoring tractors is fun.

One day I got to thinking about the dripping “R” and decided to count up all of the bodies of fluid that could possibly drip from this tractor. There are 12 with an optional 13th. See if you can name them before looking at the list. Even though it flows to both engines, the coolant was counted only once. They are, more or less from front to back:

  1. Coolant
  2. Diesel engine air-oil bath
  3. Gas engine air-oil bath
  4. Diesel engine oil
  5. Starting engine oil
  6. Starting engine gas
  7. Starting engine transmission
  8. Diesel
  9. Steering gearbox
  10. Transmission/differential
  11. Powr-Trol
  12. PTO
  13. (optional) rear tire fluid

One day after whining about these drips on the GM message board, someone offered the possible bright spot that all these drips keep the tractor from rusting. Another offered that the tractor was “just marking its territory.”

One Saturday morning, it was again time to attempt starting the tractor. I had the diesel valve at the tank closed and when I opened it, the fuel filters were dripping more than ever. I shut the valve and removed the entire fuel filter assembly so that I could give it a proper cleaning on the bench. When it came time to bleed the filters again, I once more removed the ball and spring from the check valve to allow the diesel to flow freely. This time I had no leaks. All I had to do was put the ball and spring back in and I would be ready to try and start the diesel again. I picked up the spring, which somehow sprung out of my hand where it was sucked into a vortex and ended up in another dimension. I looked everywhere but to this day it remains missing. A five mile trip to the hardware store and 45 cents later, I had a new spring.

As luck and Murphy’s law would have it, now that the diesel engine was ready to start, the pony (which usually started easily) was being bulkier than a donkey with sore hooves. Eventually it started though and after letting him warm up for awhile, I pulled back the decompression and starting engine clutch levers and motored the diesel. I was getting oil pressure and a look around the tractor found no significant leaks. I let go of the decompression lever and listened as the pony labored a bit but kept on turning the diesel. It was now or never, and so with my pulse beating faster, I pushed the throttle lever ahead. Nothing happened for a span of time that seemed like a couple of hours, but was probably closer to 30 seconds. Then it happened—I thought I heard it fire! There it was again! And again! Soon it was running on both cylinders, though the sound of the two big pistons trading places was soon drowned out by the Ode To Joy chorus from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony that was playing in my head. Nothing to do now but shove it in gear and push the clutch lever, and for the first time in at least 30 years, John Deere model “R,” serial number 16754, moved under its own power.