John Deere’s Lost Models

Every company has its ups and downs. Typically speaking, a company that has more successes than failures will prosper and one with a ratio leaning the opposite direction will fail. Deere and Company has certainly had a considerable number of stunning triumphs, the result of which is the prosperous company that continues to reign at the top of its industry, but even Deere did not get to where it is now without a few setbacks.

Over the years, Deere’s engineers were tasked with developing new designs and with looking to the future to create machines that farmers would want to use and with state-of-the-art features that would help to make a John Deere tractor operator a more prosperous farmer. Most of the time, Deere’s engineers developed exactly what the farmer wanted, even if he himself did not know it yet. Occasionally, though, these men stumbled or their ideas were just a bit too far-fetched and sometimes they were just the wrong machine at the wrong time. This is the story of the John Deere tractors that were created but never quite got the traction required to go into full-scale production. Most of the examples of these tractors were lost over time, but a few are still around, showing the world what could have been and, at times, why they never were.

When the model “GP” was released in 1928, it was Deere’s first tractor specifically aimed at the row crop market. The tractor was particularly suited for cultivating fields of crops, keeping weeds at bay and maximizing the growth potential of the crops. This was obviously attractive to farmers of the day. Then, much more than today, farmers used varying widths between the plants in their fields. While a certain width might have been custom for a certain crop in one area of the country, another width would have been standard in another area or for another crop. Deere tried to appeal to all of the farmers it could with the “GP,” even producing a narrower version of the tractor specifically for potato farmers. An ideal situation, though, would have been to have one tractor that could do any of the work, with tread width adjustable to the situation or the field at hand.

Sometime in 1929 or 1930, Theo Brown was tasked with producing a system that would allow simple tread width adjustment on the “GP” without the use of tools, axle swapping or other extraneous parts. What Brown developed was made into at least one, but probably as many as three prototype tractors based upon a “GP” Wide-Tread. These tractors had telescoping driveshafts leading from the tractor’s transmission housing to the final drives at the wheels. Support shafts above the driveshafts were notched. To adjust the tread of the tractor in or out, a ratchet system attached to the power lift on the “GP” was employed while running the tractor along the ground. The driveshafts simply expanded or contracted as was necessary while the ratchet system moved the support shafts.

This was not the only unique feature of the tractor, though. This “GP” also had cable steering. The front wheels could be released from the steering wheel and allowed to free wheel, allowing the driver to make extra sharp turns at the end of rows using only the wheel brakes. Also, the U-shaped drawbar was split due to the fact that it was attached to the final drive housings, which could be moved independently of each other.

Perhaps the tractors performed poorly in testing. Perhaps they were too expensive to manufacture and Deere feared that the customers that would most benefit from the system would not be willing to pay for it. Perhaps the oncoming model “A” and the adjustable tread system used in it shut down the “GP” program. Whatever the reason, the adjustable tread “GP” project was scrapped. Somehow, though, at least one of the test tractors was not. That tractor currently resides with a very lucky collector.

Deere’s model “D” tractor was an obvious success as it was, but Deere was not unwilling to experiment with the tractor to try to improve upon it or increase its appeal. In the early 1930s, Deere did tests with the tractor to assess its effectiveness on tracks. A few approaches were looked at. Deere considered building its own tracks for the tractors; it also looked to the Lindeman Power Equipment Company to convert the “D” into a crawler for them. Another bit of experimentation was done with the idea of building the “D” as a half-track machine. After some testing with these tractors, though, all of the programs were aborted. Apparently, the slippage and traction of the model “D” tractors equipped with tracks was not much improved (if at all) over that of tractors fitted with rubber tires. These tractors were primarily aimed at the agricultural market. While none of these tractors is known to exist any longer, at least one tractor that is believed to have once been equipped as an experimental half-track is still around, now on four steel wheels.

The John Deere model “L” was, by design, a tractor with a limited audience. The tractor was aimed at those farmers who were still using draft animals on their farm and was an “entry-level” tractor for small farms. Despite its small market, Deere looked into creating a version of the model “L” that would appeal to an even more specific crowd. Creating a tractor that was a sort of mix between the model “L” and a “GPWT,” Deere came up with the experimental “LW.” This tractor would have been of the tricycle type and would have had a wider rear tread. At least one experimental version of this tractor was built out of a model “L” in 1938, but when Deere narrowed its company focus during World War II, the “LW” was set aside and never resumed. This experimental tractor was apparently destroyed long ago.

In 1941, Deere began considering a project that would have taken its tractors in an entirely different direction. Based primarily upon the model “L,” the 101 was a tractor that was designed with primary interest in the operator’s safety and his ability to see the field around him.

Initially, this project utilized the chassis of a model “LA” tractor and the engine and transmission of a model “H.” This setup proved to be unsuitable for the task at hand, however and was quickly dropped. Soon after that, a more successful prototype was built using the chassis from the predecessor to the model “L,” the model “Y.” The engineers put the engine from an “LA” onto this chassis but positioned it as far toward the aft of the tractor as they could and put the radiator behind it. In this way, the seat could be placed over the motor, leaving practically nothing but the steering wheel between the operator and the field in front of him. The wheelbase of the tractor was lengthened by 12 inches. This change meant that front mounted equipment would be positioned a bit farther forward and more in the view of the operator.

When a third version of this tractor, similar to the second but powered by a 15 horsepower Wisconsin engine, was completed and evaluated in the field in 1944, the Deere executives present felt that it made a good candidate for production. The 101 progressed so far as to gain sheet metal styled by Henry Dreyfuss. However, the 101 was never actually put into production. At this point in time, sales of the model “L” and “LA” were still strong, but the model “M,” which was evaluated at the same time as the 101, was slotted to take its place. The decline of the small farm for which a one row tractor would be useful probably helped to bring about the decision to never actually produce the 101.

Despite that fact, Theo Brown, the mind behind the 101 and a strong proponent of the idea in general, continued working on the project. Charles Wiman gave Brown his full support. What Brown came up with was another pair of tractors, the 102 and 202. The 102 was a two row version of the 101 but sported a tricycle front end. The 202 had a wide front. Each of these tractors had a very narrow body that could easily fit between rows rather than having to go over the crops. The benefit of this was that the tractors had a very low center of gravity, allowing the operator to enjoy a stable platform and making the tractor a safer machine.

Experimentation with these tractors lasted until at least 1950, but none of them was ever released. Despite that, one model 101 tractor escaped Deere’s clutches and the scrap heap and is owned by a private collector.

The compact model “M” made a great tractor for people needing power for their small farm or in detail work. As such, it seemed like a great candidate for orchard farmers. The problem with the “M,” though, was that it was a little too tall for work between and under trees. Deere’s “MI” tractor, an “M” with the final drives rotated 90 degrees forward and with other parts adjusted to fit, did not cut it for many farmers. While the shorter wheelbase made these tractors more maneuverable, it also made them prone to rearing up in hills or when pulling heavy loads. One enterprising dealer took it upon himself, though, to build an “M” with the final drives rotated 90 degrees to the rear. This change lowered the tractor and made it significantly more stable. The dealer also fashioned a three-point hitch and modified about 30 “M” tractors in this way. It is known that Deere was in close contact with the dealer who modified these tractors as they performed very well, especially in comparison to Deere’s own “MI.” Deere may also have experimented with a tractor modified similarly, but never sold one. About six of the dealer-modified tractors, known colloquially as “MO” or “MU” tractors, are still around.

One final tractor is probably the most mythical of the bunch, as there is no hard evidence for its actual existence. The production log books for the model 1010 show one unique tractor. Tractors of various chassis types are designated with letters in the logbooks and one 1010 designated with an “H” is shown. “H” is the designation for a Hi-Crop tractor. Anyone who has spent much time collecting New Generation tractors knows that there was no 1010 Hi-Crop ever in production, so what is the story behind this anomaly? While this could be little more than a typo, it still gives one pause for consideration. The 1010 was built in Dubuque, a factory that seems to have been even more open to custom orders than other Deere factories. The 1010 was also very closely related to the 430, sharing many parts with that tractor. Since there was a 430 Hi-Crop tractor, it is really not that much of a stretch to imagine that Dubuque may have once built a 1010 Hi-Crop out of leftover 430 parts. Put all of this together and there may well have been a 1010 Hi-Crop out in the world somewhere at one point. In fact, it may still be around today, but nobody in the hobby knows about it yet.

There are many John Deere tractors that are extremely common. This is a good thing for the hobby, as it allows anyone who wants to get into it to find a relatively affordable tractor to call their own. If you are one of those who loves the unique and rare tractors or like a good mystery, Deere has some of that for you, too. One of the neatest things about these stories is the fact that some of the examples of what was thought were lost models have been found fairly recently. It is somewhat amazing to think that someone could have one of these tractors rusting away in his barn or that it could be something that is used nearly every day and they have no idea what a rare and historical piece of equipment they have. I guess that it is stories like these that keep some of us in the hobby. Despite how long these tractors have been around and how much of the history we already know about them, new stories come up from time to time and new information is discovered, letting us look at even the oldest tractors in a new light.