The John Deere Speedster

I don’t know when exactly the idea was hatched for this project, but it had to be at least 15 years ago. I know that Colin Johnson stopping in at our office with pieces of a Case car on his trailer had something to do with it. I also remember seeing a photo of a car-like thing built by an IHC fan with a four cylinder engine off an old combine.

The design went through several variations in my head before I settled on it being something like a model “T” Ford Speedster. Let’s face it—doing this with almost any brand other than John Deere would have been much easier. I have no training in welding, metal working, machining, body work or engineering, but since I have a welder, cutting torch and coffee can full of dull drill bits, I decided to give it a try anyway.

This photo was taken on March 5th of 2019. As you can see, I had a lot of work to do to get it done by June 13th.

The starting point was going to be a Ford model “T” chassis that had once been my grandfather’s but had spent about the last 70 years being used as a running gear for various trailers. Since I wanted as much of the machine to be Deere parts as possible and I wanted it to be technology from about the 1920s or ’30s, I was limited in my engine choices. Of course, a “D” or “GP” engine wasn’t going to work. I considered a four cylinder engine from a 45 combine, but it’s a little too new for what I’m going for and adapting a clutch to it was going to be a problem, so I ultimately chose an “LUC” engine. They are small, a flathead and use a magneto. I was a little worried about the horsepower, but since a Ford “T” only had about 20 horsepower, I figured I was pretty close.

After some inspection, I realized that the old Ford “T” axles weren’t going to do it. The rear differential had been hacked up some and you know model “Ts” only had a parking brake in the rear axle; regular braking was done in the transmission. Even so, there was no way a model “T” rear axle was going to work. I’m not sure that you could hook one up to any non-T transmission and I couldn’t use a “T” transmission because the “T” engines and transmission share the same oil. I can’t imagine how that could work with an “LUC.”

The front axle—well, have you ever looked at the steering system on a model “T” front axle? They are kind of a rack and pinion system without the rack or pinion. I think they are actually called “cross steering.” I didn’t see how I was going to make that work for what I had planned. So I bought a model “A” Ford front and rear axle and three speed transmission. This decision would come back to haunt me a bit later, but I eagerly plunged forward. I installed the Ford “A” parts on the “T” frame, which was actually pretty easy and hung the “LUC” engine and a “GP” radiator on the front. Only problem was the engine was not connected to the transmission. Fortunately, my friend, Lyle, worked at a machine shop at the time and is a very good weldor, so I conned him into working on the project. After a few months of work in his spare time, I got the project back with an adapter built that connected the clutch and the transmission. All I needed to do now was hook up the steering, brake clutch and accelerator pedals, replace the brakes on the rear axle, fabricate seats, a body and a few hundred other things and I would be done.

To my chagrin I found that the threads were stripped on the front radiator plug. Fortunately, a wine bottle cork fits perfectly. 

As is often the case, life got in the way and the speedster moved from my machine shed to my shop, where I would work on it for a few hours and then move it back to the shed again to get it out of the way. This went on for roughly 10 years. Finally, in the summer of 2018, mostly inspired by the thought of driving it around at the Classic Green Reunion, I began to work on it again. I mounted a steering column from an “L.” To my pleasant surprise, the balls on the drag links of a Ford “A” and John Deere “L” are the same size. I installed a brake and clutch pedal, which are both brake pedals from a late “A.” The accelerator pedal is from a Power Lift. I also installed box seats from a late “A.” This was all a lot more difficult than it sounds. Figuring out where to mount the steering column so that the drag link reaches the front axle and the column clears the hood and makes it to the seat wasn’t easy. Neither was mounting the pedals so that they could be reached properly and their linkages could be hooked up.

At any rate, on September 1, 2018, it was time to take the vehicle on its maiden voyage around the yard. Orville Wright was probably less nervous when he took the controls at Kitty Hawk. I still had no brakes and the only way I had to kill the engine was a piece of wire on the choke, but I was going to give it a try. I had always been worried that the car wasn’t going to have enough power to pull itself, but I soon learned I had a different problem—it was too fast! Not for the road, but if I was going to tool around at tractor shows, it was going to be dangerous and trying to drive it on a trailer would be life threatening.

So, doing something I should have done earlier, I did a search and found out what speed a model “A” runs in first gear and found the answer to be nine miles per hour. Think about driving a late two cylinder in fifth gear wide open through a tractor show. The other problem, which I knew was coming, was that the steering was slow. The “L” steering column was five turns from lock to lock. That’s fine for a tractor going a couple of miles an hour, but not for a car. Fortunately, my Speedway Motors catalog offered a fairly easy fix for that problem.

This little 2:1 steering “quickener” keeps the lock to lock at only 2 1/2 turns.

The “too fast” problem turned out to be a little more complicated. In the beginning, model “A” Fords, even the trucks, had three speed transmissions. Later, Ford offered a four speed with a creeper low. If things were ever easy, I could have replaced the three speed with one of these fours, but the four speed is longer front to back. To make up for this, Ford offered a shallower clutch housing. The trouble is I was using a John Deere “L” clutch housing so that wasn’t going to help. However, Ford also offered what they called a “dual high,” which is actually an underdrive gear box, slightly larger than a gallon jug, and can be installed between the three speed and the drive shaft. Now, I just needed to get the driveshaft shortened, which is more difficult than it sounds since we were dealing with a torque tube rear end and driveshaft. Bryan Koskela shortened the driveshaft and torque tube for me so that the underdrive could be installed. While it is now slower, it still is a little scary in close quarters.

I searched for months to try and find a gas tank from something Deere that would work. The oval tanks used on 40 and 45 combines were the right shape, but too large. I looked at hydraulic reservoirs from later combines but they also offered problems. Finally I punted and bought an eight inch by 30 inch tank from Speedway.

The nice thing about these speedsters is that they represent something a hot rodder would have built from whatever he could find, so the builder pretty much has carte blanche as to what is proper. For the body, I drew up a pattern on a piece of cardboard that held the tank behind the seats and had a small trunk, the lid on which would be a piece of metal from a Deere binder. I constructed it from the wood of a couple of ash trees I had cut down a few years ago and taken to a sawmill. Ash was probably the worst possible wood to use—it’s harder than oak, heavier than lead, takes stain like a piece of plastic and likes to move with varying temperature and weather conditions so much I sometimes wondered if a piece of it was going to jump off the work table. To make it look authentically old, I used finger, sometimes known as “box,” joints on the corners.

The panel that covers the trunk is part of a shield from a grain binder. I searched for a tank from something Deere that would be the right size and look correct, but ended up buying this eight gallon one from Speedway Motors.

The seats are of course basic “ABG” style, though the upholstery is custom. I learned something about these late styled letter series seat frames—they are all different! I don’t think that this is entirely intentional, but somehow in their production, they were left with enough subtle differences to make finding two that are identical nearly impossible. At one time, I had four of them sitting on the floor of my shop and no two were exactly alike.

I bought an old hood from something, I suspect a late model ”T,” at a swap meet years ago because I thought it matched the general shape of the “GP” radiator. It did at the front, but I didn’t like the way it got higher and wider toward the rear. Fortunately, Nick Kruse was able to build a new center section and reuse the curtains. The hood could now be turned 180 degrees and still fit; of course, the louvers would be facing the wrong way. By the way, I used a “GP” radiator because I wanted one on which the filler cap is centered. That kind of limits your choices to a few of the standard tractors.

Do the leather straps that hold down the hood look familiar to any of you horse lovers? That’s right, they are reins.

The hood presented another problem. As you know, the exhaust on an “L” or “LUC” engine points straight out, then an elbow turns it upward. It would have been great if I could have just turned the elbow down, but with the elbow on, it hits the hood. So, a new manifold had to be fabricated. I did this myself because I could find no one who was ready, willing and able to make one for me. You’ll notice that there are no photos of it in this article. That’s because I am an embarrassingly bad weldor, and the end result, while functional looks like something done by a blindfolded chimp. I considered for a time “reversing” the manifold so that the exhaust tubes would go down and the intake up to a downdraft carburetor. I even researched what carb would be best, but soon learned that every one that was about the right CFM needed to have a fuel pump, especially since raising the height of the carburetor from below the intake port to above meant that gas wasn’t going to readily flow from the gas tank by gravity. This new manifold is really the only modification I did to the “LUC” engine.

Looking back, if I had had a real plan when I began, I would have just bought an “LA” to harvest parts from. Instead, I bought an “LUC” engine, “LA” clutch, “LA” steering and starter and generator all separately. I also had to remove the flywheel to add a ring-gear.

The “A” Ford rear axle that I bought from a collector had been lying in the weeds. If I had to do it all over again, I would have bought a better one or hired a Ford expert to rebuild the brakes on this one. I have never liked working on drum brakes and mechanical ones are even worse. I guess you could say that the “A” Ford brakes are something like those on two cylinder Deeres, but they are more complicated because they also include a separate emergency brake band. I spent a lot of time on these brakes, though I did learn a few new things, like “arcing” brake shoes.

We love to sit around and complain about engineers putting this behind that, but when you build something even as simple as this creature, you realize how tough it can be to get everything to fit. When I started to install the fenders, I found that the bracket was supposed to span the seam between the front fender and running board. Oops, I already had the bracket that holds the clutch and brake pedals there. Overall, though, for every problem like this, I probably had five incidents where I got lucky and things worked out despite my lack of planning.

The instrument panel is from a 50, 60 or 70 with white face reproduction gauges. I found a speedometer at Speedway that looks more or less similar. Its 140 MPH max is optimistic, by a factor of at least three. Mathematically, given the max RPM of the “LUC” engine, diameter of the wheels and the model Ford rear end’s 3.78 ratio, this thing could conceivably spool up to 45 MPH. No way I’m going to try going that fast; after all, I know who built it.

The dash is mostly standard Deere stuff. I was fortunate to find a speedometer that looks like the gauges. I couldn’t figure out how to get the 60 switch to turn the lights on and ground out the mag, so I added a key switch. How does the key switch ground out the mag? Sometimes left is “on”. The “B” clutch lever is for a parking brake. 

The headlights are reproductions of the seven-inch style used on some early styled tractors and the taillights are repros of those used on some late styled letter series tractors. No rare original parts were harmed in the making of this vehicle.

The fenders are fiberglass reproductions for a 1923 model “T” Ford. I debated whether or not to even install fenders, since they were removed on many speedsters to make them lighter. Not much of an issue here, since these four fenders, running boards and splash shields probably don’t weigh 100 pounds total. See that round windshield in front of the steering wheel? It’s called a “monocle” and is also a reproduction.

How does it drive? At this point, the clutch is sticky, the tranny is grindy and the brakes are nearly non-existent. In order to make driving it at least somewhat safe, I still need to make improvements to the clutch and brake linkages. Believe it or not though, if you put it in first gear and dump the clutch, the little “LUC” engine will spin the rear wheels. Helps to have a heavy flywheel.

My goal was to get the speedster done to exhibit at the Classic Green Reunion and I made it, though as I just mentioned, it still needed some fine-tuning on the brakes, drive train and completion of the electrical system. I spent a ridiculous number of hours on the little beast, probably at least half of them just trying to figure out things like where to install the fender brackets so that they don’t interfere with other parts and how to route the exhaust so that the carb doesn’t suck it right back in again. In my final push to get it done before the reunion, my never exactly neat shop began to look like a Harbor Freight store after looters and a herd of buffalo had gone through it. If it wasn’t for Carol, our yard would have looked like the place was abandoned.

I’m not sure that I will ever consider it finished, but I got it close enough to present it to the public the Sunday before the Classic Green Reunion. The next day, I winched it on the trailer and shoved it off in a shed on the far end of the Fonner Park grounds where some early arrivals were being stored. On Tuesday, I asked Jarrett Yelken if he was ready for a dangerous top secret mission and, being the young whipper-snapper that he is, he agreed. We drove my pickup to the building, got it started and I ground it into gear and headed for the big Pinnacle building, with Jarrett driving my pickup behind me, ready to give me a tow or pick up any pieces that might fall off or pieces of me if anyone pulled out in front of me on the half-mile drive. Fortunately, I made it without incident and the speedster spent the next four days sitting near our table.

I’ve always said that it’s better to be lucky than smart. I just guessed and took three leaves out of the front and rear springs because I wanted it to sit lower than a stock model “T” . At the time I did it, I didn’t even have the body on it or any idea how much it would weigh. I got lucky and am happy with the result.



A few have asked me what my next project is and I start to think about how all the lessons I’ve learned on this one would make another one so much easier and I begin to wonder how one would look painted yellow with green wheels sitting beside this one. I just pray that no one comes up to me and says, “Hey, I’ve got an HA-92 engine that would be perfect for your next speedster.”