By Benjamin Hain
March 2015 Green Magazine
Deere and Company President Charles Deere Wiman rejoined the military in 1942 to fight for his country in World War II. Before leaving, Wiman encouraged the company’s engineers to continue to research and develop the tractor line. He reasoned that, even if the improvements to the line had to wait until the war was over, the time would not have been wasted. Deere could use those improvements to make a leap forward after the war, just as soon as it was possible. That research would pay dividends, it was reasoned, when the anticipated postwar boom came around.
Wiman’s advice came out of experience. He had been among the group of men who voted to continue work on the model “D” while the Depression made it look as though Deere’s tractor business was nearing its end. Wiman also pushed for the development of the “GP,” even though he was unsure of the success of the three row concept. Later, when the “GP” failed to be a strong seller, he advised that the “A” and “B” tractors should be developed, regardless of the fact that Deere and Company was caught in the grips of the Great Depression.
Overall, Wiman’s experience with Deere had taught him that research and development was a key to the success of his company. Even when a project turned out to be a failure, there were always lessons to be taken from it. Often, too, various aspects of the project were small successes of their own and could be later utilized in other projects. Simply put, development was important almost as much for its failures as it was for its successes and it was just as important in good times as it was in bad.
C.D. Wiman was appointed to the War Production Board as the director of the Farm Machinery and Equipment Division in 1944. He was placed on inactive duty by the military to perform his duties on the War Production Board and rejoined Deere and Company that same year.
The War Production Board was in charge of accelerating American production of military products. Various factories were converted from their normal output to something benefiting the war. Parachutes were built at silk factories and machine guns were made in typewriter plants, for instance. It was decided that agricultural goods were a necessity to keep the country running, so Deere continued to build tractors through the war, but no significant alterations to the machines could be made, save for those necessitated by the material shortages that the war caused. It was, therefore, not until after World War II that Deere could equip its tractors with the new advancements discovered by its research staff.
Stimulated by the engineers’ developments and excited by the end of the war and the demand following it, Deere began to put the pieces for a new model “A” tractor together in 1945. Work began with six experimental tractors.
The biggest change for the new “A” was to be in its engine. After more than two decades of building and selling tractors that burned cheap distillate fuels efficiently, Deere was making the switch to gasoline. Simply put, the time for the switch had come. World War II brought several advancements in the field of distilling petroleum and now more gasoline was available from each barrel of oil than ever before. This caused the price of gasoline to come down. Some states were beginning to rebate gasoline taxes when the fuel was used for agricultural purposes, lowering the working cost of the fuel even more. Gasoline also has a higher octane rating than distillate fuels, meaning that more power could be made at the same compression ratios—a fact that could not be ignored.
Deere looked at all of these circumstances and decided that the new “A” would utilize an engine that was designed to burn gasoline. While the ability to burn distillate had been a selling point for Deere’s dealers up to this point, it was becoming less of a concern among buyers and so burning gasoline would put them on an even playing field with other brands. Upgrading the “A” to run on gasoline meant that it would be able to put out about the same amount of power as the heavier and more expensive “G.” It was not likely to be a tough sell to the public to make them understand why Deere was now wholly supportive of gasoline as a farm fuel. Those resolute proponents of distillate fuels would be happy to learn that Deere continued to offer the “A” with an all-fuel engine, though it didn’t manage the same amount of horsepower that the gasoline “A” did.
The new “A” utilized a “cyclone” combustion chamber. This special chamber, dreamed up by Deere engineers, had an “eyebrow” next to each intake valve. These eyebrows created a swirl in the incoming fuel and air mixture, which mixed the charge more completely and resulted in more complete and even combustion. A new DLTX-71 carburetor, higher compression pistons and a new manifold completed the gas-burning package, and created an engine for the “A” that could produce almost 40 horsepower. In terms of horsepower, this brought the “A” nearly even with the “G” and a strong competitor to Deere’s biggest competition, the Farmall “M.”
The increase in power put the “A” squarely in the middle of the three plow class. The Farmall “M” had been dominating the three plow market and Deere’s “G” had failed to put much pressure on the red machine. While the “G” was the stouter machine and would have pulled an “M” apart one-on-one, people liked the lower price of the Farmall and its ability to burn gasoline. The “A” was a new face in the market and was much more direct competition for the Farmall.
To get the engine turning over, Deere felt the need to employ a new electric starting system. The options of electric starting and lighting had become so popular that Deere made the decision to turn the options into standard equipment for the new “A.” The six volt electrical system in the older tractors was sometimes criticized for a lack of power, causing slow starts. Furthermore, the starter and many of the electrical components were exposed to the weather, causing any number of service problems and generally poor reliability.
The starter was relocated to the bottom of the main case, where it was built into its own sealed compartment. This dramatically improved the reliability of the system. Its new location also made it possible to enclose the flywheel, which was safer for the operator and was better looking. Furthermore, the flywheel bolts could be exposed, allowing for the adoption of a more robust part that was also easier to service.
The higher compression ratio in the gasoline engines was going to tax the starting system significantly more than the all-fuel engine did, so an upgrade from the six volt system was going to be a necessity. Battery technology of the time was not yet developed enough to produce the amperage needed to turn over the engine at the required speed, so a pair of six volt batteries were required. There was not room to put these batteries under the hood, so a new solution was necessary.
This was one conundrum that was solved by Henry Dreyfuss and Associates. Dreyfuss had been increasingly involved with Deere’s products ever since he was first asked to style the Deere line in 1939. One of his personal annoyances was the pressed steel seat seen on nearly all farm tractors. Through testing, it was determined by Dreyfuss that a foam cushion seat with a padded backrest, even without a suspension, was more comfortable than a steel pan sitting atop a suspension system. It was quickly realized that a pair of batteries would fit very nicely into a box that served as the mounting for the seat. Just like that, two problems were solved.
Dreyfuss and Associates also created a new front end support for the “A.” Rather than a cast iron or fabricated steel support, a pressed steel support was used. The new part contained more mounting holes for the expanding line of mounted equipment. The pressed steel support also looked modern and kept the spark plugs out of the elements. While the support was initially expected to be stronger than a cast iron type, years of fieldwork proved that to not be the case.
Another new feature of the “A” was the Roll-O-Matic narrow front end. The Roll-O-Matic was a type of suspension system for tricycle tractors and it made driving in any uneven or soft ground much easier. The Roll-O-Matic front wheels had some flex and could shift up and down a couple of inches. This eased the strain on the operator and was gentler on the tractor, as well. The Roll-O-Matic was so well received that it remained on the Deere options list for more than 30 years after its introduction, phasing out only when tricycle tractors had become a thing of the past.
Development of the new “A” took the better part of two years, but the new tractors were ready for the assembly line in early 1947. Pent-up demand for new tractors during the postwar era made the transition to the new models take a little longer than it normally would have, however, because Deere had to keep the line running until outstanding orders had been filled. The “B,” which had been redesigned as well, had beaten the “A” to the market and was extremely popular. Deere began building the new “A” just as soon as it could and the first, serial number 584000, showed up on March 31, 1947.
When the new model “A” arrived, a few items were deleted from the options list. The uncommonly requested high and low speed transmission options were eliminated, for instance, and electric starting and lighting were now standard equipment. The special “ANH” and “AWH” models were dropped from the lineup because of poor sales, though special wheel equipment could produce a tractor with the same general specifications that these had. All of these changes made for more uniformity in the tractors coming down the assembly line, meaning that the line could be run faster than ever before. Considering the high demand, this was certainly a good thing.
The “A” had a short list of wheel options available to it. Rear tires came in the size of 11-38 inches only, but pressed steel or heavy cast rear wheels were both obtainable. Front wheels of 5.50-16 inch could be had on either the solid front end or the new Roll-O-Matic. Steel wheel options were also available to the “A,” but were becoming increasingly uncommon.
One more new piece of equipment for the model “A” was the Powr-Trol. The Powr-Trol was the first hydraulic system industry-wide that was capable of precision positioning of the rockshaft and operating a remote cylinder. Powr-Trol was available for $149 and was so popular that the Waterloo factory could not build it fast enough to keep up with demand. Deere was forced to offer farmers a discount on their Powr-Trol unit if they would accept a tractor without it for the time being; Deere would furnish the Powr-Trol just as soon as possible. Deere also offered kits that provided selective operation to older Power Lift units. While an improvement, hydraulic systems utilizing these kits were not quite as capable as those with the Powr-Trol.
The new “A” was an immediate success and sales of the tractor took off. Soon, the “A” had become so popular that Deere was building more of the tractor than they were of the model “B,” which had been the company’s sales leader since 1939. While the tractors in the field were doing very well, a few reports were coming back to Deere pointing out places where there was room for improvement.
The first complaint came from owners who were smitten with envy when they saw the single stick transmission and creeper gear on the model “B.” The creeper gear would have been quite advantageous when a power hungry PTO-driven machine was being used with the “A.” Some owners wanted to be able to change their front end equipment, using a narrow front one day and a wide front another. Deere had developed and incorporated a two-piece pedestal for the “AN” and “AW” tractors, so why not put it on the tricycle, as well? Finally, a few reports of engine failures due to cracks in the cylinder block or head were coming back to Deere.
It was time to make a few improvements to the “A” and an improved version of the tractor was released in November of 1949, during the middle of the 1950 model year and beginning with serial number 648000. The new tractor had a single stick transmission with a “creeper” first gear, just as its customers had requested. Revised castings for the cylinder block and head were meant to eliminate the cracking issues. The two piece pedestal was a new option for the “A” and was available with the solid narrow front, Roll-O-Matic, wide adjustable or single front wheel. Deere considered these changes so substantial that it changed the product code for the tractors.
Not long after those changes, another was made, changing the rear axle housing of the “A” from the round version to a new “square” type. This alteration was made at serial number 650764. The square housing fit well with the new “clamshell” type fenders. Adapter brackets to put these fenders on the older housing were also manufactured.
At serial number 659290, Deere opened up the option of a distributor ignition. This came with a Wico XD distributor. The distributor looked like the X magneto that’s place had been taken. Unfortunately, the distributor did not work very well in the field. The option made the tractor easy to use and was popular though, so Deere began using a Delco-Remy distributor and made distributor ignition standard equipment at serial number 662874. Magneto ignition was sent to the options list as a no cost alternative.
Under heavy loads, the “A” could burn almost three gallons of gasoline per hour. With only a 14 gallon fuel tank, the operator was forced to stop and refill the tractor a couple of times a day. A minor annoyance, perhaps, but time stopped to refuel meant daylight wasted—a precious commodity. The first solution for this problem was to add the all-fuel tractor’s starting tank as an auxiliary fuel tank. This was a very easy solution, offering a bit more time between fill-ups and assuring that the tractor could make it through at least a half-day’s work on one fill. Tractors from serial number 655572 through 666728 were equipped this way, making them a bit more difficult to distinguish from an all-fuel tractor. An 18 gallon fuel tank was created and adopted at serial number 666729 and conversion parts were offered for older tractors.
While the “A” could be adapted to fit the needs of most vegetable, beet, bean and specialty crop growers, Deere did not want to leave the extra high clearance market unchecked and allow IHC and the other manufacturers to do as they pleased in it. Instead, Deere decided to go head to head with its red competitor by releasing a tractor of its own for cane farmers and other people who needed lots of room under their tractors. Deere knew from the beginning that such a tractor would never be a big seller, but allowing the Farmall “MV” to go unchecked was considered unacceptable.
Deere looked to the “A” for this job and, beginning in the late 1940s, launched a plan to create an “A” Hi-Crop. The test tractors were primarily evaluated in the sugar cane regions of Louisiana, an area with conditions so severe that many machines had met their fate there in the past. Deere reckoned that if its new tractor was built to work in those conditions, it would have no trouble in other areas. Deere adapted the “G” to Hi-Crop service at the same time and the front and rear end assemblies were shared between the two tractors, with only the machining distinguishing one from the other.
The “AH” was released in July of 1950 at serial number 665000. Equipped with 7.50-20 inch front wheels and 11-38, 12-38 or 12-38 rice and cane tires at the rear, the “AH” boasted 33 inches of clearance under the axles. Both front and rear tread widths were adjustable in six inch increments, from a minimum of 60 inches to a maximum of 84 inches in the front and 90 in the rear. The “AH” was buoyed by the popularity and success that the “A” had garnered over the last 16 years and it sold well, considering the nominal market that was there for it. With 427 of the “Famous Model ‘A’ on Stilts” sold through its production, the “AH” holds the title as the most successful two cylinder Hi-Crop tractor Deere sold.
Born out of World War II, the late model “A” would see the effects of another war before its production was through, as the Korean War brought material shortages to Deere. Copper was required by the war effort, so Deere was forced to make its radiator cores out of steel. Steel is not as efficient of a heat conductor as is copper, so a water pump had to be added to the tractor to ensure that the machine could keep its temperature down. Adding a water pump required a change to the front end support to house the pump and revised lower water pipe. Most likely, none of this was of great concern to Deere, as the Thermo-Siphon system was already stretched near to its capacity. This change occurred at serial number 700200 and prompted Deere to create kits to convert Thermo-Siphon-equipped machines to utilize a water pump, as some of those working in hot conditions found that they could use a little more cooling power. The tractor’s gauges were also changed at this point from “white face” to “black face,” though a few white gauges may have slipped out on tractors after this point.
In five years of production, nearly 118,000 of the late “A” tractors were built, making it easily the best seller of the series. If Deere wanted to put a dent in the sales of the Farmall “M,” it had found a tractor that could do it. While the Farmall sold more than the “A” over the same period, the Farmall surely would have sold many more if had not been for the improved late model “A.”
The late model “A” became the show ground for the many advancements in technology that were made by Deere researchers and engineers as they worked during World War II. The Deere philosophy of continually searching for ways to improve its product, whether in good times or bad that was continually pushed by C.D. Wiman, proved itself time and again in the marketplace, bringing Deere to, and keeping it at, the forefront of the industry.
The good news now is that, because of the fact that so many of these tractors were built, they are quite easy to find and get a hold of, should you want to add one to your collection. Of course, if you have a mind to find an all-fuel tractor or an “AH,” things will become more difficult. No matter the tractor, though, the restoration of an “A” is fairly straightforward and relatively affordable…inasmuch as tractor restoration can be. Promise, though, that you will be careful if you have a tractor with an early, uncracked block. Be sure to tighten the bolts holding the block to the main case carefully and evenly or you will soon have a tractor with an early, cracked block.
Collectors will decide what their favorite era of the model “A” was, but in terms of ability and function, these late “A” tractors were certainly the best. Add the fact that they are basically the quintessential John Deere tractor and it becomes quite difficult to find a reason not to want one.