The Unstyled “B”

Deere poured a lot of time and effort into the “GP,” trying to make it a strong competitor to IHC’s Farmall tractor. The “GP” certainly had its merits, but the fact was that there were several problems with it that could not be solved through simple revisions and the Farmall continued to trounce the “GP” in the marketplace, as IHC sold three or four times as many of its tractor as did Deere.

Engineers at Deere began investigating a new plan of attack against the Farmall in the winter of 1931 and 1932. It was initially decided that both a 24 and a 36 horsepower tractor should be built in order to properly compete with IHC, but with the Great Depression deepening, the demand for the higher horsepower tractor lessened, so the engineers focused solely on the 24 horsepower, two plow tractor.

That tractor eventually became the model “A,” and by the spring of 1933, enough of its design had been tested and proven that Deere began to work on another tractor to add to its lineup. IHC’s release of the F-12 in 1932 brought another competing tractor to Deere’s eyes. The company had already decided that building a tractor in the three plow class was not in its best interests, as the demand in that size was not great. Instead, Deere decided to build a tractor that used all of the best elements of its model “A” but that was about two-thirds of the size of that tractor. Having the “A” to base their design upon meant that the engineers didn’t have to spend quite as much time at the drawing table and the first experimental version of the company’s newest tractor was finished in September of 1933.

Deere’s competitor to the IHC F-12 began in the experimental tractor called the “HX.” The “HX” was basically just a copy of the experimental model “A” tractors, but it was reduced in size by about a third. The tractor was an amalgamation of the improvements made to the “GP” and those that the engineers had wished they could make to the “GP.” Testing and evaluation were performed on these machines and development continued into the fall of 1933 and through into the winter of 1934. More changes were made to the tractor during that time and the new experimental machines that were built began to look more and more like the model “B” that they would soon become.

Interestingly, all of the “HX” tractors that have been uncovered in photos lacked the “John Deere” name that was later cast into the front of the radiator tank and the rear axle housing, though that was probably left off either just to make it easier to create the cast for the experimental part or because Deere hadn’t yet decided where to put its brand on the machine. These tractors also all had French and Hecht steering wheels with a triangle hub, which was the same wheel used on the “A” during the 1934 model year.

Development continued on the “HX” during 1934, but it was quickly becoming clear that this machine was a vast improvement over the “GP,” and that it was going to be the strong competitor to the F-12 that Deere needed. The tractor was approved for production in July of that year for initial manufacture beginning in September.

The first tractor did not roll down the line until October 2. Few would consider that a major delay, but you could bet that many at Deere felt that every day lost was a tragedy. The F-12 had already been on the market for two years and each day lost meant another few F-12s sold without competition from Deere. There had to have been a massive collective sigh of relief when Deere finally had a good, solid tractor to place on the market.

Deere advertised the model “B” as the ideal tractor for the smaller row crop farmer. Farmers accustomed to using two teams of four horses were told that this one machine could take the place of all eight of them. Not only could the “B” plow seven acres, disk 35 to 45 acres with a 10 foot single disk, plant 20 to 25 acres with a two row planter or cultivate 35 to 40 acres with a two row cultivator, but it could run any number of implements requiring PTO or belt pulley power and didn’t require half of your farm in feed hay and would take up only one stall in your barn. In fact, the “B” could burn a large number of cheap fuels reliably and economically. Farmers were encouraged to use whatever fuel they could acquire cheaply and count up the savings.

The “B” had an engine measuring 4-1/4 inches in bore and 5-1/4 inches in stroke. The resulting 149 cubic inch engine was spooled up to 1,150 RPM. Four forward speeds of 2.3, 3.3, 4.8 and 6.8 miles per hour were provided by the transmission, along with a single reverse speed.

Deere shipped the sixth “B” built, serial number B-1005, to Lincoln to be tested at the University of Nebraska on November 12, 1934. Testing began late that year but was not finished until the weather warmed up in April of 1935. The “B” produced 16.01 belt horsepower and 11.84 drawbar horsepower. When compared to the F-12, the numbers were quite attractive in favor of the “B.” The F-12 produced 16.2 horsepower at the belt while the “B” produced 16.01. The F-12 managed 10.09 horsepower at the drawbar and the “B” produced 11.84. During the rated drawbar test for each tractor, the F-12 produced 6.27 horsepower hours per gallon while the “B” made 6.39 horsepower hours per gallon. The “B” was producing similar or better results in all of these categories. This would be cause enough for celebration, but looks even better when one realizes that the F-12 was burning gasoline while the “B” was working on cheaper distillate fuel (also called furnace oil). Even if all else was equal, Deere had the better tractor.

No time was wasted before the first variation of Deere model “B” tractor was introduced. Just 43 tractors into production brought the arrival of the first “BN.” The “BN” was created for vegetable growers and could be easily differentiated from a “B” by its single front wheel, which could be had in rubber or steel. This provision allowed the tractors to be used in very narrow rows in which dual front wheels would harm the crops. Deere sold these tractors under the name “B” garden tractor and provided a full line of integral equipment to go with them. A mere 24 of these first generation “BN” tractors were built and sold to farmers in California and Arizona.

Extensive testing had been done to the “B” and to the “A” on which it was largely based, but no amount of testing can provide a company with everything that they need to allow them to foresee every imaginable problem, especially when the tractor is of a brand new design. As such, changes were made to the “B” during its production and these began at serial number B-1510. The first change to the model “B” was in moving the filler on the fuel tank off-center. Having the filler in the middle of the tank made refueling a bit difficult, so this change was made.

The next change to the “B” was made in February of 1935, when the welded steel front end support was replaced by a cast iron support and the steering pedestal was mounted on a casting requiring eight bolts instead of four. It is not known exactly why this change was made, but the upcoming “BW” may have had something to do with it.

The “BW” had a wide adjustable front end. This improved the tractor’s stability, giving farmers in the hills a safer tractor to use and also appealed to farmers who either wanted their front wheels to track in the same place as the front or for those farmers of specialty crops that grew in wide beds that the “BW” could straddle. Twenty-five “BW” tractors were built with setscrews that kept the front axle knees in place. This setup did not perform well, though, and a through-bolt design, that from the “AW,” was used beginning at serial number B-8974.

The variations and specializations to the “B” continued when a group of six tractors were built in the late summer and fall of 1936. Deere called these tractors by the seemingly oxymoronic name of “special narrow ‘BWs’” and sent them all through the experimental department. From there, they were shipped to the San Francisco Sales Branch.

Each special narrow “BW” was equipped with special axle housings in the front and rear that allowed them the tread width to ride as narrow as 40 inches when the tractor was equipped with steel wheels. Rubber tires forced a slightly wider minimum tread width due to the thickness of the wheels themselves. Besides the special axle housings, the tractors were also equipped with the crankshaft, belt pulley, clutch and clutch operating parts from the brand new “BR” and a modified version of the first reduction cover from the “BR.” These parts allowed the tractor to achieve that extra narrow tread width. With wheels, especially steel wheels, so close to the operator, Deere decided that equipping the tractor with special fenders and pedestals to hold them would be mandatory for operator safety, so they were made standard equipment. The rear tread width maxed out at 72 inches and the front reached to 64 inches with seven inch “short” extensions or 72 inches with 13 inch “long” extensions. Many collectors today refer to these machines as the “BW-40” and only half of those six tractors have been recovered to this point, making the machines exceedingly rare.

Modifications and improvements continued to come into the model “B” series. At serial number B-12743, right after the beginning of the 1936 model year, Deere added a heat indicator gauge as regular equipment on the tractor. One would presume that Deere decided that it was better business to spend a bit more on each tractor to keep operators from overtaxing them than to have inattentive operators destroying tractors and blaming it on the company. This also made it easier to keep the tractor operating at the best engine temperature, which was particularly important when working with heavy fuels.

In late 1936 and early 1937, some “B” tractors were equipped with B747R radiator sides. These sides were not drilled for the radiator screen and curtain. The screen was attached on these tractors at the top and bottom of the radiator instead of the sides. Later, at serial number B-34952, the radiator curtain was done away with entirely and replaced by radiator shutters. With shutters, the operator could control the amount of air that was reaching the radiator from the platform rather than having to stop and dismount the tractor, walk to the front, adjust the curtain, walk back to the seat, get back on, continue on his way and hope that the adjustment that he made was exactly right so that he did not have to do it all again. It’s easy to see the benefit of the improved shutter system and kits were furnished for owners of older tractors to purchase to improve their tractor.

The next great change to the whole line of model “B” tractors happened at serial number B-42200, when the front end support was lengthened by five inches. This seemingly small change gave the “B” a wheelbase fundamentally equal to that of the model “A.” To accommodate this, the frame, hood, gas tank intake and exhaust pipes, fanshaft, steering shaft and other parts had to be lengthened, as well. While this change surely improved the stability of the tractor somewhat, it was actually done to allow the “B” to share mounted equipment with the “A” and “G” tractors. Some different mounting brackets were required, but overall the change made life at implement factories and at dealers easier and surely appealed to farmers if they were considering changing tractor sizes but did not want to buy new equipment. These tractors are now often referred to as “long frame model ‘Bs.’” At this same time, another change was made, replacing the closed-loop “plow” drawbar with the regular straight type.

Demand began to come into Deere asking for a high clearance version of the “BN.” The “BN” had been a good enough seller for Deere, insofar, at least, as specialty models are considered, that Deere decided to go ahead and propitiate the farmers who wanted such a tractor by building the “BNH.” The “BNH” provided an extra two inches of clearance by using a 6.50 x 16 inch front tire and 7.50 x 40 inch rear tires and wheels. Drawbar mounting modifications were also necessary to retain the use of implements. The rear tread could be adjusted to a maximum of 104 inches by using offset rear wheels and longer axles, giving yet more stability and the ability to work in even more row configurations. To support the longer rear axles, the rear axle housing was lengthened by 2-7/8 inches on each side and to support the longer reach, the axles were 1/4 inch larger in diameter. These axles had 12 splines. The first of these tractors was built in the early fall of 1937.

A wide version of the “BNH,” unsurprisingly named the “BWH,” was introduced a short time later. The “BWH” included many of the same features as the “BNH” but used front end equipment similar to the “BW-40” tractors. The optional seven or 13 inch extensions from that tractor were used, along with special front axle knees that added three inches of clearance at the front end. Tread widths for the “BWH” ranged from 42-5/8 inches to 80-5/8 inches.

Due to some demand for the tractor, Deere decided to go ahead and build a special narrow version of the “BWH.” This tractor became known as the “BWH-40” and is identifiable by its narrow rear axle equipment that is similar to the “BW-40” mentioned earlier. The “BWH-40” was not built to be quite as narrow as the “BW-40,” its minimum tread width being only 42-5/8 inches. This was narrow enough to again make fenders a necessity, though. The “BWH-40” was built for farmers who grew crops in 20 inch rows on 40 inch beds, but it could also be used for other crop configurations by adjusting the tread out to a maximum of 80 inches. It would be wonderful to know how many of these tractors were built. Unfortunately, Deere did not give these tractors their own product code but instead numbered them along with the “BWH” tractors. It may never be known exactly how many of these were built, nor whether a certain serial number tractor was a “BWH-40” or a regular “BWH.” So far, six “BWH-40” tractors have been found, but more could be around. Given the fact that only 51 “BWH” serial numbers were registered, though, there could not be many of either tractor around.

The model “B” sold very well and certainly provided a strong competitor against the F-12. The “A” remained Deere’s sales leader, though, and the unstyled “B” never did surpass the F-12 in sales. Between its introduction and the end of the 1938 model year, Deere built and sold 57,040 tractors of the “B” series and nearly 98 percent of those were tricycle row crops. These tractors were sent to all corners of the United States and into many parts of Canada, so if you’re looking for one, you probably won’t have to go too far.

Looking for one of the specialty tractors is a little more difficult, largely because so few were built. Most of them were sent to beet and bean growing areas or to places where vegetable production was paramount. Of course, it has been years since any of those tractors was used for its originally intended purpose, so most of them have been moved from there to wherever the collector who acquired it decided to keep it. It’s always possible that there could be a barn find out there waiting to be uncovered, but don’t bet the farm on that.

There were not a lot of options available to these tractors when they were built, but there was a good amount of wheel equipment to choose from when you purchased your John Deere “B.” Standard equipment was flat steel rear wheels and steel front wheels with guide bands. Four or five inch regular or heavy duty spade lugs and sand, button or cone specialty lugs were available to be equipped to the wheels. Skeleton style rear wheels were also available for those with sticky soil and Deere released “tip-toe” style rear steel in 1937, but very few of these were made.

Those at the forefront of technology could opt for rubber tires on their “B.” Deere made these available right from the beginning of the tractor’s production. Round spoke front wheels were used up until serial number B-29630 followed by pressed steel front wheels. The spoke type AB375R rear wheels were used with rubber tires until late 1936, when a cast iron wheel with a demountable rim, part B695R, was also available.

Deere was willing to sell you a model “B” with all steel, all rubber, steel fronts and rubber on the rear or rubber on the front and steel on the rear. The company would also provide to you a tractor with no wheels whatsoever, and many tractors can be found with aftermarket wheels made by companies such as Kay Brunner, French and Hecht or others. Flat spoke wheels were never installed on an unstyled “B” from the factory, yet it is not uncommon to find Deere flat spoke wheels on an unstyled “B.” The reason for this is that Deere began selling flat spoke wheels in the mid-1940s so that farmers could replace their steel wheels with rubber. The specialty versions of the “B” used the same wheel equipment as the tricycle tractor, but the “BNH,” “BWH” and “BWH-40” had rubber tires as standard equipment.

Taking a look through the unstyled tractors at a tractor show will likely leave you wondering whether Deere had any standardization as to the type and location of the silkscreen decals on their tractors. Unfortunately, many of these old machines have had a wonderful restoration done but was then marred by poor research or the wrong decals. The earliest “B” tractors listed the model designation on the back of the gasoline tank and the silk screen on the hood included a leaping deer between the words “John” and “Deere.” In May or June of 1935, the model designation was moved to the seat channel, where it should appear the right way up to an observer looking at it from the pulley side of the tractor. At the same time, the leaping deer was removed from the hood sides. The exact date for this change is unknown, but June 1, 1935 or serial number B-6000 is a good guess.

It seems to me that the older the tractor, the more tough and dependable it was. I suppose the simplicity of the machine kept it running properly for so long. The more parts you add to a tractor, the more parts there are that can break. The “B” is certainly no exception and these old machines have surprised more than one person by sitting for years and firing back up after just a little bit of maintenance.

The “B” would go on to be Deere’s most popular tractor ever and this early version of the tractor can take a lot of the credit for having launched the line and forging the way.