The WA-14 and WA-17 must be two of the most overlooked and misunderstood tractors that John Deere ever put the company’s name on. The tractors marked the first time that Deere and Company sold a tractor built entirely by a different company, giving them a history that is all their own.
It is impossible to tell the story of the WA-14 and WA-17 tractors without first explaining a little bit about their manufacturer, FWD-Wagner. The company’s lineage began in 1949 when, after returning from World War II and drawing on inspiration from a machine that he had seen in Europe, Elmer Wagner produced a prototype industrial vehicle. This vehicle had four-wheel drive and was articulated, allowing it to put full power to the ground, even in the hills encountered in the forestry industry around Wagner’s home of Portland, Oregon. From this machine, a number of pieces of successful industrial equipment were built.
Five years later, Elmer Wagner, six of his brothers and J. Burke Long came together and created Wagner Tractor Company, Inc. This company focused on the agricultural market and began its work buoyed by the successes that had been seen with its logging machines. In 1955, Wagner was ready for production. The TR-6, TR-9 and TR-14 tractors made up the company’s line. The smallest tractor, the TR-6, used a 64 horsepower Waukesha engine; the TR-9 held an 85 horsepower Buda and the TR-14 was powered by a 148 horsepower Cummins engine. Later, Cummins engines were adopted for the whole line, as Wagner was most impressed with their reliability.
The key, though, to the Wagner tractors was the patented Pow-R-Flex Coupling. This coupling allowed the articulated joint in the tractor to work; even when the front and rear of the tractor were oscillated by as much as 20 inches, or when the tractor was turning fully, full engine power was still able to get to all four tires, resulting in minimal loss of traction and pulling power.
In 1961, FWD Corporation purchased a majority share of Wagner and the company was renamed FWD-Wagner Incorporated. Over the next few years, three more models were introduced and the rest of the line went through a bit of a facelift. The new tractors were labeled the WA-4, -6, -9, -14, -17 and -24. Power throughout the line was increased significantly and now went from 125 horsepower in the (relatively) small WA-4 to 300 horsepower in the massive WA-24. Also, the tractors were now painted yellow, not orange as before.
When John Deere introduced the 8010 in 1959, it was remarkably similar to a Wagner tractor in many respects. Of course, at that time, the only production articulated four-wheel drive tractors in the world were those made by Wagner and the John Deere 8010, so there were bound to be similarities. Deere was certainly inspired by Wagner. In fact, in 1956, Deere tested a Wagner TR-9 against a modified Case “LA.” Each tractor was attached to a 24-foot chisel plow and sent to work simultaneously in a hilly field in front of Deere President William Hewitt and other representatives of the company. Reportedly, the Wagner and Case performed similarly on the flat ground, but then the driver of the Wagner pointed the nose of his tractor directly up one of the field’s steeper hills, pulling the plow right over the top. When the driver in the Case tried to follow, his tractor lost traction and slid back down the hill. Not long after that, one of Deere’s representatives was taking pictures of the Wagner tractor—pictures that were undoubtedly referenced when Deere’s engineers were developing the 8010.
It is hard to say what Deere expected of the 8010, but the company could not have been happy with its sales. The tractor was put into production in 1960 and 100 were built, but the tractor’s unbelievable price tag of almost $30,000 caused even farmers with huge landholdings to shy away. Several of these farmers had given their vocal support to Deere when the company was considering the project, telling them that they would be buyers for a tractor like Deere was contemplating. But when Deere unveiled the tractor, even those farmers shied away as the cost, which is equivalent to well over $200,000 today, was simply astronomical and the purchase of such a tractor would also basically require the farmer to replace all of his implements with new equipment, sized to match the tractor. The few tractors that were sold developed issues in the field and were recalled and improved, becoming 8020s, costing Deere yet more money and probably annoying many of those customers who had to foot the bill for the beast.
It would take Deere six years to sell all of the 8010/8020 tractors. While Deere was likely soured on four-wheel drive tractors in the process, it could not let that bother for long. When a turbocharger was first equipped on a diesel engine for agricultural use, the game had changed. Suddenly, more horsepower than ever before was attainable and efficiency increased. While this obviously had uses on two-wheel drive tractors, the massive amounts of power now available meant that four-wheel drive tractors were the only realistic means of making use of all of the power. By 1968, Deere was working on plans for a new four-wheel drive tractor, but it was still going to be a few years before it could be brought to market. Other companies were already making inroads into the big tractor market, including those upstarts Steiger and Versatile, and Deere had no interest in sitting on its hands until the new tractor was ready—they had to remain relevant in the market.
Of the companies with an established presence in four-wheel drive tractors, FWD-Wagner was really the only one that Deere could turn to. Steiger and Versatile were both too big and successful to consider selling to John Deere, one of their competitors. A Wagner tractor was also the machine that inspired Deere to dive into the market with the 8010 and was likely what Deere had looked to for inspiration for that tractor, so Wagner was the perfect fit for Deere. Improving its situation, Deere knew that Wagner was willing to go into business with other companies to sell more tractors, having contracted out the WA-4, -14 and -17 to the Minnesota-based Raygo Corporation in the mid 1960s.
On the other hand, Deere had clearly annoyed Wagner with the 8010. FWD-Wagner advertising material of the early 1960s took on the 8010, stating, “Leadership cannot be copied. FWD-Wagner experimentation preceded competition by five years. Competition finally awakened to the fact that FWD-Wagner was right all along. Now some are belatedly trying to copy FWD-Wagner features, but it will be difficult to catch up. Our mistakes are behind us. In product engineering, the company with the head start stays ahead.” Wagner’s frustration with Deere’s mimicry of its tractors may even have brought about patent infringement litigation. While there is no known evidence remaining to support this, it is a widely accepted rumor and one that brings a lot of questions, especially considering the deal that was to follow.
The lineup of FWD-Wagner tractors was freshened up again in 1968, providing a more modern style and slightly improving operator comfort and the function. Primarily, though, the tractors were little changed from their introduction. While Wagner tractors were still profitable, FWD could probably see that they were nearing the end of their salable lifespan.
Just how Deere and Wagner came to an agreement and drew up the contract that gave Deere rights to sell the WA-14 and WA-17 is unknown, leaving people to draw their own conclusions. The most likely scenarios, it seems, are either that Deere and Wagner came to the agreement in order to settle the infringement lawsuit or that Wagner was able to look past its previous disagreement with Deere and saw that this deal was a chance to put a bigger name on its product, brightening the company’s future.
Those are certainly possible reasons for the two companies agreeing to a contract in principle, but reasoning out the fine print makes one scratch his head. On December 31, 1968, Deere and FWD-Wagner signed a contract for as many as 100 tractors, models WA-14 and WA-17, to be built by Wagner and painted, decorated and sold by Deere. Deere was allowed by the contract to cancel it at any time and there was a no-compete clause in the contract, keeping FWD-Wagner from selling any articulated four-wheel drive tractors for five years after the termination of the contract.
Why did FWD-Wagner sign such a one-sided contract? Again, possibly Wagner was just hoping to boost the sales of its tractors. Perhaps FWD-Wagner was planning on liquidating soon anyway, since other companies had passed it in the market and the big boys were making their way into the market. FWD-Wagner had already sold the rights to some of its tractors to Raygo, so maybe they were just trying to get as much as they could out of what they had left. If the lawsuit was real, perhaps this deal was not as one-sided as it appears. The cash terms of the contract are not known, so it is possible that Deere substantially overpaid for these tractors as compensation.
Whatever the final terms were, what Deere got was a pair of massive tractors with a name that was already well established in small grain country. The tractors were component built, as they always had been, but careful selection and experience meant that all parts were particularly reliable. The WA-14 and WA-17 both utilized an 855 cubic inch, six cylinder Cummins diesel engine. The WA-14 put out 225 horsepower at the flywheel with a naturally aspirated version of the engine. The engine in the WA-17 was turbocharged and capable of 280 horsepower. Transmissions in these tractors were the Fuller Roadranger RTO 910 10-speed. FWD supplied the axles and Wagner made the drop boxes and hinges.
The tractors could be equipped with optional cabs, which in turn could have air conditioners and heaters installed. Fifteen or 35 gallon per minute hydraulic pumps with single, dual or triple outlets were available. No three-point was available for the tractors. The WA-14 was equipped with 18.4×34 inch dual wheels or 23.1×30 single or dual wheels and the WA-17 had 28.5×26 inch single tires or 23.1×30 inch duals.
In terms of sales, the WA-14 and WA-17 fared little better than the 8010 had earlier in the decade. At more than $35,000 for the WA-14 and over $41,000 for the WA-17, the tractors cost even more, even adjusting for inflation, than the 8010. Admittedly, they offered more power and had been field proven and refined over the last decade, but the size and type of the Wagner tractors still had a rather limited audience. Other than opening up a field, they had little use in row crop country and the size of the machines made them viable only on very large farms. Nevertheless, Deere managed to sell somewhere between 55 and 65 of the machines.
Another factor that likely made sales of the Wagner tractors a bit sluggish was the simple fact that they were not built by John Deere. Farmers who had grown fond of John Deere and its tractors’ reliability did not want to risk trying out another manufacturer’s tractors. Also, many of Deere’s own sales people probably felt little desire to push the big machines. Built out of so many outsourced truck and industrial parts, servicing the Wagner tractors would have required Deere dealers to order parts from Wagner, Cummins and possibly other companies, making extra work for the servicemen that they simply did not need. There is also evidence that a bearing in the tractors was installed incorrectly, causing quite a bit of vibration. Many of these were corrected, but a test drive with one out of place would probably have turned off most prospective buyers.
The Wagner tractors had two serial numbers. The Deere WA-14s started with a Wagner number of WA-14-902 and Deere number 101. WA-17 tractors were numbered from WA-17-901 and 101. The Wagner serial number appeared on a larger tag that included transmission numbers, an engine number and other information, as well. Deere-sold WA-14 tractors started with number 902 because Raygo sold a single tractor during the 1969 model year before its deal with Deere was struck. WA-14 serial number WA-14-902, or 101, had a four-legged deer logo on the grill. The rest of the tractors had a two-legged deer.
Deere ended its agreement with FWD-Wagner in 1970. As per the contract, FWD-Wagner was not allowed to sell articulated four-wheel drive tractors for five years. This move effectively ended Wagner’s business. Wagner dealers, then, had no tractors to sell. Many of these turned to other brands, some shut their doors, but a few went on to create their own tractors or refit old Wagner tractors. Big Bud and Rite were just two brands to come out of these dealerships.
Deere collectors generally dismiss the Wagner tractors as a pair of machines that were cobbled together out of truck parts and built in Oregon, far from any Deere factory. This is basically true, but the Wagner tractors deserve a bit more credit than that. These tractors were essentially the progenitors of every articulated four-wheel drive agricultural tractor ever produced. They were also built about as ruggedly as a tractor can be. They were produced almost entirely of steel and reliability and durability were the first traits looked for in every part considered for the tractors. Wagner knew, after all, that the tractors were going to be used for thousands of hours, pulling enormous tools that were buried deep in the ground. Many of Wagner’s tractors, including those sold by Deere, are still used daily in the same conditions for which they were built.
What does this mean to the collector? People interested in buying a WA-14 or WA-17 for their collection are in luck, because most of them have survived. The bad news, though, is that most of them are still an integral part of someone’s farm. If you couple that fact with their rarity, these things are simply challenging to acquire. These tractors are not exactly at the top of most collectors’ lists, however. That is really too bad, because even though they may have been purchased from another manufacturer, these machines really are a part of Deere history.