Industrial Designers Transform Tractor Industry

Birth of the industrial designer signals the rise of tractor design.

oliver

The 1935 Oliver Model 70 kicked off the styling trend in American tractors. While undeniably attractive, the styling was impractical and probably increased the cost of manufacture. Elaborate louvered side panels were in vogue for a few years and then discarded. The nifty middle-buster plow hood ornament was only used until the 1938 model year. The ornament is highly valued by collectors today.

Photo by Andrew Morland

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Most all tractor aficionados, especially those leaning toward the John Deere line, have heard the story (most likely fiction) of a Deere & Co. engineer showing up unannounced in the New York offices of industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. The engineer was said to have been wearing a fur coat and a straw hat.

The year was 1937; his mission was to engage Dreyfuss’ services in applying styling techniques to Deere’s Model A and B tractors. According to urban legend, the engineer’s attire so impressed the noted designer with the state of sophistication in the Midwest that Dreyfuss left for Waterloo with the Deere engineer that same day.

Whether the story is true or not, in the mid-1930s a design revolution was taking place, perhaps spurred by renewed optimism over an improving economy. Manufacturers had begun to recognize that styling and product differentiation had a positive effect on sales. Pleasing aesthetic proportions were in vogue in everything from trucks to telephones, railroad locomotives to electric switch boxes.

Up until the 1930s, tractors were considered strictly utilitarian; appearance was almost superfluous. Most cars in the early part of the century looked alike: boxy with clam fenders, 4-cylinder engines and exposed radiators. By the mid-1930s, though, styling became individualistic. Six, 8-, 12- and even 16-cylinder engines replaced 4-cylinder engines, and radiators were hidden behind elaborate grilles.

Oliver Farm Equipment Co. caught the mood of the automobile industry and incorporated a grille in the design of its 1935 Model 70. Soon other tractor makers, including Deere, were looking into the benefits of styling. Some even sought the help of a new breed of consultant emerging at that time: the industrial designer.

Creating the science of design

From the industrial designer’s perspective, markets did not simply exist: They had to be created. Potential buyers’ attitudes had to be shaped. Elaborate advertising campaigns greased the rails, persuading buyers that a stylish new product would meet their needs.

General Motors took the first step in 1927. Under the leadership of Harley Earl, among this country’s first industrial designers, the company established its Art and Color Section.

While automakers staffed in-house design departments, the tractor industry, for the most part, relied on freelance design firms. Although Oliver engineers branched into design – developing a grille, louvered side panels, a trademarked paint scheme and a spiffy hood ornament – that was the exception. More common was the kind of relationship built between Deere and Dreyfuss.

Playing to the audience

Henry Dreyfuss was born in 1904 to immigrant parents in Brooklyn, New York. He studied at the Ethical Culture School in New York before becoming apprenticed to legendary Broadway stage designer Norman Bel Geddes in 1923. While working in Geddes’ office, Dreyfuss concentrated on designing costumes, sets and lighting for New York City’s Strand Theater.

Dreyfuss later compared his theater job to industrial design, noting that both involved carrying ideas through and dealing with people diplomatically. In design, he said, the producer and director were like the president of a client firm, while the carpenters, electricians and musicians could have been the firm’s engineers.

Whether on stage or in industry, the designer faced rigid schedules and deadlines, and the final determining factor of success was audience approval, whether in the form of applause at the conclusion of a performance, or in product sales.

More than cosmetics

Dreyfuss established his own design group, Henry Dreyfuss Associates, in 1929. There, the maxim that “form follows function” became his guiding principle. Ergonomics and safety took precedence over aesthetics. As a result, many of his commercial products – such as the round thermostat – remain in use today and are examples of timeless design.

Other notable Dreyfuss designs include the original cradle telephone, followed by Trimline and Princess models; the Westclox Big Ben clock, an American steamship (the S.S. Constitution), Eversharp pens and the Royal typewriter.

Within a month of Dreyfuss’ arrival in Waterloo, he had completed a wooden mock-up of a new version of Deere’s Model B. The functional beauty impressed Deere management. This was more than the mere addition of a radiator grille; the changes in appearance were indeed functional. The new slim hood enhanced cultivator visibility, and the grille protected the fan and radiator from collecting debris.

Loewy leaves his mark on IH line

At almost the same time Deere and Dreyfuss teamed up, International Harvester engaged the services of noted industrial designer Raymond Loewy. Loewy was commissioned to overhaul Harvester’s entire product line, from the company’s logo to the Metro delivery van. Loewy was the father of both the 1939 red Farmall, which remains strikingly beautiful even today, and the iconic “man on a tractor” IH trademark symbol.

Besides his International Harvester work, Loewy contributed several other remarkable styling feats, including the livery of Air Force One, the pinched-waist Coke bottle, Studebaker cars (including the Starliner and Golden Hawk) and the interior of Howard Hughes’ 4-engine Boeing Stratoliner airplane.

Providing a new look for Ford

Eugene Turenne “Bob” Gregorie (pronounced Gregree) began working with Ford Motor Co. in 1930. A designer of yachts in Florida when he came to Edsel Ford’s attention, Gregorie went on to have a profound impact on the Ford look. He and Edsel Ford worked closely together on design of Ford cars, trucks and tractors.

When Edsel Ford died in 1943, Gregorie lost his benefactor and he returned to yachts. But in 1946, Henry Ford II persuaded him to return. In that phase of his career, he was responsible for styling of the 1949 Lincoln and Mercury automobile lines. His proposal for the 1949 Ford car line was rejected by newly hired “whiz kid” Earnest Breech in favor of one by designer George Walker. With that, Gregorie again left the company. Walker favored the “spinner” grille prominent on the 1949-51 Ford cars, and on the ’53 Jubilee and later tractors.

In the course of his career at Ford, Gregorie was responsible for notable accomplishments: the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr, the 1939 Lincoln Continental, the 1939 art deco-styled Ford-Ferguson tractor, the introduction of the Mercury car line in 1939 and several one-of-a-kind custom roadsters for Edsel Ford’s personal collection.

Bold styling for Sears and Allis

Perhaps the most beautiful tractor of the time was the 1938 Graham-Bradley Model 503, built by Graham-Paige Motors, Detroit, for marketing by the Sears & Roebuck Co. catalog (Sears added the Bradley designation, the company’s brand name for farm products).

The tractor used the 6-cylinder engine from the Graham-Paige automobile. Elaborate grille and side panel design came from in-house designer Amos Northrup. Northrup, who died in 1937 at age 46 following a fall on an icy sidewalk, was noted for bold, advanced and daring styling. He had previously done work for automakers Pierce-Arrow and Wills Sainte-Claire. 

Finally, famed Milwaukee industrial designer Brooks Stevens was engaged by Milwaukee tractor maker Allis-Chalmers to design its 1937 Model B. The “B” was to be a small, inexpensive machine designed to compete not so much with other tractors as with a team of horses. Stevens’ design featured a tubular frame connecting the engine to the transmission-differential in the rear. He also devised the tear drop-shaped gas tank with identical upper and lower halves: one stamping for both. This feature was carried on through the entire Allis line for many years.

Stevens’ other credits included the Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide motorcycle, the Jeep Wagoneer and Jeepster, furniture for home and office, as well as many other household and industrial items. The phrase he coined – planned obsolescence – continues to define successful industrial design today. FC


After 36 years in the aircraft industry, Bob Pripps returned to his first love and began writing about tractors. He has authored some 30 books on the subject and several magazine articles. Pripps has a maple syrup farm near Park Falls, Wisconsin. In harvesting the maple sap, he relies on a Ford Jubilee and a Massey-Ferguson 85.