When the John Deere Company "New Generation" tractors were introduced on Aug. 30, 1960, in Dallas, Texas, it was a groundbreaking event. Why? Because the New Generation tractors didn't exhibit the usual "evolutionary" modifications of new models. Instead, these were truly "revolutionary" tractors.
The story behind that revolution is detailed in John Deere New Generation Tractors. Co-author Rod Beemer and I found tracing the history of these great tractors both interesting and exciting.
In essence, what these tractors did for the tractor manufacturing industry was similar to raising the high jump bar to 10 feet. Here are some things we learned:
- The decision to replace the venerable two-cylinder tractors was made in 1953. Secrecy equaled only by development of the atomic bomb in WWII prevailed for seven years.
Now, seven years may seem like a long time, but to develop an entirely new line of tractors, it was one heckuva feat.
A remote, empty Waterloo, Iowa, supermarket housed the initial development work. It was known to engineers selected for the project as the "meat market." Entrance was on a need-to-know basis, and even some high-level executives were turned away at the door.
- A critically important element: determining and fixing of the center line dimensions of the block. A miscue and it would have been a $70 million mistake in today's dollars, not to mention loss of months of valuable time.
How good a job did the New Generation engineers do? Deere & Company is still using those same fixed-center dimensions in today's tractor engines.
- Gear design was time consuming in those days before computerization. Even an engineer strong in math might require eight hours to do the calculations to eight decimal places.
One New Generation engineer decided that, after working all day, he'd drive three hours to spend his nights at the Moline, Ill., headquarters trying to see if a computer could be harnessed for this precise work.
He was right: it could, and in only 15 minutes. So, the first computer program ever written for gear design was a result of the New Generation push.
- An early model located a PTO control lever near the console at the left side. The lever was slightly curved at the top to let the driver's hand clear the console.
All was fine until a company executive dismounted from the left side, hooked his suit coat over the protruding PTO lever, and vented the jacket clear to the collar. The engineers followed his "suggestion" to move the lever.
- The new engines were dynamometer-tested, with exhaust vented through the building's roof. There was quite some concern about competitors learning about the project.
That was because a "Johnny Popper" sounded so different from the new four- or six-cylinder engines being tested. Apparently, though, no industrial spies had set up listening posts.
- Like some other tractor manufacturers of the time, Deere & Company also made tractors in other countries. The problem was that there was little standardization between countries.
The New Generation tractor was a watershed event in that it was designed to be a "worldwide" tractor to satisfy the entire world.
It had also been difficult to manufacture a part elsewhere in the world from U.S.-drawn blueprints. Starting with the New Generation tractors, the system was completely modified so that any Deere & Company factory in the world could make a certain part.
- For the first time, styling received more than lip service. The reason: Company research showed that if there were two competing makes of tractors equal in price, performance and serviceability, the potential buyer was more likely to choose the better-looking one – especially if his wife was along.
- Deere & Company wanted an optional cab available for its New Generation tractors that would be the first in the industry to be both quiet and comfortable, and have dependable air conditioning.
However, marketing underestimated the sales potential for a really great cab. The factory tooled up for cab production at 15 percent of tractor sales. However, even at first, 50 percent of the buyers ordered cabs. That figure soon climbed to 75 percent.
- The extreme quietness of this new Sound-Gard cab created an unusual problem. The company began receiving complaints from all over the world about roughness of ride. This baffled the engineers, because they knew they'd produced the smoothest-riding tractor ever.
Checking further, they learned that GMC had set up a special test car that had a dial on its dash. Volunteer drivers were told to turn the dial until they obtained maximum seat comfort.
In reality, though, the dial only adjusted interior noise level. Invariably, what the drivers thought was the highest seat comfort level was simply a higher interior noise level.
What was happening in the test car and in the new cabs was as the noise level increased, the human hearing system demanded more of the driver's attention than did the nerve endings in his posterior.
The new cabs filtered out so much of the usual noise overload of sensory input from drivers' ears that they were now feeling more with their fannies. Rather than tamper with the quietness of the new cab, though, the company decided to let operators adjust.
- The state-of-the-art cab demanded a better air conditioner than that so far available to manufacturers of tractor cabs.
A leading Deere & Company engineer was finally able to convince Frigidaire, a GMC division, to provide the best unit then on the market. Frigidaire agreed, but only with the stipulation that no changes could be made to its air conditioners.
Vibration and dust caused serious problems after an average of just 200 hours of testing. It required more than two years, but Deere & Company engineers were able to design and perfect a new seal and bearing that worked well.
Eventually, Frigidaire had to be told that Deere & Company had modified its air conditioner. But, rather than cut off sales as feared, Frigidaire adopted the change and it became an automotive industry standard.
- Just as the rigid, straight-backed chair was being replaced by upholstered recliners, the engineers thought the driver who spends more time on the tractor than in his living room chair would appreciate extra comfort.
Up until then, the company's tractor seats had been designed by having "Ol' Sam," who had the biggest behind in the plant, sit in plaster of Paris to form the seat's shape and size.
Helping bring the modern tractor seat to the world via the New Generation tractors was ergonomics consultant Dr. Janet Travell. Incidentally, within months after the New Generation tractors were released, her name often appeared on the front pages of the nation's newspapers.
You see, Dr. Travell became the personal physician of President John F. Kennedy. She was responsible for installing that famous rocking chair in the Oval Office to help relieve his serious back problems. FC
Chester Peterson Jr. is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in agriculture, aviation, business and computers. He is the author of five books, including John Deere New Generation Tractors.
For more information: John Deere New Generation Tractors, by Chester Peterson Jr. and Rod Beemer, MBI Publishing Company, PO Box 1, Osceola, WI, 54020; 800-826-6600.