History was made twice at an estate sale last month, when an early John Deere experimental tractor sold for a record-breaking price of $170,000. The prize? An experimental 'GP' Wide-Tread Tractor with rack-and-pinion mechanisms that adjust the final drives and rear wheels of the tractor to obtain various row widths. Also experimental on this tractor: an over-top steering system that allowed the steering to be disengaged when one brake was applied, allowing sharp turns in either direction. The tractor, which dates to perhaps 1929, represents Deere & Company's (and possibly the industry's) earliest design in adjustable tread width. The sale price is the highest price paid for an antique John Deere tractor sold at auction.
Buyer Walter Keller, Forest Junction, Wis., says he knew the tractor was one-of-a-kind as soon as he saw photos of it. 'It's special,' he says. 'There's no question about that.'
Walter was stunned to learn of the tractor's existence. 'When we heard about it, it was a complete shock,' he says. 'It was almost unbelievable.'
Early experimental tractors were not well documented. 'We don't know how many experimental 'GPWT's were made,' says Jeff McManus, manager of the Moline Tractor & Plow Co. 'We believe this is the only experimental overtop Wide Tread.'
The tractor surfaced during preparations for the Pete Leick estate sale in southwest Davenport, Iowa. It was found in the timber, covered with tin and boards. 'The only piece visible was the drawbar,' Jeff says. 'Anybody could have walked past it and not seen it. Countless local collectors have driven within 100 yards of that tractor over the past 40 years.'
Auctioneer Jim Wegener, Humphrey, Neb., says that as soon as he saw the tractor's rear end, he knew he was looking at something he'd never seen before. Word of the find spread quickly, he adds. 'We had calls from collectors in just about every state but Alaska and Hawaii, and from Canada and England.'
The experimental General Purpose Wide Tread fits neatly into the Keller collection, which reflects the passions of three generations: Walter, his son, Bruce, and grandson, Jason. 'We have an extensive collection of experimental Model 'GP's,' Walter says. 'We have an experimental tricycle 'C', experimental 'GPO', a 'GPO' Lindeman, and a bunch of others. This one just fits into the collection.'
Days after buying the tractor, the Kellers hadn't yet determined what they'll do with it. 'Certainly we'll do a mechanical restoration,' Walter says, 'and likely, a full restoration. Some people feel it would be good to leave it as it is, but our tractors are mostly complete restorations.'
This is the second John Deere tractor auctioned at record-setting prices in the Moline area in the past 15 months. 'It didn't get too far from home,' Jeff says. 'All the easy tractors have been found, but around here, close to John Deere, you never know what'll turn up next. What's in the basements of these old buildings? What else is hidden in barns, or stuck in the timber? A person can only wonder how many other rare prototypes there are in this area.'