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Vintage Deere Snowmobiles

Author Photo
By Jerry Mattson | Feb 4, 2021

Dan Holtrop is an avid John Deere collector. But his collection is not limited to old iron. The Ravenna, Michigan, man also has eight of the company’s snowmobiles manufactured from 1971 to the early 1980s. 

Left to right: A 1983 John Deere Sprintfire, 1983 John Deere Liquifire,1981 John Deere Liquifire, 1982 John Deere Trailfire LX and a 1982John Deere Trailfire. Photo by Jerry Mattson.

At the point when Deere entered the snowmobile market, Ski-Doo was the leader, followed by Arctic Cat and Polaris. In March 1970, Deere prototype sleds were completed and evaluated in the Houghton/Hancock area in Michigan’s upper peninsula. Production started in 1971 at the company’s plant in Horicon, Wisconsin. The now well-known slogan “Nothing runs like a Deere” started with the snowmobile line in 1972. 

Dan and his older brother, Pat, first became owners of John Deere snowmobiles on Christmas day of 1990, when they were ages 14 and 17. Their parents gave Dan a Model 300 and Pat a Model 400. “They looked new to us, but were actually built in the early 1970s,” Dan says. “They had been restored by Julian Drews, who lived nearby.” The brothers enjoyed riding the machines for several years until the sleds were destroyed in 1998, when their storage barn collapsed in a severe wind storm. 

Starting over with a Trailfire 

A 1982 John Deere Trailfire. Photo by Dan Holtrop.

In 2006, Dan began looking for another John Deere sled. He found a 1982 John Deere Trailfire on eBay and bought it. At that point, he had owned one of the earliest and the one of the latest models produced by Deere. The collection had begun. 

Many products associated with Deere & Co. are green and so were the Holtrops’ early snowmobiles, like the ones the boys got for Christmas. So far, Dan’s only greenand- yellow snowmobile is a 1974 Model 600 produced between 1973 and 1975. In later model years, the sleds were either silver or black. 

A 1974 John Deere 600. Photo by Dan Holtrop.

Each year, a snowmobile show is held in St. Ignace, Michigan, at the Little Bear Arena with help from volunteers from the Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum in nearby Naubinway. The show is held the same weekend as the annual Mackinac Bridge Antique Tractor Crossing, a fact Dan discovered in 2017 when he took two tractors – a 1955 John Deere Model 70 and 1935 John Deere Model B – to the bridge event. A year later, he added two John Deere snowmobiles (a Model 600 and a 1981 Liquifire) to his trailer for the trip north. At the 2018 bridge crossing show, his green sled was the winner of the 2018 People’s Choice award. 

A 1981 John Deere Liquifire. Photo by Dan Holtrop.

Dan has used Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist and eBay to locate machines. He’s found used snowmobiles from states south of Michigan to be in much better shape than in-state sleds, probably because milder winters further south meant fewer hours in use. Most of his snowmobiles needed very little work to be operational. 

A 1976 John Deere Liquifire 440. Photo by Dan Holtrop.

A 1983 Sportfire needed little more than removal line and a clean carburetor. His 1983 Trailfire needed the most work, including a correct seat, a new clutch and an engine overhaul. He bought a 1976 Liquifire 440 in nice condition from a man who worked at a golf course about 10 miles from Dan’s home. 

The quest for John Deere snowmobile memorabilia 

In addition to the sleds, Dan enjoys collecting snowmobile memorabilia. He has an official John Deere greenand- yellow snowmobile helmet and a red fuel can for 2-cycle mix. The fuel can features the jumping deer logo; printed on the side is “6 Gals. – 3 1/2 Pts. Snowmobile Gasoline Can.” 

Dan Holtrop with his collectible John Deere snowmobile fuel can. Photo by Jerry Mattson

Other pieces of sled memorabilia in his collection include knit hats, scale models, soft-cover books published by Deere (The Snowmobiler’s Handbook and the Snowmobiler’s Family Fun Guide) along with a 1972 North Central States trail map, a rare item he found in a box of parts at a swap meet. 

For a few years, Deere’s snowmobile promotional campaign featured the slogans “Big John” and “Little John.” The campaign also included production of a record album, “Big John,” featuring a single that was a take-off on the 1961 Jimmy Dean hit “Big Bad John.” Dan’s collection includes a “Big John” LP record album still in the original wrapping. 

This John Deere snowmobile chair was made by Dan’s brother, Pat. Photo by Jerry Mattson.

A custom snowmobile chair built by his brother Pat adds a unique touch to the display. Putting body shop training to use, Pat cut out a section of a 55-gallon metal drum and used the curved piece for a backrest. Filler panels were welded in the open ends to make armrests. The right armrest sports louvers; the left armrest displays the registration numbers from Pat’s Christmas-gift 400 sled from 30 years ago. The feet are skis from a child-size Kitty Cat snowmobile made by Arctic Cat. 

Studying up on Deere’s role in snowmobile history

Dan is well schooled on the birth and development of the snowmobile industry. One of his favorite reference sources is John Deere Snowmobiles – Development, Production, Competition and Evolution, 1971 – 1983 by Ronald K. Leonard and Richard Teal (2014).

“Edgar Hetten, who founded Polaris, and later, Arctic Cat, is considered the father of the business,” Dan says. “He built the first snowmobile in 1954 in his welding shop in Roseau, Minnesota, powered by a 10hp Briggs engine. He began production of the Polaris in 1960.

A 1980 John Deere Sportfire. Photo by Dan Holtrop.

When Deere entered the market, the company went all-out in its effort, offering many accessories and establishing a company-sponsored race program. Race teams hit the tracks in 1976 and 1977 and won many races. Today, more than 40 years later, when sled racers gather and stories are told, they often include tales about the strong and dependable John Deere race machines of the past.

The Deere program’s greatest accomplishment may have been in 1976, when Brian Nelson rode a Liquidator to victory in the 1976 WSP (Winnipeg to St. Paul) I-500 cross-country race. The distance between Winnipeg and St. Paul is about 450 highway miles, but these machines went a longer distance using trails and back roads. 

JD snowmobile memorabilia remains a hot commodity 

Between 1971 and 1983, Deere & Co. produced a total of 233,719 snowmobiles, according to a chart (included in the Leonard and Teal book) compiled by Joe Wanie. The company’s snowmobile operation was sold to Polaris in 1982. A short video produced in 1982 introduced two new models for 1983, the Sprintfire and the Snowfire. The last of Deere’s sleds were sold as 1983 and 1984 models. Today, almost 40 years after the company produced its last sled, an active market chases John Deere snowmobile parts and accessories. An eBay search in October 2020 for John Deere snowmobiles showed 2,765 items, including (with buy-it-now prices) a Liquifire 440 hat pin, $55; a John Deere Snowmobile Fashions catalogue, $30; 1/16-scale model JD 500, $65; many shop and owner manuals and other items ranging from a key fob to a new engine.

A John Deere snowmobile helmet. Photo by Jerry Mattson.

Dan hopes someday to own one of every production model sled produced by Deere & Co. In the meantime, he tends his collection and acts as a mentor to novice collectors, like 15-year-old family friend Dan DeBoer. Young Dan has restored two John Deere garden tractors and owns one sled, a 1978 Liquifire. The John Deere collector bug seems to have passed on to another generation. This should be considered a longterm condition with no known treatment. FC

For more information: Dan Holtrop, 12695 Pontaluna Road, Ravenna, MI 49451; (616) 916-6094. 

Freelance writer Jerry Mattson writes articles on topics ranging from hot rods to hay balers with many tractor tales in the mix. Email him at themattsons@hotmail.com


Sledder Slang

Avoid rookie missteps with insights to snowmobile lingo. Thinking of getting into collectible snowmobiles? Tune up your grip on the vernacular. Like most hobbies, this one has a language all its own:

  • Sledding (Usually pronounced sleddin’): A term riders that came up with in the 1980s describing the act of riding a snowmobile.
  • Snowmachining: What our neighbors to the extreme north call riding a snowmobile.
  • Sled: Because “snowmobile” is two syllables too long.
  • Ski-dooing: What your non-sledding buddy calls riding a snowmobile.
  • Pow: Newly fallen snow that is light and fluffy.
  • White gold: Another term for fresh, untracked snow.
  • Hero snow: This usually occurs in the spring, when the snow hardens so that your sled says on top, allowing you to go anywhere. It is important to remember, however, that what goes up, must come down.
  • Bluebird: Sunny, cloudless weather. If you’re lucky, a bluebird day will occur on a Saturday, right after a storm on Friday night.
  • Gnarly: When the weather, terrain or both create riding conditions that could also be described as challenging, ugly or requiring a high level of skill.
  • Gnar: Shortened form of gnarly, because using two syllables seems like a lot of work.
  • Bony: A thin snowpack in which you can see rocks and stumps or feel them hidden just below the surface of the snow.
  • Landmines: Rocks, stumps or other obstacles that are hidden just below the surface of the snow, lying in wait to take out an a-arm. Beware bent tunnels and cracked bulkheads!
  • Flat light: When overcast skies or snow compromise visibility, making it difficult to see variations in the terrain.
  • Socked in: Heavy clouds or a dense fog that hangs in the air.
  • Inversion: A dense layer of cold weather that is trapped under fog or low-lying clouds. Above the inversion, it will be sunny and warm. 

–Courtesy Mountain Sledder


The Birth of a Legendary Slogan: Advertising Agency Copywriter Was the “Wright” Man for the Job

Nothing runs like a Deere. Today, the slogan is so ingrained in contemporary culture that it is hard to imagine a time before it existed. In fact, it came into being just 50 years ago – as the slogan for Deere’s new line of snowmobiles. Although the slogan seems flawlessly conceived, it nearly ended up in the trash can. In 1970, several meetings were held with Deere’s advertising agency to develop a slogan to introduce the new line, but progress was slow. At one meeting, agency copywriter Bob Wright spread out as many as 50 strips of paper on a table, each containing a slogan suggestion. None gained any traction.

Discouraged, the team was about to give up for the day. Sensing desperation in the air, Wright said he had two more possibilities. He was not enthusiastic about either – especially because one, a play on words involving the company name, seemed unlikely to win approval. When he pulled out a slip of paper and those around the table first saw the words “Nothing runs like a Deere,” the team’s reaction was instantaneous – and an enduring slogan achieved liftoff.

Left: Snowmobile books published by Deere & Co. Right: This John Deere snowmobile trail map is an especially rare piece of memorabilia. Photo by Jerry Mattson.

Over the years, Deere & Co. put several slogans to work promoting its tractors and equipment. Very Best in the World. I will never put my name on an implement that hasn’t in it the best that is in me. Wherever crops grow, there’s a growing demand for John Deere farm equipment. Leadership you can count on.

Eventually, Nothing runs like a Deere was adopted for use by the company’s lawn and garden products, then farm equipment and, later, construction and forestry equipment. – Farm Collector staff

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