Industrial Designers Transform Tractor Industry

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

| January 2017

  • 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
  • Brooks Stevens, Milwaukee’s famous industrial designer, at age 25. His claim to tractor fame was the Allis-Chalmers Model B. Stevens also designed cars, trains and motorcycles.
    Farm Collector archives
  • Eugene “Bob” Gregorie, former yacht designer and confidant of Edsel Ford. It was said that Gregorie’s primary attribute was that he could translate what Ford was thinking into three-dimensional designs. While Ford talked, Gregorie would sketch. Ford engineers were amazed that Gregorie could discuss the mechanical attributes of an automobile as well as craft the design.
    Farm Collector archives
  • The Dreyfuss-styled John Deere Model B was offered without much change in appearance from 1938 to 1952. This one is a 1943 wartime Model BN with the single front wheel. The styling was carried through on John Deere Models A, G and H.
    Photo by Andrew Morland
  • The 1937 Allis-Chalmers Model B, designed by Brooks Stevens, was as practical as it was cute. Stevens pioneered the “tube-frame” concept that gave the lightweight B good balance and traction. The tractor shown here, with a mounted 1-row cultivator, was built in 1939.
    Photo by Andrew Morland
  • The 1938 Farmall was one of industrial designer Raymond Loewy’s crowning achievements. The practical styling was carried throughout International Harvester’s entire tractor line, including the huge crawlers, through 1958. Shown here: a 1946 Farmall H. These tractors still look stylish.
    Photo by Andrew Morland
  • First offered in 1938 by Sears, Roebuck & Co., the beautiful Graham-Bradley Model 503 was built for Sears by Graham-Paige Motors Corp., Detroit. Styling was by designer Amos Northrup. Besides the exterior styling, the Model 503 featured electric starting, a 3-point hydraulic lift and a 4-speed belt pulley.
    Photo by Andrew Morland
  • Raymond Loewy, known as the father of industrial design, surrounded by some of his most acknowledged accomplishments (one of which appears to be a lava lamp).
    Farm Collector archives
  • An early 1941 Ford-Ferguson 9N shows styling features (vertical bar grills) similar to those on the 1941 Ford sedan parked on the street. Both were products of in-house designer Bob Gregorie. The snowplow was raised and lowered by cables attached to the 3-point hitch lift arms.
    Farm Collector archives
  • Two early 1940 Ford-Ferguson 9N tractors with cast aluminum, horizontal bar grilles with a 1940 Ford truck in this 1940 photo. Ford made extensive use of cast aluminum in the 1939 and 1940 tractors until steel-stamping equipment became available. Besides grilles, some tractors had complete aluminum hoods.
    Farm Collector archives
  • Industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, at his desk at Deere & Co. with models and drawings showing examples of his work. In his hand is a Princess telephone, also styled by him for Bell Telephone and Western Electric.
    Farm Collector archives

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.