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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.