Tractor collectors Mike Hill and his grandson Vince Koenig wanted a Waterloo Boy tractor in the worst way. But as they watched prices for the rare, early tractor rise higher and higher, they gave up hope. When they heard of one selling for more than $145,000, they did what any rational person would do. “We decided to build one,” Mike says.
The tractor-loving duo, who live in Lake Havasu, Arizona, have been old iron partners since Vince was 4. Now 21 and working fulltime for Lake Havasu’s Parks & Recreation Department, Vince has mastered all aspects of old iron restoration. “He understands it all,” Mike says, “mags, carburetors, governors and engine work. We do all our own work.”
Armed with books providing Waterloo Boy photos and detailed specifications, Mike and Vince got to work. Deciding on a working half-scale version of the iconic tractor, they reined in the project scope. “We started figuring and making notes,” Mike says, “and decided maybe we could do it.”
The nine-month project, he says, is a salute to the heritage of the John Deere tractor. “This is where John Deere got involved with tractors,” he says. “They had made several attempts to build a tractor and failed. We love all tractors; we have McCormick-Deering, Case, Allis-Chalmers and Ford, but mainly Deeres.”
Liftoff came in the form of a 1-1/2 hp John Deere Model E gas engine. A neighbor bought the beautifully painted relic at an auction, but couldn’t get it to start. In fact, no one could get the engine to start. “We opened it up and it was junk,” Mike says. “Everything in it was shot. That engine could never run in the shape it was in. But we rebuilt it and got it running.”
Mike found a rear-end transaxle for a mid-1960s John Deere 110 lawn tractor on an online auction. He sourced wheels from Paul Ohmes, Wentzville, Missouri. “The front wheels are steel wheels off an old John Deere side-delivery hay rake,” he says. “The rear wheels are off a horse-drawn manure spreader.” He also found an original antique John Deere implement seat.
Then they got down to business. “It was time to dig out the grinders, the chop saw, the welder, torches, drill press and lathe,” Mike says. Armed with Vince’s expertise (“Vince is a great welder,” his granddad says), they set to work building a frame out of 3-inch channel iron.
The project took off in March 2014. By June, the builders had the frame assembled. Then they took a hiatus. “It gets really hot here in the summer,” Mike says, “into the 120s. So we took a break until October.”
The Waterloo Boy Model R was launched in 1914 by Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co., Waterloo, Iowa. Production of the Waterloo Boy Model N began in 1917. Deere & Co., seeking smooth entry into tractor manufacture, bought the company in 1918. The Model N – the first tractor tested in the Nebraska Tractor Tests – remained in production until 1924.
As Mike and Vince considered design of their custom project, they decided to root it in a period of change. “We wanted ours to have the chain steering that the Model R had,” Mike says, “so we decided to go with the time frame when John Deere bought out Waterloo.”
Design considerations, though, called for a hybrid approach. “On the original Model R, when you’d pull on the chains, the whole front would turn underneath the tractor,” Mike says, “which wasn’t such a good idea.” Mike and Vince opted to use wheel spindles like those used on the Model N. “We kind of incorporated the two,” he says.
After Vince cut down the axles and built spindles for the front end, in November the two mounted the transaxle and got it bolted and welded in. “Then we had a rolling chassis,” Mike says, “but we realized pretty fast that we needed to make it longer to accommodate a platform for the operator. You couldn’t just sit on it like a lawn mower.”
Then, the moment of truth. “We mounted the engine on the platform and got it started and it ran,” Mike says. “It didn’t vibrate or anything; it was just perfect.”
The next step was deciding how to run power from the engine to the transaxle. Mike and Vince built a jackshaft to change the gearing and reduction. “We went with a belt drive off the engine to another pulley on the jackshaft to a reduced pulley to the transaxle,” Mike says. “Then we installed the clutch mechanism, which was actually the same linkage and levers that came with the lawn mower. That was just luck.”
At that point, the builders ran into a wall. “We’d been stalling building the steering box,” Mike says, “something that would connect the steering to the chains.” They muddled through at least 20 dead ends before they tried using spider gears out of a pickup truck’s axle. “It worked fine; it was just perfect,” he says. “But that steering box was tedious. It wasn’t hard to build, but it was hard to make it work. Now you can steer it with one finger.”
Because the lawn mower transaxle was already equipped with a brake, all they had to do was build some linkage and a lever to operate it. “Then it was driveable,” Mike says, “but it was time to fabricate pieces to make it look like a Waterloo Boy.”
Vince fabricated the entire radiator using the core from an old radiator and some spare aluminum. Thanks to their involvement in IMCA dirt track racing (“where you don’t come home with the same doors you left with,” Mike notes wryly), the shop was fully equipped. “For the radiator,” he says, “Vince even made a little fan for the back.” They took pains to ensure that fabricated parts were the appropriate size and angle for the half-scale tractor.
The two attempted to fabricate fenders for the scale model, but were unimpressed with the results. “So we went down to a Tractor Supply Co. store that had just opened,” Mike says, “and they had fenders for large wheel trailers. We modified them a little, but they came out really nice.”
Before painting the Waterloo Boy, the builders weighed their project. The final number – 675 pounds – surprised Mike. “I thought it would be much heavier,” he says. “There’s a lot of steel in there. It took the two of us to lift 20-foot sections of that channel iron. But it’s solid; it’s not going to bend.”
Still enjoying the project’s afterglow, Mike says he wouldn’t mind building another scale model. “Maybe a Rumely OilPull,” he muses, “one of those big tractors you could never afford to buy.”
But he probably wouldn’t tackle it without Vince at his side. “We work really well together,” he says. “He’s more of a perfectionist than I am. He did most of the welding; I did the torch work. We don’t get too excited about things. If something doesn’t work, we just keep at it until we get it right.
“I thank God for the opportunity to be so close to my grandson and daughter and son-in-law,” he says. “The year spent working on the Waterloo Boy with my grandson was well worth it.” FC
As he and his grandson prepared to build a scale model Waterloo Boy tractor, Mike Hill, Lake Havasu, Arizona, sourced parts and components online. “I found the fuel tank and the two small tanks (the original Waterloo Boy started on gas and then switched to kerosene from the big tank on front) online. Then I found an 8-inch steering wheel, which was the correct proportion, and it was cast iron, just like the steering wheel on the Waterloo Boy,” he says. “Years ago, it would have been hard to find these parts, but the Internet, eBay and Farm Collector make it easy to find suppliers today. And thank goodness for delivery services.”
Decals: K & K Antique Decals. “Nobody makes Waterloo Boy decals but K & K,” Mike says, “and they even down-sized them for us.” (317) 398-9883.
Magneto: Lightning Magneto. “Mitch was a big help,” Mike says. “I had never restored a John Deere engine and he walked me through getting it running and timed.” (218) 367-2819.
Radiator cap and fuel bowl: Steiner Tractor Parts. (800) 234-3280.
Parts: Paul Ohmes. firstname.lastname@example.org; (636) 327-5647.
Fenders and paint: Tractor Supply Co.
For more information:
- Mike Hill, 3447 Wallingford Dr., Lake Havasu, AZ 86406; email: email@example.com; (928) 855-2855.
Leslie C. McManus is the editor of Farm Collector. Email her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.