In the 50s and 60s, the John Deere line went from letters to numbers, from two-cylinder “Johnny Poppers” to four- and six-cylinder engines, and from number two to number one in tractor sales.
- The last of the letter series. As the 50s began, John Deere’s tractor catalog featured – from the lowest horsepower ratings to the highest – the “B,” the “M,” the “A,” the “G,” the venerable “D” and the new “R.” The Model “D” was the granddaddy of the entire line. It had been adapted from the original Waterloo Boy tractor in 1923 and was in continuous production until 1953, selling 160,000 units. The “D” was the top of the line until the Model “R” was introduced in 1949 powered by Deere’s first diesel engine. Because the company wasn’t sure that the “R” would sell well, they kept the “D” in production well into the 50s.
To meet the needs of row crop farmers, John Deere had relied on the Models “A” (with 28 HP) and “B” (with 17 HP) from the mid 30s into the 50s. The more powerful row crop Model “G” was added in 1937. The Model “M” was added in 1947 with a hydraulic mechanism.
- The first numbered series. By 1952, the last vestiges of wartime restrictions were gone and the tractor market had become a highly competitive battle between powerful companies. John Deere decided to abandon their confusing letter system for a numbered system of increasingly more powerful machines. The Model “40” was at the bottom of the line with 23 HP on the drawbar. The “50” had 28 HP, the “60” had 37 HP, the “70” had 45 HP, and in 1955 the “80” was introduced with 62 HP making it Deere’s first “five-plow” tractor.
- The ’20s. In 1957, John Deere introduced the “20 Series” tractors, again with more horsepower and more yellow in its paint scheme. The “320” was the bottom on the line for small farmers and its horsepower was never tested. The “420” had 21 HP on the drawbar, the “520” had 26 HP, the “620” had 35 HP, the “720” had 51 HP, and the “820” reached a new record of 70 HP. Prices ranged from $1,885 for the “320” up to $4,850 for the “820” with standard equipment.
- The 30 Series, the last of the “Johnny Poppers.” Throughout its tractor history, John Deere had built two cylinder engines that had a distinctive rhythm and musical sound to them. These were simple engines that could produce remarkable power. Buyers in 1958 didn’t know it yet, but the new 30 Series tractors were to be the last two-cylinder series. The series got upgraded power ratings and a host of features for comfort and ease of use. The “330” had 22 HP, the “430” was at 28 HP, the “530” had 35 HP, the “630” had 44 HP, and the “730” had 54 HP. The “830” stayed steady at 70 HP.
- A new generation of power. In the fall of 1959, John Deere shocked the tractor business when it introduced the huge Model “8010.” With a six-cylinder diesel motor purchased by Deere from General Motors, the “8010” produced at least 150 horsepower at the drawbar and could pull eight plows at seven miles per hour. That was three times the number of cylinders in any previous Deere tractor and more than double the horsepower. At more than $30,000, it was also 5½-times more expensive than any previous model, and so probably less than 100 of the “8010/8020” model line sold. But it signaled a new beginning for Deere.
In 1960, Deere heralded the new decade with a new series, all with either four or six cylinder engines. The “2010” with 39 HP and the “4010” with 72 HP were the first models out. Then, in 1961, the “3010” was marketed with 51 HP and the “1010” with 30 HP. All of these models were priced at about the same level as their predecessors and so were very attractive. For instance, at the bottom of the line, both the old Model “330” and the new “1010” cost around $2,200. But the horsepower went up from 22 to 30 for the same dollars. All of these models had four-cylinder engines except for the “4010” with a six. But even its 72 HP engine wasn’t enough for large western wheat farmers. So, in 1963, John Deere rounded out the line with the “5010.” It had 106 HP compared the “8020’s” 150 HP, but it cost a third less at $10,730.
- The ‘020s. By mid-decade, John Deere updated their entire line with more power and features, that this series essentially took them into the 70s. The Model “1020” anchored the bottom of the line at 32 HP, the “2020” had 44 HP, the “3020” had 55 HP, the “4020” had between 75 and 83 HP depending on the model, and the “5020” jumped all the way up to between 114 and 122 HP.
Across these model lines, there were hundred and perhaps thousands of distinct tractors. For instance, almost any model could be outfitted to work in orchards (with special fenders) or in rice paddies (with wider tires). Farmers who needed higher clearances underneath could get tractors that looked like they were built on stilts. And most models – particularly early on – could be bought to run on gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene, LP gas or distillate.
During this time, Deere and other companies moved their operations worldwide, producing the same line of tractors in plants all across the world.
Throughout this period, John Deere had aggressive research and marketing efforts. When International Harvester experienced problems with their drive trains in the late 1950s, John Deere was able to pass IH. By 1964, John Deere was the number one producer of farm and light industrial equipment in the U.S. with 34 percent of the total market share.
In the same way that International Harvester buyers tended to be fanatical about their machines, John Deere owners could match that loyalty. Dan Stork says that his Dad and uncles all owned Deere tractors. “We were a John Deere family,” Dan says. “We just felt that John Deere was the best performing tractor out there, and we had a good relationship with a couple of the local dealers where we were at… We were a John Deere family through and through, not only tractors, but balers, choppers, combines, you name it.”
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2006. A partial bibliography of sources is here.