John Deere celebrates 100 years of tractor manufacturing this year, with ambitious events at its USA and European headquarters providing an opportunity for employees, users, fans and the public to join in. David Williams was in Mannheim for the European event.
The John Deere company was formed in 1837 when Illinois, USA blacksmith John Deere started manufacturing ploughs with steel bodies, better suited to the sticky prairie soils than established cast iron versions. Legend has it that hundreds of interested farmers attended the first working demonstration and by 1848 the business had relocated to Moline, Illinois to take advantage of communications and water power offered by the Mississippi river.
Within just a few years annual production, using British steel, exceeded 1,000 ploughs and in 1868 the business was incorporated under the name Deere & Company. John’s son Charles established regional marketing centres to serve growing numbers of retail outlets for the company’s products and, by the time he died in 1907, a range of machinery was being manufactured including ploughs, cultivators, corn and cotton planters and other equipment. In 1912 a temporary factory to manufacture harvesters was built alongside the Mississippi, mainly formed of tents.
Many early products were added to the range through acquisition and tractors were no exception. In 1918 the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company was purchased for $2.25 million. Based in Iowa the company had been involved with tractor development since 1892 when its Froehlich became the first practical working petrol-engined tractor.
By 1913 an improved L-A model had entered production, followed by the Waterloo Boy Model R with a single speed in 1914, and the Waterloo Boy Model N in 1917. The acquisition was at a time when horses remained the favoured source of field power and steam traction engines were developing and improving rapidly, so the purchase was controversial. Many believed tractors would never become a practical alternative to horses.
Green and yellow
The Waterloo Boy Model N, with two speeds, was manufactured from 1917–1924 and was the first tractor built and marketed by John Deere, but the first fully branded, green and yellow production tractor was the Model D. Development on the futuristic design had started as soon as John Deere had purchased the tractor business and the Model D, built from 1923 to 1953 – the longest production run of any tractor, helped establish the company’s success.
The Model C, which later evolved into the GP (general purpose), was made from 1927–1935 and models A and G were introduced in the 1930s along with the Model B (1935–1953), which became the company’s all-time best seller with 300,000 produced.
The company’s success continued, with efficient management allowing it to extend credit to farmers even during the Great Depression when sales between 1929–1932 fell by over 90 per cent. At this time John Deere refused to repossess tractors for which owners couldn’t afford the repayments, but by 1937 John Deere was able to celebrate 100 years’ trading with sales of $100 million.
John Deere was keen to build sales through export and, in 1956, bought Mannheim, Germany-based Lanz, famous for its Bulldog tractors manufactured since 1921. Lanz hadn’t had the finances to invest in research and development for many years so the range was becoming dated.
Even in 1958 when the first green and yellow John Deere-Lanz tractors came off the lines the models were still technically a single-cylinder, two-stroke Lanz. In 1960, 100-series models were released, still with Lanz components but by 1965 the 510 and 710 tractors entered production, with French-made engines and Michelin tyres helping beat French import restrictions.
In 1967 the 20-series 820 and 920 models were produced with many shipped to the USA. At this time the Lanz name was removed and shareholders had the option to convert Lanz shares to John Deere, or to exchange the shares for money.
The 3120 was the first Mannheim-built 6-cylinder model in 1969. It was smaller brother to the US-built 4020, John Deere’s biggest selling single model of all time, with 175,000 produced between 1963 and 1971 and available with powershift transmission.
From 1960 John Deere produced its first articulated tractor, the 8010 with a Detroit Diesel engine of which 100 were produced, with 99 later converted to 8020s with a strengthened transmission. In 1972 John Deere introduced the 7020, its first in-house designed and built articulated tractor with a John Deere power unit.
John Deere became the first Western European manufacturer to offer an insulated cab on rubber mounts in the 1970s, having introduced the first ROP frame in 1966, setting an industry standard. The SGB round-fronted cab helped reduce noise and heat and was available for Waterloo-built trcators from 1972, and an improved version, the SG2 was available from 1981.
Innovative features such as castor angle steering to improve manoeuvrability were launched on 4040 and 4240S models, also in 1981.
Large farms in Eastern Europe became a target selling area for the company when the Iron Curtain came down in the late 1980s and the 4755 and 4955, with 230hp were ideal, especially as no other European manufacturer offered similar tractors.
The 6400 series from 1992, pioneered an innovative chassis design, adopted because it allowed swapping of major components, including transmissions to suit regional markets and user demands.
Tractors now account for more than 50 per cent of John Deere’s revenue and it is both the world and UK leader for unit sales. “We have to earn it every day,” commented vice president sales and marketing Europe, CIS, North Africa, Middle East agriculture and turf divisions Christopher Wigger, adding; “Being number one isn’t guaranteed.”
The Mannheim factory is John Deere’s largest outside the USA and produced 27,000 tractors in 2017. In an improving market the company hopes to exceed 30,000 during 2018, although 46,000 achieved in 2008 remains its production record so far. Current production is approximately 140 tractors per day built in 2 shifts including 6MC, 6RC, 6M and 6R models, from 95–300hp. Up to 200 tractors can be built in two shifts, and from start to finish the production line journey takes 4.5 hours. More than 30 per cent of Mannheim production is exported to the USA; mainly 4-cyl 6R and 6M machines, while 11 per cent remains in Germany and more than a third are bought by farmers elsewhere in Europe including the UK. The 6155R is the most popular currently.
Interestingly prototypes are built alongside regular production machines on the same line and research and development is carried out at Mannheim for all John Deere tractors between 90–250hp produced worldwide.
The celebration weekend was centred around the John Deere factory, and the ‘open house’ event included an opportunity to tour almost the entire production site.
During previous press visits access to the production line has been rare, and even more rarely has any photography been permitted. However, for the anniversary employees, their families and the general public were given almost full access with no restrictions on photographs and many took advantage, so that approximately 25,000 people visited on the Saturday.
Very few press were invited and the event kicked off the evening before with a presentation in John Deere’s Forum visitors’ centre, in which selected tractors from the past 100 years were displayed including John Deere’s own Waterloo Boy, bought last year from a Belgian collector.
John Deere employs 6,600 people at Mannheim of which 3,000 work in the factory. As a major employer it enjoys great support from city authorities so a 100 years celebratory parade of historic and modern tractors through the city streets was easily agreed.
Starting at one of the city’s major landmarks, the Mannheim Water Tower, the tractors were paraded in front of crowds of spectators with a full commentary by John Deere archivist Hans-Christian Quick explaining their place in John Deere’s history. After the parade had finished the tractors travelled through the streets, escorted by a large number of police, back to the factory.
The tractors were on static display until mid-afternoon when a second parade, this time around the factory site, allowed attendees to learn about each model.
Attractions for families included a huge John Deere tractor-shaped inflatable slide, face painting and pedal tractors and airborne rescues were demonstrated by the fire service using the factory’s central water tower.
An indoor display of concepts and innovations from recent years included alternative drives using electrical power. A state-of-the-art virtual reality design studio is on-site and demonstrations throughout the event showed visitors how new designs can be ‘trialled’ without having to manufacture test machines and prototypes.
The Forum was open to the public throughout the event and the on-site merchandise shop was packed to capacity throughout the day.