Dave Adams from Lake Geneva, Wis., has always preferred a 1952 John Deere R tractor. It was purchased about 60 miles away in Hampshire, Ill., by his father, Don, in 1954.
“He and a neighbor drove it to the farm in the middle of winter. During that trip, they swapped seats between the truck and tractor seat several times to stay warm,” Adams says. “Dad needed more horsepower to handle certain chores, so the Deere was hooked in tandem with a Minneapolis U to help pull a 6-foot, 6-inch plow. My association with the tractor started when I was 9 years old by pulling a New Holland baler and completing tillage passes with a 14-foot disk.”
The Model R was John Deere’s first diesel tractor with a live PTO, which used a separate clutch. It featured manual steering, mechanical drum brakes, an open operator station, five forward gears and one reverse gear, dry disk clutch, 85.5-inch wheel base, and 22-gallon fuel tank, and tested 43.15 hp on the drawbar. There were 22,293 units manufactured in Waterloo, Iowa, from 1949 to 1954, when the listed price was $3,650. John Deere wasn’t the first to build a hard-working diesel, but the Model R forever altered the agricultural machinery landscape.
As Deere’s first diesel tractor, it was the biggest, most powerful workhorse the company had produced up to that time, and took a decade of painstaking work to develop. It had unrivaled power, torque and economy. The R marked a new styling direction that all Deere tractors would take, sporting a ribbed mesh grille and subtle but effective sheet metal details. It was the last of Deere’s letter series tractors, which were replaced gradually by numbered designations in 1952. This tractor had two engines — the main 416-cubic-inch diesel power plant and a type 2-cyclinder pony motor gasoline-fired starter engine.
The horizontally opposed gasoline engine was started with an electric motor, and once it generated heat to warm the bigger diesel, it powered the starter to light up the main engine. Over time, the pony motor on the Adamses’ tractor failed, so in 1975, after logging 8,400 hours, the R was retired and sat idle for 15 years. Eventually, the shed the tractor was housed in fell down, and when Adams removed the tractor, it started immediately.
“Dad wanted to get it running again, so I fixed the pony motor in 2015. Today, I use it to pull wagons or just run around the fields sometimes,” Adams adds. “This is my favorite tractor because it was the first diesel on the farm, and I spent many hours in the seat driving on the baler. That R was tough to steer, and it took extra muscle power to maneuver — especially when you had to look back and stay on the hay row at the same time. Today, I still relish the pop-pop of that motor.”
Persinger writes from Milwaukee, Wis. To have your favorite tractor featured, email or send a photo of yourself with your tractor, along with a 300- to 400-word write-up about the tractor, to: email@example.com or Wisconsin Agriculturist, P.O. Box 236, Brandon, WI 53919.