A friend recently sent a link to a YouTube video that brought back childhood memories. It was “John Deere presents the new line of tractors,” produced in August 1960 for use at John Deere Days, once a big event every winter in rural communities. My tractor literature collection includes mailers and fliers for many John Deere Day programs.
The sound is scratchy, and the commanding voice of the narrator even tells the “operator” when to turn over the record. But it reminds those who watch it of John Deere’s decision to veer away from two-cylinder tractors, which at the time had John Deere positioned as No. 2 in total sales behind International Harvester.
The filmstrip hints that it was a secret project and explains that engineers were given a free hand to produce a completely new tractor design, with the only stipulation being the new tractor still bear the traditional green and yellow colors. The new line of 1010, 2010, 3010 and 4010 tractors are highlighted before the filmstrip concludes.
Done in secret
What it glossed over was that the engineers began their work at an abandoned grocery store in downtown Waterloo, Iowa. Displays at the modern John Deere Tractor Museum in Waterloo speak to what lengths they went to in an effort to keep anyone from knowing that the company was venturing into an entirely new type of tractor design.
Stories even circulated that they went so far as to imitate sounds of Johnny-poppers coming from inside the building where they worked on the new design, just in case someone was paying attention.
When prototypes were hauled anywhere for testing, they were carefully covered to disguise their design. The John Deere Days filmstrip shows a modern engineering facility, and such a facility was built once the engineers on the secret project outgrew the old grocery store facility. But what was happening there wasn’t made public until after the fact, despite what the ancient filmstrip implied.
The company kept the secret for seven years. In fact, a separate team of engineers, highly qualified in their own right, developed upgrades to the two-cylinder ’20 series and introduced the ’30 series, with 330, 430, 530, 630 and 730 models in 1958, even though company leadership knew that introduction would be replaced as soon as the “New Generation of Power” was ready.
That turned out to be in August 1960, when John Deere invited dealers from all over to Dallas, Texas, for the highly anticipated unveiling of the new tractor line.
If you want to win a tractor trivia quiz, note that it was the 4010, not the iconic 4020, which came first.
Why is this story worth revisiting today? One simple reason: If this was done in secret decades ago over a span of seven years, what might be in development now that companies aren’t sharing? Autonomous tractors are coming. Case IH and others have already unveiled one. Bear Flag Robotics paints John Deere 8R tractors white, adds their robotic instruments, and offers autonomous tillage as a service in California today.
What else might be coming? Who knows, perhaps someday someone will write stories about how the company, whoever it might be, kept the technology of the future secret!