Elmer McCormick, John Deere executive, wore his straw hat everywhere in the summer – even to New York City. After a long train ride from Waterloo, Iowa, he surely looked out of place in the offices of the high-class industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss.
McCormick arrived without an appointment and announced that he was from John Deere. As the story goes, the secretary didn’t know who or what John Deere was – and neither did Dreyfuss! They resorted to looking up the company in a directory. Once they realized that their visitor was no country bumpkin (while he certainly
looked like one), Dreyfuss sat down with McCormick to discuss changes to the look and feel of John Deere’s tractors.
And changes were needed! The Model A was built with performance, not comfort, in mind. Dreyfuss’s concerns were different – he was interested in improving safety, operator comfort, ease of maintenance, and the appearance of the tractor.
One of the many improvements that Dreyfuss made was to the seat position. Dreyfuss was a bit of a scientist, basing his designs on the measurements of an imaginary Joe and Josephine. He’d spent years carefully designing these average people, and made his products to fit them.
Deere’s early designers, on the other hand, weren’t nearly as scientific in their approach. One of McCormick’s colleagues later explained that instead of designing for the average Joe, “they looked around the factory to find the fellow with the biggest behind. They had him sit in plaster. And that became the seat size!”
Dreyfuss went to work. In addition to changing the seat, he also redesigned the dash, making the gauges easier to read while bumping along a field. He re-organized the rear end and added a shield to the PTO shaft – making the tractors safer to operate and easier to work on. He streamlined the hood, enclosing the radiator and steering tower. Not only did this look more modern, it also narrowed the entire hood of tractor to improve operator visibility.
After finishing his work on the A, Dreyfuss continued his work. He made improvements to the B and D in the following years, and continued to work on new John Deere models for years to come. Here are some of his sketches for John Deere products in the following years (pics here: https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/people/68738439/objects/client)
A John Deere executive, years later, called the money put into stylizing the A “the best $100 we ever put into a tractor.” I couldn’t agree more.