Oh Deere!

UPDATE:

The John Deere has found a new home in the garage of an old time farmer, who used all John Deere equipment on his farm for 50+ years. He recently retired, and needed a good reliable mower that would double as a fun activity for the grand kids (smart old man, eh?). So, since we had almost all of the grass that was left in the yard covered over with beautiful rustic pavers, the John Deere went on Craigslist, and sold in 20 minutes to the first person who called.

That made me have to bring the 43 year old Toro Whirlwind mower out of mothballs and restore it so I could mow that last remaining 16′ X 16′ patch of grass in the back yard. I bought that mower for my parents’ house back in New Jersey, when I was just a kid, and it came with them when they moved here in 1989 and has been in the shed ever since.

I tore it apart, ordered all of the rubber and fuel system parts from Briggs & Stratton directly, (one of the “O” rings was listed on their site for FIVE CENTS) and had it start on the second pull of the “Easy Spin” starter. It didn’t even need a blade sharpening as my dad used to keep it finely tuned all those years ago.

Toro Whirlwind
Toro Whirlwind

ORIGINAL JOHN DEERE ARTICLE:

When I moved into this house 20+ years ago, the entire front yard was grass. About 6000 sq. ft. of deep thick Bermuda grass that, in the peak of the summer, needed mowing twice a week.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that my old push mower was going to need a major upgrade. I started looking in the local paper for a riding mower, and soon spotted an ad for a 1983 John Deere Model 111 Hydrostatic Garden Tractor with a twin blade mower deck. Just the ticket!

It was in very nice condition, well used, but pretty clean and it started right up and ran smoothly. When I asked the owner why he was selling it, he explained that for his rather large back yard, this little single cylinder, 11 horsepower engine just didn’t have enough power to deal with the tall grass and weeds. He intended for the money from the sale of the Deere to go to a twin cylinder Craftsman. Who was I to argue? I loaded it up and brought it home.

John Deere 111H
A Recent Picture of the 111H

Since it was already nine years old by then, I immediately set out to do a major maintenance on it. Working in the garage, I tore into it. I intended to replace all the “wear” parts, including the ignition, rubber hoses, air filter, oil, front tires, and the three belts; primary drive, deck drive, and blade drive.

My local Deere Equipment dealer had almost all my replacement parts in stock, including factory spray cans of matching paint, and my pseudo “restoration” began. A few days later, I was almost done. I popped the blades off of the newly painted mower deck and walked them over to the grinder for a little edge tune up. I know you are going to think I’m kidding, but when I got over to the grinder, I couldn’t determine which edge of the blades to sharpen. They were so worn out that both the leading and trailing edges were just equally round! No wonder it didn’t “Have enough power to cut down the weeds.” After another trip to the dealer and with a new pair of blades in hand, I completed the overhaul. Then, running on fresh gas and Mobil 1®, the engine sprung to life and I headed out to the front yard at speed.

What a joy it was! All 11 rompin’ stompin’ horsepower, swinging those brand new 19” blades, sliced and diced my expanse of unruly Bermuda into a lush carpet in mere minutes. With one hand on the steering wheel spinner, and the other sawing the hydrostatic lever, I wheeled around the whole yard like a manicurist, leaving swath after swath of perfectly trimmed, golf-green quality turf.

The old push mower was retired to a corner in the shed, supplanted by a flash of green and yellow mowing perfection. Finally, week after week, I looked forward to what used to be a dreaded chore. Then, one day, it happened. As I made the first few turns at the far end of the yard, I was shocked by a disturbing sight. Instead of cutting a perfectly even path, the mower was leaving an obvious “step” between the subsequent rows. As I rounded each turn, a malfunction of some sort was scalping the outside edge and just topping the inside. I shut down the engine, hopped off, and immediately began to inspect the whole mower deck, attachment points, blade alignments, and lift mechanism. I could see by the cut that the deck had to be tilted to one side somehow, but my quick visual inspection yielded no cause for it. It was not something that stuck right out at you; all the deck hangers were in place, no bogey wheel had slipped its adjuster, no blade appeared crooked or bent, and the lifter bars were evenly supporting the whole assembly.

Not one to give up easily, and a firm believer in measurements and facts, I grabbed a 6” ruler, and laid down in the grass to reach under the deck to measure the relative blade tip heights off the ground. My measurements confirmed it; one side of the deck was about an inch lower than the other. But why? I carefully and critically re-inspected all of the deck mounting attachment points, the pivot arms, the lift mechanism, the idler wheels, everything. All was as designed, and since my recent “restoration,” clean, lubed, and working perfectly. I measured the height of the deck relative to the frame on both sides and found them to be even. Next, thinking that maybe it was just a blade that had somehow “tilted,” I re-measured, checked the blade hub bearings for looseness, then spun and re-measured the blades at 90° increments. It all pointed to something having tilted the path of the inside blade so that it cut lower than the outside one, but with no apparent cause.

Confused, but determined, I was convinced that one more round of careful measurements would reveal the root cause. I pulled the machine up onto the driveway in front of the garage, spread a blanket on the concrete, and armed with my trusty 6” ruler, dove back onto the ground. Reaching under the deck, I again verified that the blade tips were, indeed, uneven from one side to the other. Next, I measured the edge of the deck in relation to the smooth driveway, and it too showed a measurable “tilt.” Still laying on the driveway just as I was about to give up in disbelief, looking at all the mountings, levers, pivots, bearings, and bearings from below one last time, I saw it.

My head was resting sideways on the driveway, and I was looking with one eye all the way across the machine under the deck. There, on the far side, just beyond the rear edge of the deck was the reason, plain as could be. The left rear tire was FLAT! Well, not exactly, completely out-of-air kinda flat, but flat enough to lower that side of the machine by that elusive inch. All I could do was lay on the ground and laugh at myself. Me, Mr. Maintenance, foiled by a few pounds of air pressure. An hour and a half of measuring, inspecting, analyzing, surmising, synthesizing, and reconnoitering, fixed in seconds with a squirt of compressed air. Some days you’re the dog, some days you’re the hydrant. A lesson in humility.

So, in the twenty or so years since then, a lot has happened in the life of the John Deere. Faithfully, every week, he and I mowed the front and back yards all summer until about 3 ½ years ago when we had that huge front lawn converted to rock with desert plants. Now, living in leisure, we fly over the back postage stamp lawn in 10 minutes once a week or so.

Along the way, the JD didn’t ask for much. But what little it did need is, perhaps, the real point of this story.

About 10 years ago, the fuel pump started to drip when it was parked. Not wanting to burn down the shed, I went to the dealer to buy a replacement. Imagine my surprise when I found that Deere and Co, had re-engineered the entire design. Instead of a replacement pump, they now sold a “conversion kit,” with a different pump that mounts on a new bracket on the side of the engine, and a cover for the place on the engine where the old pump was. It connects to the fuel system and crankcase with supplied hoses. The new pump is much more reliable and elegant. And, not very expensive.

At the beginning of this year’s mowing season, I went to crank up the JD after a few months of storage. Intending to do the annual oil change, lubricate all the linkages, and fill the tires, I let the battery charge off the shed’s solar cell for half a day, and flipped the key. Within a few seconds of cranking, the engine sputtered and caught, and I slid the hydrostatic lever towards reverse. Nothing happened! Forward? Nothing. I shut it off and looked underneath. The main drive belt was loose and frayed badly. I reached in and tugged on it and it broke free, so I restarted the tractor and pulled it into the garage and jacked it up. I dropped the mower deck and slid underneath on a creeper to pull off the old belt, so I could get a replacement. I figured after 20 years, I might as well replace all three belts again while I had it apart.

The main drive belt runs over two pulleys that act as both a guide and a tensioner. They look like this;

Deere Idlers

Once I got the belt off, I could clearly see that the idler pulley was seized solid, and the guide pulley was very wobbly on its shaft. So, I unbolted the whole pulley assembly and called the dealer with part numbers I had looked up online. No surprisingly, they had to order most of it, and would call me in a couple of days. So, in the meantime, I did another “major” maintenance, cleaning, lubricating, and rebuilding everything that looked worn.

When I got the call from the dealer, I headed over to pick up my parts. When I got there, the parts man explained all the pulley parts had been “superseded,” and that he had included some necessary bushings and washers to aid in the installation of the new parts. He handed me a box with all my new belts and pulleys and hardware.

You cannot imagine my surprise when I unpacked the pulleys at home and realized what was different. The center of each pulley that, in the old design, has contained a row of bearing balls, was now much heavier and bigger, with a much heavier pressed-in bearing, and that required the new attaching parts to adapt the new hubs to the old bracketry.

So, here’s what happened. John Deere & Co. realized that they were seeing a large number of failures with the previous pulley design. So, they re-engineered the whole system and designed new mounting parts to make for a more robust replacement. They spent the money to “beef up” the pulleys on a 30 YEAR OLD GARDEN TRACTOR! Like the fuel pump, they recognized a weak design and improved on it. Then they made sure it was retrofit-able.

Not only are the parts still available, but they are bigger, better, faster, and stronger! Simply amazing. If Detroit had that attitude, they’d be the world’s center of the transportation industry. Instead, factory parts for my 12-year-old truck are becoming hard to get.

Thursday is mowing day. I can’t wait!