The 73-Year Mystery of the “Bathtub D”

Discover how the "Bathtub D" re-emerged to fill its important place in the lineage of the John Deere tractor.

After purchasing the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company in March 1918, John Deere wasted no time or expense in showcasing its Model “N” tractor five months later at the National Tractor Demonstrations in Salina, Kansas. This, despite the fact that Deere sales manager, Frank Silloway, had been told that a new tractor was already designed for 1919. Like the Model “N” it would be a two speed, two cylinder tractor, but its design would be “more compact, improved in appearance.”

John Deere sold the Waterloo Boy Model “N” until 1924, overlapping for a brief time with the John Deere Model “D,” which debuted in limited numbers in late 1923. The Model “D” stayed in the line for thirty years, and has since become one of the most recognizable tractors in John Deere history.

But what about that new and improved Model “N” Waterloo Boy tractor?

For the answer, we need to fast forward to 1992. That’s when a main case from a tractor was discovered by a construction crew working near the original John Deere tractor factory, not far from where the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum is located today in Waterloo, Iowa. The discovery coincided with the Two-Cylinder Expo, an annual gathering of two-cylinder tractor enthusiasts, and a collector purchased the case for $50. It was transported to Ohio, and remained in storage until current owner, Dan Thomas bought it in 2011.

The restoration was unlike any Thomas had undertaken. For starters, this was a one-of-a-kind tractor, so there were no blueprints or drawings to guide the work. All Thomas had to work from were the written notes of Louis Witry, an early designer at Waterloo. According to Witry’s notes, in 1930, “an experimental motor of the enclosed type, which was called the ‘bathtub’ tractor, was built and was put on the Northey farm for test.” The information was not much to work from. The tractor got its name because the main case was bathtub-shaped.

Drawing of an experimental Waterloo Boy tractor, December 1920.

Wendell Kelch, who assisted Thomas in the restoration, said they had to think like an engineer of 100 years ago and focus on the technology of the day. Photos of a later, 1919 version of the tractor were not of much use either, as the design had changed dramatically. The restoration reflected the two men’s “make-do” approach. They used contemporary Waterloo Boy parts, and analyzed competitor tractors of the day to determine how the tractor might have been built.

“I think this tractor was the only one of this design,” Thomas told Antique Power magazine in early 2017. “This casting was too weak to handle the strain of the all-gear drive. It cracked and the engineers had to use straps to hold it together while they tested it. From this version, changes were made, and the design evolved.”

Witry did note in his comments how the design ultimately evolved. “This tractor, in general plan, is similar to the present “D” Tractor…” he wrote, though Thomas said the tractor is really “more Waterloo Boy than D.”

In 1922, Deere’s board of directors discussed the future of the tractor. Although competitors were moving toward four-cylinder designs, they approved production of ten more experimental two-cylinder models. The decision, based on the continued work on the “Bathtub D” concept, came from a unanimous agreement that the “two cylinder engine, being simpler, sturdier, and cheaper, is the right proposition for tractor use and the right proposition for this company as manufacturers.” Furthermore, board minutes reveal a radical change in design would occur only if “field service in the hands of the farmers has actually demonstrated beyond a doubt the superiority of some other type.”

Ultimately, more than 160,000 Model “D” tractors were built over a thirty-year period. But it may have all started with an experimental tractor dug out of a Waterloo street in 1992. When the restoration was completed, the parts unearthed in Waterloo were painted gray, and the rest of the tractor was painted based on known Waterloo Boy paint schemes of the day.

Thanks to the time and attention of Dan Thomas and friends, the “Bathtub D” once again fills its important place in the lineage of the John Deere tractor.

Be sure to visit the “Bathtub D” tractor, currently on exhibit at the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum.

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The 73-Year Mystery of the “Bathtub D”

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