Breaking the Mold: John Deere Type E Engines

Type E engines delivered dependable, maintenance-free operation.

type e

“This Shows How the John Deere Type E is Made.” This cutaway illustration is from a 1927 promotional brochure. Detail of the original.

Image courtesy of Deere & Company Archives

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Before tractors found wide acceptance on the farm, the stationary gasoline engine made life easier for the farmer and his family. A convenient and relatively inexpensive power source, the gas engine was put to work in a variety of applications: pumping water, grinding feed, running washing machines, and similar chores. A labor-saving workhorse, the gas engine fast became a valuable tool for everyday life.

Beginning in the early 1900s, John Deere offered a variety of stationary gas engines, relying on contract engine builders to supply them. The most popular were manufactured by the Root & Vandervoort Engineering Co. of East Moline, Illinois, and the New Way Motor Company of Lansing, Michigan. John Deere dealers offered these engines until Deere & Company purchased the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. of Waterloo, Iowa, in March 1918. Waterloo produced engines in 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 14 hp sizes. The Waterloo’s simple design made it a reliable engine, but by the early 1920s that design was outdated.

New “enclosed” stationary engine designs to replace the Waterloo Boy line began in the spring of 1920 at the Waterloo Engine Works, three years before production of the D Tractor. The new design broke from the traditional design, utilizing an enclosed crankcase that allowed the engine to be self-oiled.

The enclosed design was a major improvement over the Waterloo Boy’s lubrication system, which used grease cups for connecting rod and main bearing lubrication. A downside was that old grease was pushed out onto the flywheels, distributed over everything. Additionally, the sight-feed oiler that lubricated the piston had to be adjusted to ensure the right oil level (generally one drop every 10 seconds).

Unfortunately, when the engine was cold, the oil would not drip enough; when the engine was hot, oil ran into the cylinder. If the operator forgot to turn off the oiler after running the engine, all of the oil dripped out of the cylinder, into the crankcase, and onto the ground. Even with the new enclosed design, there were problems. If the crankcase was too full, oil worked out through the flywheel bushings.

A group from the Deere & Webber branch in Minneapolis worked with Waterloo engineers, devising a filler on the right side of the governor box on a 45-degree angle at exactly the right level, allowing only 1-1⁄8 inch of oil in the crankcase. But there was no easy way for operators to pour the oil into the hole.

The most inexpensive solution was to package a funnel with each engine. That solved the oil situation, but created another problem. During shipping, the rolled tin funnel was placed in the engine’s water hopper. Some customers complained that they couldn’t find the funnel; others complained that the engine knocked, only to discover that the offending noise was the result of a funnel rattling in the hopper.

Even with the oil level corrected, though, the engine still tended to leak oil. There was no way for the crankcase to breathe. Some owners released the pressure by drilling a small hole in one of the governor cover bolts. Ultimately, the crank cover was redesigned with a crankcase breather (basically a flange with a bolt and washer).

As in later John Deere tractor designs, simplicity was a top priority in gas engine design: Fewer mechanisms meant fewer problems, which John Deere engineers strive for. Engineers proposed designs for 1-1⁄2, 3, 6 and 10 hp sizes, but production focused on the 1-1⁄2 and 3 hp sizes. Development of the 6 hp engine was put off, and the 10 hp project was abandoned because management didn’t feel its target market required larger-horsepower engines.

The new model E was a hit-and-miss engine with a rotary magneto and break-point igniter. Some of the first test units – designated EX – were unique in that a leaping deer logo was cast into the water hopper. To trim costs, the casting was soon abandoned in lieu of a painted John Deere stencil. Design changes for the main production run also included a smaller, lighter base, a larger muffler, a different igniter design, an increase in the crank supports, and a hand crank recessed into the side of the flywheel. (The original design included an industry-standard starting crank, which had a tendency to slip off the crankshaft. The Deere design team devised a handle that was permanently attached. As soon as the engine started, centrifugal force folded the handle back.)

All of the engines in that first 1921 run were 1-1⁄2 hp size. It appears that just 70 units were produced – 20 or so before the changes, and 50 after. According to historical company records, serial numbers from 300006-300076 were used. (Obviously, a few numbers were skipped.) The production run starting in April 1922 began with serial number 226501. From then until 1929, the first two digits of each serial number coincided with the year of production.

The first variation came in 1924 with introduction of a spark plug version of the E. This new design replaced the rotary magneto and igniter system with a buzz coil and battery. Also, a dealer aftermarket system utilized a Wico magneto to fire the spark plug. Deere & Company considered the igniter system to be a better design and discontinued the spark plug line in 1928. While more than 2,500 1-1⁄2 hp engines were produced in the first four years, just 201 3 hp engines rolled off the line. Thus, the 3 hp spark plug model is one of the rarest of all John Deere engines.

Until 1926, the Es came only in the 1-1⁄2 and 3 hp sizes. The first 6 hp engine was produced in April 1926. Early units were outfitted with a decompression/ primer cup on the crank side to help turn the engine over and introduce fuel directly into the cylinder.

Also in 1926, the most interesting and rare of the famous series was introduced: The EK, otherwise known as the Kerosene E. This engine was a throttle-and-governor design, and produced economical and reliable power from low-grade fuels. Operating on the four-stroke principle and controlled by a throttle governor, the EK delivered a power stroke on every second revolution of the crankshaft, ensuring steady speed and consistent power that the hit-and-miss engines didn’t offer. This also allowed the engine to maintain the higher temperatures required to successfully burn cheaper fuels. The modification was exclusively for export, mostly to Mexico, South America and Africa.

The final “E” Engine variation came in 1937 with the “EP,” sometimes referred to as the “Southern E.” Originally designed for the dusty conditions of Southern potato fields, the “EP” had an enclosed head and rocker arm to protect vital parts, an oil-bath air filter, and a cover for the water hopper. The “EP” also shared the same exhaust as the “BR” Tractor. The final 50 units produced were shipped to Deere & Company’s Minneapolis branch, where the oil-bath breather was stripped off, and the large muffler replaced with a regular “E” muffler. These engines were considered Northern “EP”s, and the Minneapolis branch sold them on the Dain #14 Hay Press.

By the beginning of the 1940s, John Deere’s gas engine production was winding down. In May 1941, to make room for defense work, the Type E engine and the Waterloo Boy engine repair department was transferred to the Moline Tractor Division. At the same time, electricity was increasingly available in rural areas: Single-cylinder gas engines were fast becoming obsolete. The 6 hp engine was the first model to be discontinued, on May 22, 1941, driven out of the market by competition from more-powerful multi-cylinder power units. Five years later, on May 12, 1945, the last 1-1⁄2 hp unit was produced.

More than 70,000 1-1⁄2 hp engines in all variations were built in 21 years of production. Surprisingly, the 3 hp was the most versatile, with units in five different versions. Fittingly, a 3 hp engine was the final “E” produced, on June 12, 1946.

With more than 130,000 units produced over a 24-year production run, the John Deere “E” Series was among the most unique and recognizable gas engines in the world.