Keith Thelen has broken the ice, so to speak, on snowmobiles. So now I feel compelled to come out of the closet and admit that I, at one time in the early ‘70s, designed snowmobiles for John Deere while employed by Henry Dreyfuss Associates in NYC.
The original family units were all “green machines,” but in early ‘72 Deere decided it needed to amp up its offerings with higher performance models. To distinguish the new higher performance units we at Dreyfuss suggested that the new line be clad in semi-gloss black and be identified as the X-series. Thus were born the JDX4 and JDX8 which went on sale in the fall of 1972.
In ‘70 many snowmobiles were sold out of gas stations and bait shops. By ‘72 many of the brands sold at these venues were gone. Makers such as Polaris, Bombardier, Arctic Cat and Rupp were fighting Deere’s dealer network and reputation for quality. Yamaha and Kawasaki were not yet players but had a presence.
The JDX series of sleds were built upon the green machine basis. The JDX8, however, may have had an aluminum frame as opposed to steel on the green machines. I can’t remember.
My first contribution to the look of the Deere machines came with the 1974 line. This shot was taken in Rabbit Ears Pass, CO where we tested new Deere machines as well as the best of the competition. Deere also did photo shoots for their sales brochures here.
I can’t remember the impetus for the change in the nose. Aside from the need to freshen the look, I think it may have been the need for additional cooling. Customers had also let Deere know that the bikini windshields on the ‘73 machines sucked. Full coverage windshields, as shown here, were what customers wanted.
The models for the full-size hoods were developed in automotive clay, the same as was used in Detroit. The clay modeler that we used was in Milwaukee, WI and also did work for Harley-Davidson. The modeler filled me in on all the latest and greatest at H-D. Harley must have given up on the snowmobile business by this time as he made no mention of Harley sleds.
Deere was conflicted about the colors that its recreational products sported. Deere green and yellow was so, ah, agricultural.
I’m not sure what metallic green I chose for this study-probably the Ivy Green that my dad’s ‘63 Bel Air was painted, but it never saw production.
A side view of the metallic green prototype. Check out the cars in Deere’s factory parking lot in Horicon, WI. The Deere guys dug performance.
Working for Deere was a designer’s dream. We tested new sleds at Rabbit Ear’s Pass, CO for a week in 1972. Our only instructions were to hop on a sled, drive it like we stole it, and do it for eight hours every day. We actually got paid to do this.
After having spent a week riding and wrecking sleds at the Pass, I determined that the hand controls on the Deere sleds were too skinny. Once back in NYC I had one of our master modelers develop some meatier new grips and throttle/brake controls. These were incorporated into the production machines but didn’t set the snowmobile world on fire. Bombardier continued to build skinny-assed grips and crappy throttle/brake controls.
The two vents atop the engine cover were also of my design. Sic Transit Gloria.
More Deere snowmobile stuff to come if the Commentariat wants it.
Bring it on! Snowmobiles have always fascinated me but I have known absolutely nothing about them until now.
More please Kevin,all new to me also.
Great article Kevin. I remember it was the early 70s when sleds started to emphasize high performance and finally had the looks to match. That metallic green would have advanced the broughamification of sleds.
Note the advanced rust on that less than five year old 1969 Ford. And the ’68 Bel Air, for that matter. The late 50s Chev can be forgiven somewhat.
That metallic green actually looks pretty good. I can’t remember the last time I saw a 1970 Chevelle convertible with snow tires on it though. It’s even an SS.
Sounds like a pretty cool job you had.
Great article. Of all the failed brands of sleds Deere was my favourite and they kept at it longer than most. A few still around and being used here. ‘Nothing runs like a Deere’ was the advert I remember.
Love to see more.
Great story! I’ve been waiting for this article to appear ever since I saw it coming down the pipeline a few days ago. Always interesting to hear the inside story on the things we’ve been seeing for years.
I’m not terribly familiar with the older Deere sleds, but I do recall messing with some of the later ones in years past (Liquifire, Trailfire, etc). Nearly bought an early ’80s 440 model out of a junkyard five years ago, but ended up getting beaten to the punch.
Yss, more. Until today, I would have bet that nothing ever made by Deere was any other colors than the famous Green Bay Packers colors.
Deere’s construction line uses the same industrial yellow you see on the typical bulldozer..
As seen here…
One of the odder color schemes John Deere ever tried. Intended to match your idyllic suburban ranch and your Ozzie and Harriet lifestyle. John Deere Patio tractors.
FYI my Dad has chrome hubcaps on his 1973 112. I always thought he should add some homemade chrome bumpers to complete the look. 🙂
Who would have thought? John Deere helped inspire the first iMacs.
My father has been a salesman for a John Deere franchise since 1978. When the old dealership was liquidated (his ‘mom and pop’ franchise was sold to another holding company with over a dozen dealerships across the Midwest) their was an auction at the old dealership. Among the “treasures” an old 400 series snowmobile that had been buried in storage and a genuine “John Deere Bicycle”.
Dear old Dad snagged the bicycle.
He’s a great font of info for “odd duck” Deere models like the “patio series” lawn tractors that were painted colors like blue and white, yellow and white, red and white so that they would match your decor of your suburban ranch home.
Thank you for the insiders look at the JD sleds.
I don’t remember for sure when John Deere stopped making sleds. Maybe the early 80s?.
The local dealership by me was having a fire sale (snow sale?) of sorts on the remaining models once John Deere did exit the snowmobile business .
I came sooo close to buying a JD Trailfire 340, but for some reason never pulled the trigger on the purchase. Rent and groceries I am sure was part of it.
Very nice, Kevin, keep it coming! I’ve only ridden a snowmobile once, years ago, but liked it a lot. One day….
I would love to read more.
Very interesting! Add me to the list of folks who’d be interested in reading more about snowmobiles.
Always enjoy hearing the experiences of an insider. Growing up in Alaska, I was around many snowmobiles, but I don’t recall any Deere’s. My family had a Ski-Doo, I believe it was a ’67 model. My best buddy had An Arctic Cat. We had a lot of fun with those things. Since I moved south over 35 years ago I have seen very few, let alone owned or driven one.
I like the F100 the best out of that photo, although it is nice to see a original Malibu SS.
Deere’s weren’t around by the time I started snowmobiling in the late 80’s. I recall they had a pretty solid reputation but their suspensions never evolved past leaf springs. My friend’s dad had a Liquifire 440 that went pretty good.
What strikes me most about the photo with the cars is all the rust on the white ones considering their age.
I also like the comment about the bikini windshield, which although low for its day still appears to offer more protection than almost any of today’s snowmobiles.
You guys beat me to the punch on the Patio lawn tractors. Deere’s other experiment with different colors, though in this case it didn’t sell so well. Dreyfuss and Assoc. had a long-running relationship with Deere, having been the company who were brought in to “style” the letter line (A, B, D, and later G) in 1937. I have heard the stories from the Deere guys about Dreyfuss coming out to Waterloo to check out the tractors-I wonder what the stories were on the other side.
The Patio Lawn tractor color experiment must have been very short lived as the experiment, first tried in 1969, wasn’t in evidence when I began work at Dreyfuss in 1971. Maybe Deere learned in that faux pas that you can only ef with corporate image so much before it bites you on the ass. Ask Datsun, oops, sorry, Nissan.
Snowmobiles,Bicycles,Chain Saws , & much more…..Deere’s Consumer division had no desire to be into any for the long run. They’d buy into some idea , then in a few years, gone.
You forgot outboard motors. I designed all this stuff. Coming soon.
When my parents got a lakeside cabin in 1993, naturally we had to get a couple snowmobiles. As the oldest I got to drive our older one, a ’79 John Deere. The other one, a circa-1990 Ski-Doo, was a hot rod, but I puttered around just fine on the Deere. I was about 14-15 years old at the time. Oddly it was not green, but factory silver with green and yellow stripes. It was in really nice shape. Long gone now, but I had some good times with it!
After reading the other comments I believe the one we had was a Trailfire 340. I don’t think we have any pictures of it, unfortunately. The cowl always reminded me of a ’70s Renault for some reason.
Kevin, this is the first product I have driven that you’ve had a hand in. Looking forward to more of your “back then” writeups.
I’ve been away from here for a while but now I’m back in a big way. More, please!!!!!
Yamaha wasn’t a player yet? Ever hear of Mike Trapp? And Kawasaki wasn’t even made at the time you are talking about. So many inaccuracies in this article, even about Deere sleds. Just saying