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Now that’s a beauty of a tractor

The look of today’s John Deere tractor starts in its partnership with BMW Designworks

If you walk into a BMW-owned automotive design studio, you’d expect to see scale models and concept drawings of all sorts of sleek automobiles. Seeing a scale model John Deere bulldozer among them might be a bit of a shock.

But if it’s the BMW Designworks studio in Newbury Park, California, that you walk into, this is exactly what you’ll find, since John Deere’s construction arm has had a working relationship with the U.S. studio since way back in 1990.

So is your green machine really a sports car?

Well, Deere’s Ag and Turf division didn’t follow the construction division’s lead until 2012, but it’s definitely been looking to Designworks staff for design input ever since.

“What’s beautiful about Designworks is that a lot of progressive, trend-setting things come out of California,” says Doug Meyer, global director of construction engineering for Deere, in a press release. “It’s part of being there. That’s partly why BMW bought Designworks. They wanted some influence in their products… from outside Germany.”

The California studio is one of three BMW Designworks locations; the others are in Shanghai, China, and, of course, Munich, Germany, BMW’s hometown. Roughly half of the work done by the studios is for its parent automaker, while the other half is on behalf of clients like Deere.

Designers work on a full-size replica for the new Deere tractor styling in the California studio. photo: John Deere

It shouldn’t be surprising that making sure your equipment has the right look is just as important to agricultural equipment manufacturers as it is for a high-end car brand. After all, it’s no secret that emotions are as big a part of the sales of new farm tractors and machines as they are in auto showrooms.

The ag brands know this. They all put huge effort into styling.

Prior to 1990, Deere had worked with Dreyfuss and Associates in Iowa. Deere had turned to that firm’s founder Henry Dreyfuss in the 1930s when it first became apparent farmers were becoming more sophisticated in their machinery buying habits. They were still looking at function, of course, but now appearance was high on their list too. After all, who wouldn’t want a tractor every bit as handsome as the one owned by the farmer down the road?

Dreyfuss understood that, and he is credited as the designer who put the style in Deere’s then-new “Styled” models, which began production in 1938.

Dreyfuss, who had once worked for Macy’s department store chain and was tasked with redesigning poorly selling merchandise, brought his experience from that job to all types of industrial design.

“The way to improve the merchandise,” he is credited as saying, “was to work directly with the manufacturers to learn what machinery and materials were available, rather than second-guess them after the manufacturers had finished their costly job.”

Dreyfuss is also remembered for learning about peoples’ “tendencies, fears, ambitions and unbridled enthusiasm” and for finding ways to take them into account when designing equipment.

Arguably the Dreyfuss studio’s most significant contribution to Deere’s tractor designs was started in the early 1950s and culminated in the August 1960 introduction of the “New Generation” 10 Series, which was first shown to the world at a dealer convention in Dallas, Texas. It was, by any measure, a quantum leap in Deere tractor modernization.

Something akin to that kind of wow factor was what Deere was looking for when it commissioned Designworks to redesign the brand’s entire tractor family in 2013. Using an approach similar to Dreyfuss’s, the Designworks studio looked to create “a common DNA that links every product.”

“In the process of designing the 8R tractors and X9 combines,” Deere explains in a press announcement, “Designworks didn’t just design a product. They intentionally went broad to develop an industrial design language for Deere agricultural equipment, just as they’d done for the construction division. Industrial design language is essentially a guide to unifying design principles — from form to graphics to materials — that will help inform the development of future Deere ag solutions.”

“It’s a turning point,” Laura Robin, Designworks, California studio director, says, “because that very vehicle, the 8R tractor, is the one that we visioned around. It took a number of years to come to life, and we needed to test out different design archetypes across the tractor lineup, in order to create a holistic design language.”

When Designworks pitched their concept to Deere executives, they had a pair of prototypes built wearing the new look, a 1R and an 8R tractor to represent both ends of the ag tractor spectrum, and showed them together.

“The cutting-edge design and realism of that physical build in the Designworks studio pushed us as an organization to adopt many if not most of the concepts that Designworks built into the archetype 8R,” explains Steve Robisky, strategic planning and enterprise design council lead for John Deere.

That was precisely what Designworks was hoping for with its presentation. The studio claims one of its main aims is to allow clients to see how their customers view their own products and what trends will push buyer expectations in the future. The Designworks concepts are intended to help manufacturers meet those expectations.

Henry Dreyfuss, Deere’s first industrial designer, with models of some of the John Deere equipment he styled. photo: John Deere

By projecting, or “visioning” what the future may look like for their various clients, Designworks helps them advance the way their customers use and experience their products, explains Meyer, who believes that a strength of Designworks is getting clients to think about what the future will look like for their products, their industry and their own customers.

“The value they bring is the outside perspective that helps keep our products relevant in the marketplace,” Meyer adds. “Designworks pushes you to think and look at things differently. At first you might be thrown back by it a bit. But after you start getting into it, you usually end up bringing some elements of that leap into the final design.”

So, Designworks impressed Deere enough with its concept machines that the brand incorporated most of the design to its production line. But what have others thought?

Well, the 8R tractor has so far netted the green brand two separate design awards from two Germany-based organizations, iF International Forum Design GmbH and Red Dot Design GmbH.

“The 8R tractors have a striking external appearance that is an expression of their performance and efficiency,” the jury for the Red Dot Award said. “The interior is well thought out in terms of ergonomics.”

Of course, Deere isn’t alone in pursuing design excellence. Attend any main brand product launch and marketing staff spend more than a little time talking about sleek looks and ergonomic improvements. Whether or not the Deere-Designworks collaboration has given them an edge in the minds of potential buyers is hard to say, but it has certainly allowed them to stay running with the pack.

In 1960, Dreyfuss’s 1960 “New Generation” design was first worked up in sheet metal and shown to executives. But then, after it had done its job, the original archetype tractor was sent to the scrapyard, a fate shared by numerous other prototype models from all brands over the years. Today, though, it’s different. With a mind to preserving its history, Deere has saved the original Designworks 8R concept tractor for posterity. It’s now on display for visitors to see at John Deere’s tractor cab assembly operation in Waterloo, Iowa.

Says Robisky, “We didn’t want to merely scrap something that was so instrumental in determining our new tractor industrial design language — and what has eventually become an entire Ag & Turf industrial design.”

About the author

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Scott Garvey

Scott Garvey is a freelance writer and video producer. He is also the former machinery editor for Country Guide.

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