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John Deere Spitfire

Vintage Sled of the Month: John Deere Spitfire

By Stephen King

OK, guys, you all know me … What other sled could I possible have picked for my sled of the month than the John Deere. Hey, we all it is Deer Season  in Michigan in November. But for collectors of antique and vintage snowmobiles, it is always Deere Season.

First, John Deere is pretty much a household name. For many years, they have made farm tractors and lawn and garden equipment. So, back in the golden age of snowmobiles, John Deere was in a pretty good position to enter the snowmobile market. This very sound company had been in business well over 100 years and already had a network of dealerships across the country. As any farmer could have told you, pretty much every little farm town had a John Deere dealership. And most dealt in products for homeowners as much as cow owners. 

So, by the late 1960s, the snowmobile market was booming. With their dealerships, their name and their existing manufacturing capacity, John Deere was well poised to enter the snowmobile market.

By about 1970, articles appeared talking about John Deere doing just that. In 1970, John Deere announced it was true and noted they had about 2,000 dealers in states with enough snow to warrant sales. Sleds would be made at their plant in Horicon, Wisconsin. (I will not even go there with that name. Cheeseheads…)

So, in 1972, John Deere entered the market, starting off with the 400 and the 500. The 400 was smaller and powered by a 339cc Canadian Curtiss-Wright engine estimated to put out about 28 hp. The bigger 500 was powered by a 436cc engine that put out a whopping 36 hp. Compare that to the 2020 Ski-Doo E-Tec that is supposed to spit out 165 horses.

John Deere Spitfire

As for the rest of the sled, it was about standard for the time. It had an aluminum chassis, a fiberglass hood, a comfy seat, plus headlights, taillights and all the rest. As for a suspension, this was back in the good old days of bogie wheels and leaf springs. From experience, when you landed a jump, you had to land perfect, otherwise … Well, 50 years later, and I still feel some of those not-so-perfect landings.

With all this going for them, the John Deere snowmobiles took off like a deer. As a matter of fact, one of their slogans became something of a marketing icon, namely “Nothing runs like a Deere.” That slogan soon became the mantra of the company. They were producing good sleds and soon became a major player in the industry.

As a matter of fact, they pulled off a little coup back in 1980 when they became the official provider of snowmobiles for the Winter Olympics held in Lake Placid, New York.

On this, John Deere survived the 1970s, when the fuel crunch put a crunch on a lot of snowmobile manufacturers. But they could not survive the 1980s. First, the market was changing — for the worse. Then, Executive Vice President Robert Carlson left the company. These factors combined to let those running John Deere put the John Deere sled out to pasture.

Now, part of the deal was that the brand was sold to Polaris, which had agreed to keep producing sleds for John Deere dealers who were interested. But, with the market the way it was, this never happened, and the 1984 sled was the last production model produced.

John Deere Spitfire

John Deere Spitfire

Along with producing sleds, John Deere also produced a lot of associated products. They made snowmobile suits, helmets, gloves and a whole lot more. Back then, a suit was about $75 and a helmet about $25. Try and buy a new suit or helmet today at that price. (Along with doing the whole writing thing, I also own a small flea market. A few years ago, I picked up a John Deere snowmobile trailer for two sleds. This little lost deer stayed at my store maybe a week until it found its “forever home.”)

The John Deere is still one of the most popular sleds out there. I don’t have any numbers for this, but at just about every show I go to, I see John Deere sleds. They made lots of them. And there are still a lot of diehard John Deere fans — like the farmer that wants a sled to match his tractor. Or, just as often, a child or grandchild who wants a sled to match his or her dad’s or grandfather’s tractor. 

I still see a lot of John Deere snowmobile suits at the snowmobile shows. Way back when, a lot of ladies liked to look really good in the winter, and the John Deere suits looked really good. Today, a fair amount of women also like to look good in the winter. At a snowmobile show, those old John Deere suits still are a fashion statement.

Finally, as usual, if you want to take a closer look at a John Deere snowmobile, check out the Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum in Naubinway. They have a couple on display. They have a 1978 Spitfire and a 1976 Liquidator. They also have suits and even a helmet, plus a few other John Deere items. So, stop in and give them a visit.  

And I just can’t resist … because finding a Deere in Michigan can be rough right now. Because nothing runs like a Deere in Deer Season.

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