Espionage at the 50 Series Unveiling

An Excerpt from TRACTOR
post by
Lee Klancher
Media Name: 50series_banner.jpg

In the early 1980's, John Deere was one of the few companies to navigate the industry-depression with remote success. With sales few and far between, competitors did all that they could to get a leg up on Deere. Sometimes, this even meant a fare dose of cross-color espionage. In this excerpt, IH salesperson Bud Youle sneaks into the unveiling of John Deere's 50 series at the Superdome in New Orleans. Read all about it below, and find more of the best stories in tractor history across all colors in our latest book, TRACTOR

          Farming’s toughest year in the modern era was 1982 (as it was for pretty much everyone in the industry). John Deere had historically weathered hard times with extreme conservatism, but the company in the 1980s had been number one in the United States for nearly two decades. In an uncharacteristically aggressive move, the company unveiled a line of new machines in the fall of 1981.

The flagship of the line was the big 8850, with power from a 955-cubic-inch V8 good for 370 horsepower and an advanced quad-range partial powershift transmission. In an equally uncharacteristic John Deere tendency, the big V8 was not ready for prime time and failed all too often, particularly considering the tractor retailed for $120,000. Despite the minor stumble in the line’s introduction, the model paid off just fine; John Deere was the only tractor manufacturer in the United States to show a profit in 1982.

When the series was introduced in the fall of 1981, the red tractor folks were extremely curious to see what the company had in store. Of particular interest was the high-horsepower front-wheel-assist machines, some of which would compete directly with the IH 2+2 line. Bud Youle was one of the key salespeople at that time to drive sales of the 2+2, and he took it upon himself to get an up-close and personal look at the new machines during the dealer introduction at the Superdome in New Orleans.

This curious IH salesman wasn’t the first to pull shenanigans to get a sneak peek at the other color’s doing. Both sides had personnel out in the field looking specifically for test machines for decades, and stories of engineers tearing apart test machines in the dark and pulling all sorts of devious stunts to get an advance look are fairly common.

So Mr. Bud Youle went down to New Orleans, dressed himself in a John Deere hat and shirt, and headed to the Superdome to see if he could learn a bit about John Deere’s new machines.

“I had been in [the Superdome] before,” Youle said.

“I knew there was a bar up [above the field]. I thought if I could get up to that bar, and I could sit and listen, that’s all I needed to do.

“I don’t remember exactly how I got in the front door, but I got in. I went to the elevator. I went straight up to the top, to the towers, or whatever they call it. I got out [at] the tower. I walked over, [and] I sat down up there in the dark.”

He recalls thinking at the time that if he worked for John Deere and found someone hanging out at the introduction, uninvited, he’d react negatively. His next thought was that he’d better move. As they say in the military, never stay in one spot too long.

“I got myself a Budweiser beer, and got in a different place,” Youle explained, “but I could still hear them. Pretty soon, I heard the elevator come up. Two guys got off the elevator.”

They were John Deere security people. Youle knew the gig was up.

“My name is Bud Youle, Harvester Company,” he said. “I was down here, and I saw what was going on.”

The John Deere folks were not amused. They had spent most of two days trying to find him.

Someone had noticed Bud poking around the outside of the dome.

“You’re on your way to jail,” one of them said.

The men led Youle out.

Youle recalls giving one of the John Deere security guards—who he spent considerable time with in the car when being transported out of town—an earful about the fact that the green side had done the same.

“I’m going to tell you something,” Youle said to him. “You remember when we started shipping 2+2s in those boxes? Right above the tractor plant at Rock Island, up on top of that hill was a girls’ Catholic school. When the first tractor rolled by that building, there must have been forty-nine cameras taking pictures of that box.”

Youle was referring to John Deere employees photographing the sealed boxes used to conceal the test units for the first 2+2s. The point being that employees of all the colors played the game.

“This is an espionage business. I caught you, you caught me,” he said.

What he learned was that the new John Deere machines had a larger turning radius than the IH machines. “I always remember, be sure to tell the Deere people that they’re going to have trouble wearing out tires, because the tires and the wheels are going to wear off. The guys had a lot of fun with this,” Youle said.

The story goes that the IH and John Deere CEOs had a personal talk about the business. Louis Menk was the new IH CEO at the time, and had been brought in to help restructure the company’s dire financial straits.

You can imagine how pleased the new executive was to deal with a case of employee espionage.

Youle certainly remembers being called into Menk’s office. He had an entertaining account of the conversation, as he recalled it forty years after the fact.

“‘Mr. Menk, we needed this information.’ I said, ‘I got our people all geared up and ready to go. We’re ready to meet them head-on. We don’t have to take a back seat, Mr. Menk.’ I said, ‘The 5288, the 54 will take care of itself. We can turn shorter.’ I said, ‘We’ve got the 72, 74 coming on the 2+2s. We’re going to make fools out of them.’”

As Youle recalls, Menk responded genially. “‘Bud,’ he said to me, ‘this whole thing is handled. Forget it. Let’s go on about our business. Let’s put them out of business.’

“‘Fine, Mr. Menk,’ I said. ‘That’s fine. Go ahead.’”

Photo courtesy of Marcus Pasveer