A Welder and a Dream

post by
Lee Klancher
John Deere 855x2

This article was originally published as a feature in the Ageless Iron section of Successful Farming magazine, where Lee Klancher is a regular contributor. The complete story of the Kinzenbaw repowers can be found in the book, John Deere Evolution, by Lee Klancher.

Jon Kinzenbaw learned how to weld just by giving it a try. You could say, in fact, that Kinzenbaw’s entire career was founded on his innate ability to transform an idea into a beautifully executed mechanical result. Given his success as a leader in farm technology innovation, he has taken that principle to its very highest level.

As a kid, he applied his welding skills to build himself a mini-bike and then a go-kart. His neighbors had them, but when his father would not buy them for him, Jon built them.

john deere 5020 repower

Photo taken by author Lee Klancher at the Kinzenbaw Manufacturing Plant.

His early efforts were built with wood. His first go-kart was powered by a Maytag washing machine engine with bicycle wheels.

He found the wooden frame and bicycle wheels inadequate for the demands of a young motorhead. The twelve-year-old Kinzenbaw taught himself to weld and built a steel-framed kart with a three-speed Chevy transmission.

His father then refused to buy him a car in high school. Kinzenbaw scraped together his limited funds to purchase two salvaged Fords—a 1956 Crown Victoria and a 1954 Crestliner with a glass top. He mated the good parts from each and drove the car for years.

His first job was at an International Harvester dealership in Marengo, Iowa, overhauling transmissions and engines. He later worked at an auto shop in Ladora, Iowa. With the Vietnam conflict heating up, Kinzenbaw enlisted in the Army Reserves. After basic training, he came back home and decided to put his mechanical skills to work.

With all of five bucks to his name, he borrowed a little money to rent an old block building in Ladora and open a welding and repair shop. Kinze Welding opened on September 10, 1965.

Not long after opening, while working for a dairy farmer, Kinzenbaw noticed that a four-wheel-drive loader would be helpful to clean out the barn.

“He was a neighbor who was a good friend of everybody's, and he had me come and milk his cows,” Kinzenbaw said. “He had a forty-head cow herd, Holsteins, and I milked those cows. I observed his problem of not being able to get in the barnyard to get the manure hauled away in the spring because his old tractor was always stuck . . . I observed his problem and so a year after I had milked those cows for him, I went into business and one of the first projects was to build him a four-wheel-drive loader.”

kinzenbaw storage

Photo taken by author Lee Klancher at the Kinzenbaw Manufacturing Plant.

After cooking up a concept, Jon fired up his welder and transformed two Allis-Chalmers WC tractors into a four-wheel-drive loader.

Kinzenbaw doesn’t recall making a single drawing. He just conceived the idea with some friends and neighbors and then built the machine. He was twenty-one years old.

“One thing led to another and when you build something from the ground up, you have to cross all of those bridges as you get to them. . . . I knew enough about differentials and rear ends and how that all worked. I could see and visualize and put that together kind of in my mind. No drawings, nothing like that,” Kinzenbaw said.

“If you think about it, one of the tractor’s rear ends goes in its normal forward direction, the other one is when it's coupled up has to go backwards.

“Well, then, to add to that, the one that went forward had an engine sitting on it backwards, so it was wrong, and then the other one was wrong because it was going the wrong way. I had to flip the differentials I think in both of those so that they were coupled together and then I used a six-cylinder Chevy engine and a truck transmission and a hydraulic cylinder to steer it and just took it one piece at a time.”

That unit came out so well, Kinzenbaw took on more projects like it. He built a custom IH loader, repowered an IH 450 with a John Deere 4020 engine, and constructed three-wheeler “floater” tractors. These early efforts are incredibly well-finished machines.

farmall 1256 at kinzenbaw

Photo taken by author Lee Klancher at the Kinzenbaw Manufacturing Plant.

The quality was not a coincidence.

“One of my things when I was in business, I'd seen plumbers that had a welder that should not have had a welder and they'd break something and they'd cobble it together and they'd throw a piece of scrap iron on it and patch it up. Now, it would work but it just looked terrible. My goal whenever I fixed something . . . I would make the patch look like it belonged on there. In fact, I'd put one on the other side if necessary to make it look right.”

“You do a job, do it right and it comes back many times over by word of mouth,” he said. Kinzenbaw would do just that—and make himself a bit of a legend by repowering John Deere 5020’s with 318-horsepower Detroit Diesel V-8s.

And it all began with a young boy teaching himself to weld.

The complete story of the Kinzenbaw repowers can be found in the book, John Deere Evolution, by Lee Klancher.