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Starting the old John Deere tractor with flywheel

Written by Dick Perue
Cousin Leo had an email recently about cranking vehicles, and it got me thinking about starting engines without batteries – by hand, as we used to say.
    If memory serves me right, out on the Pick Ranch, we had a model “A” tractor, about a 1941, with a manual start.
    The crank or starting device was a large flywheel on the left side with finger indents inside around the wheel.
    To get it started was not a job for a weak person. The flywheel required quite a bit of strength to turn, and in extremely cold weather it was even more difficult and could be exhausting.
    To start the tractor, first, disengage the clutch, and if on an incline, lock the brakes. Then, set the throttle to about one-third open, pull the choke to full and open both cylinder petcocks. Next, firmly grasp that flywheel, with your left hand at 12 o’clock and right hand at three o’clock. With all your might, spin the flywheel counterclockwise.
    Very seldom does it start on the first spin, but if it does, run around, put that choke to half way and shut the petcocks. When the engine is putt-putt-putting as well as a two-cylinder engine does, put the choke to off, and you’re ready to start work.
    Usually, the first spin is just practice – maybe the first of many. So, you repeat the process. But be careful, because you must work with the choke and be in tune with it. The choke’s purpose is to alter the air/fuel ratio. Leaving it on too much may get excess fuel in the cylinders, resulting in the dreaded “flooded” condition. Watch the petcock emission to see if drops of liquid are in the usual misty stuff coming out of the cylinder. If so, push the choke to the off position before commencing to spin the flywheel.
    Each person that I observed starting this tractor before I was strong enough to spin the flywheel had a different method to deal with it when it turned defiant and wouldn’t start.
    A ranch hand who worked for my dad many years and wasn’t very tall had a hard time getting in a good fast spin, so he had the most problems. His approach to a reluctant engine was to call the tractor very vile names, and I’ll admit to learning some good swear words at an early age when this happened. He would then get Dad or someone else to help him.
My uncle’s approach was much more sedate and calculated. He would stop after several spins and roll a Bull Durham cigarette and smoke it. Also, a couple of times I saw him take drastic action. In extremely cold weather he would pour gas in a metal five-gallon bucket filled with sand and use this to warm us up. At times he would put that portable heater under the tractor engine to warm the lubrication and make it easier to spin.
    For some reason, which I could never figure out, Dad didn’t seem to have much trouble starting that tractor. Once, I spun the damned thing for a couple hours and was sweating and wore out when he drove up. In two spins, he had that “popping Johnnie” putting.
    We had other tractors over the years but this is the one best remembered. I also cranked several autos to start, but none were as memorable as that old John Deere tractor. Like many memories it’s fun to think about but I wouldn’t want to repeat the experience.