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Submitted Article
The Revival of a John Deere Combine
by The Red, John Fritz

For several years I had been driving by a farm house on the west side of Indianapolis that had a John Deere combine parked in high weeds in a lot behind the house. The gentleman no longer farmed because the entire area was developed with housing and light industry. I had stopped several times and knocked on the door but no one would answer. My curiosity was up and I wanted to contact the owner. I wanted to see what he planned to do with the combine.


The JD combine resting silently in the weeds
On Halloween morning, I drove by the farmhouse to see if anyone was home. By chance there was a vehicle in the driveway. I knocked on the door and spoke to a lady who gave me permission to go back and look at the combine. She also gave me her uncle’s name and phone number, who owned the combine.

I walked towards the combine through the heavily weeded lot. It was choked with six foot burr plants and thistle. With the digital camera in tow, I trail blazed a path back to the combine. To my surprise it was a John Deere 4400 model. It appeared to be in fairly good condition, but rusty, from my initial view. All 4 tires had air and appeared to have good tread. A strange feeling dawned on me. Here stood a machine that had probably seen many hours in the field collecting and separating grain. There are still many 4400s running to this day. Could I possibly bring this machine back to life and return it to the field where it belongs? After this passing thought, I pulled down the steps and climbed aboard. The cab was in fairly good shape. The tachometer indicated a little over 1,500 hours. A switch on the console was in the “gas” position. This combine had an option to run gas or liquefied petroleum. The cab contained two toolboxes still full of rusty tools on the floor. A rusty hammer was on the outside deck next to the door.

After examining the cab, I opened the small door that lead to the deck in front of the engine. The engine cover was folded in the open position. To my surprise, the engine was a 6 cylinder gas model. It appeared in good physical condition with nothing broken nor missing. A 12 volt battery was still connected on the engine platform. I closed the cover and climbed up on top to look into the grain tank. The tank had rust spots but was empty. The loading tank augur was rusted on the top end from exposure to the weather. I snapped some digital pictures, closed the cab doors and proceeded home.

After arriving home, I telephoned Earl Cantrell, the owner. He informed me he thought it was a 1968 model (turned out to be a 1971) and that he last harvested with the combine in 1993. He said the tachometer was functioning and that the 1,500 hours was a correct reading. He ran the combine only with gasoline. I asked if he had an interest in parting with it and his answer was yes. I mentioned if I could get it running, that I would take it off his hands but for only a token amount of money. I told him that I thought it would take up to $3,000 to get it field ready. To my surprise he agreed with my assessment. He told me to stop by anytime to look over the combine and help myself to cutting down the weeds around it.

After having a late lunch, I was back over at the combine lot around 2:15 P.M. with bush clippers and branch cutters in hand. I spent 2 ˝ hours cutting the brush around the combine. It was a hot afternoon with a record high 75 degrees, and I was sweaty. As I cleared the brush around the chopper at the back, I discovered the rear tires had sunk in the dirt approximately 6 inches. One rear tire appeared to be almost brand new. The belts appeared in very good condition with no visible cracks. The combine appeared to have had regular maintenance. There was a broken 8 inch spring laying under the combine. As 5:00 P.M. approached, I snapped more digital pictures and returned home for Halloween duties.

I called Earl Cantrell Monday morning with questions on the type and quantity of oil, was old gas still in the tank and other problems he could think of. He mentioned it had a slight engine oil leak and the choke rod had a bad connection when he last operated it in 1993. He had never started the engine since that time. I told him my game plan of changing the oil, installing new spark plugs, check the distributor cap rotor and points, and filling the tank with fresh gasoline and installing a new battery. If I could not get the combine to start and run to my satisfaction, he would at least have fresh fluids, spark plugs and a new battery. He told me to help myself and to advertise his remaining implements on the YTMAG site. He had 2 John Deere plows and two cultivators for sale buried amongst the weeds.

During the first week of November, I had several conversations with YT members on the Tales board and the Deere board at harvesting.com. I decided that my best strategy would be to make Mr. Cantrell and offer on Thursday while it was still not running. I was willing to take a huge gamble on getting the combine running. If I got it running, Mr. Cantrell might not decide to sell it or ask a substantial price for it. While talking to Mr. Cantrell on Thursday, I asked the dreaded, “how much do you want for the combine?” question. His response surprised me. He said since I was bearing the risk of trying to get it running, that he would offer it at $600. I verbally agreed and did not counter bid the price. A check was in the mail Friday.

I was at the lot 3 times on Saturday, November 6, to start assessing the mess I had gotten into. The first thing I did was cut a trail to the combine from the adjoining lot. Now I could pull my pickup within 25 feet of the machine. On my second trip out, I tried to turn the engine over with a large wrench on the flywheel pulley. It would not budge. After returning home I had more conversations with fellow Talers and the Deere board members at harvesting.com. Jim McFarlane (320U) from Tales suggested I change the oil and overfill the oil pan with 2 extra quarts and let it sit for the night. He and a friend planned on driving down to Indianapolis on Sunday, November 7 to look at the plows on the lot.


Corey on her adopted combine
I brought back daughter Corey, 10 quarts of oil, and tools to change the oil. To my surprise, only 1 quart drained out. Fortunately there was no water in the oil. I filled the crankcase with 10 quarts of SAE 30 while Corey played in the cab. She also informed me that it was HER combine. We buttoned it up for the evening and headed home.

On Sunday, I met Jim and his neighbor Harold Posthuma at a McDonalds on the west side of Indianapolis and we drove to the lot. Mr. Cantrell had loaned me a 3 foot pipe wrench and Jim had brought along a 5 foot pipe to place over the wrench handle. Jim was able to budge the engine. We were relieved. Jim and Harold then pulled the spark plugs and shot WD 40 in the cylinders. Jim turned the engine several revolutions with the pipe wrench. It was turning much looser now. They re-installed the spark plugs and wires. Jim also removed the fuel strainer bowl and screen. They were slimed over with green gas. Old varnished gas slowly dripped out. Jim left the strainer valve open so the fuel tank could drain during the next week. The tank had some gas in it. Jim and Harold looked over the plows and then headed home.

Harold Posthuma (left) and Jim McFarlane '320U' freeing up the combine engine

I returned to the combine on Wednesday, November 10, and filled the gas tank with about 3 gallons of gas. I left the strainer valve open so gas would leak out into a 5 gallon bucket. It would only drip about 1drop every 5 seconds. I emailed my findings to Jim and he suggested I remove the strainer and clean it. On Friday, I returned with 5 more gallons of gas and tools. I dumped the 5 gallon bucket which contained 3 gallons of very green looking gas. While removing the strainer, I broke the corroded gas line that connected the strainer to the fuel pump. I placed the bucket under the tank and flushed through another 5 gallons of gas. At first it drained slowly, but then it started flowing. The gas still looked slightly green.

Sunday morning, November 14, I returned with another 5 gallons of gas and tools. I decided to remove the electric fuel pump and take it home to bench test. While unbolting the pump from the fuel tank frame, I noticed the large tension chopper pulley was out of alignment and had been rubbing against one of the bolt heads. That problem would have to be corrected before I engage the combine separator lever due to the potential of sparks and a possible fire. I then flushed the tank. The gas was draining smoothly and looked clean. After returning home, I determined the electric fuel pump was bad. It would buzz but not pump.

Early Sunday evening, Corey and I returned with 5 more gallons of gas and a 12 volt battery from Corey’s 1951 Farmall H. I did not want to buy a new battery until I was sure the starter would crank and the engine would run. I flushed the gas tank and the gas was draining well and was clean. I installed the battery and climbed into the cab to give the starter a test. I FORGOT THE IGNITION KEY! So Corey and I drove home and returned with the key. Corey stood outside while I was testing the ignition. I turned the key and the ignition light illuminated. I then turned the key to the crank position, but the starter was silent. I began moving the gearshift lever through the neutral position while holding the ignition key in the crank position. I remembered I had to do this procedure to start Ernies’ JD 4420 combine. As I pulled the gear shift lever back towards the reverse position, I heard a loud click. I then moved the ignition key from ignition to start several times getting a click each time. I determined the solenoid was working. I took a hammer and banged on the side of the starter several times and climbed back into the cab. Amazingly the starter began to turn over slowly. After several cranks, the starter picked up speed. I spent a few minutes testing the radio and lights. Neither would work. However the horn of all things honked. Corey giggled when she heard it let out a muffled honk. It was getting dark so we gathered the tools and battery and returned home.

I picked up parts at the Deere dealer and returned to the Combine on Thursday, November 18. It was a sunny warm day for this time of the year. I filled the hydraulic reservoir with 3 gallons of hydraulic oil. I installed the new fuel strainer, electric pump and the fuel line which connects the two. I hooked up the fuel line that goes to the carburetor and disconnected it at the carburetor. I turned on the ignition and watched clean gasoline flow out the fuel line in about 5 seconds. I then hooked the fuel line back up. I electrically disconnected the fuel pump and removed the spark plugs. I squirted 10W30 oil into each cylinder and then cranked the engine approximately 40 revolutions to lubricate the cylinders. After the fifth revolution, the oil pressure gauge began to indicate pressure and showed considerable pressure by the tenth revolution.

Almost time to try the first start. I re-installed the spark plugs and wires. I connected to electric fuel pump and gave her a try. There was no indication of the engine coming to life. I shot starter fluid into the carburetor throat but the engine would not fire up. I pulled the spark plugs and shot starter fluid into each cylinder, re-installed spark plugs and wire and tried again with no success. I noticed that the spark plugs were bone dry. At this point I knew I was not getting fuel or spark. Friday morning I called the Deere dealer and ordered points, condenser, rotor, distributor cap and a carburetor overhaul kit.

Saturday morning, November 20, I drove out to the Deere dealer and picked up the points, condenser and rotor. The distributor cap and carburetor kit were on back order. Mid-afternoon Corey and I drove out to the combine. While I was installing the new distributor parts, I noticed the distributor was very loose. I think someone had attempted to start the combine over the last 6 years. Now I would need to find out what the correct position of the #1 distributor post in order to get spark. The old points were corroded which explained no spark, along with possible misalignment of the distributor. I also removed the carburetor. Corey and I drove out to NAPA and picked up a carburetor kit. I wanted to get started on the carburetor rebuild. If the NAPA kit contained what I needed, then I would cancel the order from the Deere dealer.

Disassembly of the carburetor went smoothly. There was dirt in the main metering jet and the high speed mixture screw and chamber. Overall the carburetor was in good shape. I placed all the pieces in two coffee cans and soaked in gasoline overnight. Sunday afternoon I began the rebuild. The carburetor pieces cleaned up nicely. I blew out all the chambers with compressed air. The NAPA kit was not the correct kit for this carburetor. I could only use the new idle mixture screw and the float seat and valve. The gaskets were for a truck carburetor application. Tuesday I drove up to the Deere dealer and picked up the carburetor kit and the distributor cap. I looked the kit over carefully and it appeared to be the correct kit.

My goal was to finish reassembling the carburetor, mount it and try to start the combine Tuesday afternoon. I also called a nearby farmer and he bush hogged the lot for $100 on Monday, November 12. The forecast was for 73 degrees in Indianapolis. Unfortunately I could not leave the office until after 3:30 P.M. As I was driving home, it began to sprinkle. I rushed out to the combine with a plastic leaf bag and duct tape and wrapped the intake manifold to keep out the rain. I reassembled the carburetor early Tuesday evening in the garage without any problems. The parts from the kit worked perfectly.

Corey and I drove out to the combine late Wednesday afternoon. It was sunny and 52 degrees. I mounted the carburetor and hooked up the throttle and governor shafts and the fuel line. I reset the points at .016 clearance and positioned the distributor with the #1 distributor post pointing towards the radiator. Jim McFarlane emailed me 4 pages from the 4400 operators manual with the distributor and carburetor settings. The distributor was turned 60 degrees clockwise from the proper position. I sprayed starter fluid into the carburetor throat and began cranking. Almost immediately I could hear one or two cylinders popping. At least I now had spark. I repeated the spraying and cranking procedure several times and was getting the same results. I finally realized that I was not hearing the electric fuel pump. I checked electrical connections but could not find the problem. The new fuel pump worked fine the week prior. We were starting to loose daylight so I did a quick trace on the wiring from the pump to the engine compartment. My initial observation was that I had a possible short. The wiring entered the engine compartment at the pan under the engine. The harness was sitting in rainwater. I decided to remove the electric fuel pump and bring it home to bench test it. I wanted to determine if it was the wiring or the fuel pump. The transistor styled pump buzzed when I hooked it up so I felt pretty sure I had a short in the wiring.

Saturday, after Thanksgiving, I re-installed the fuel pump and trouble shot the wiring. To my surprise either Corey or myself had bumped the electric fuel pump switch in the cab to the off position. When I selected gas on the switch, the pump began running and gas flowed through the line. I had it unhooked at the carburetor. My next step was to time the ignition. I now had a John Deere operator’s manual with directions on the timing procedure. I removed the valve cover. The rocker arms, push rods and the valve stems appeared in excellent condition. I removed the spark plugs and squirted 10W30 into the cylinders and cranked the engine about a dozen revolutions. The rocker arms and valves were opening and closing properly. I cranked the engine until I thought I had the #1 piston at the top if it’s compression stroke. Theoretically the timing mark on the crankshaft pulley should align with the mark on the engine block. The mark was 180 degrees out of phase. So I cranked the engine until the marks lined up and then slid a long screwdriver down the #1 spark plug hole. The piston was near the BOTTOM of the stroke. I decided to disregard the mark for now. I reset #1 piston at the top of its compression stroke, noted where the rotor was pointing and rotated the distributor base until I thought I had the #1 distributor cap post lined up with the rotor. I re-installed the rotor, distributor cap, plug wires and the spark plugs. I installed the valve cover and connected the gas line. I sprayed starter fluid down the carburetor throat and began cranking. About every second engine revolution I would get a backfire through the carburetor. After about 10 revolutions the backfire would quit. I repeated this process with similar results at least a dozen times until the battery started running down.

I buttoned up the combine for the day and drove out to NAPA and purchased new spark plug wires and a compression gauge. I had already purchased a distributor cap from the Deere dealer. I returned home and posted my observations on YTMAG Tales, the Farmall board, and the Deere combine board at harvesting.com. At this point I desperately needed help from someone who had experience on the GM 292 engine. By Sunday morning, I had numerous responses. I also received an email from Ralph Thompson from Northern Arkansas who had considerable experience on the GM 292 engine. His advice, along with 2 other individuals on the posting boards, was to ignore the timing mark. The crankshaft pulley is actually a 3 piece balancing pulley comprised of an inner ring, rubber and outer ring with the timing mark. Apparently the outer ring had “spun” and was out of its correct position. I mentioned this in an email to Jim McFarlane and he thought that he probably spun the pulley when we initially broke the engine loose.

Early Sunday afternoon I returned to the combine with a new distributor cap, spark plug wires, a coil and Ralph Thompson’s timing directions. I also wore my YT cap and YT tee shirt for good luck. Ralph also had me loosen up the water pump pulley belt so that the engine would run without the water pump rotating at full speed. He informed me that the seals in the pump could blow after sitting for a long period of time until the engine was warmed up. I removed the spark plugs and the valve cover. I squirted more oil into the cylinders and cranked the engine several revolutions. I then observed the #6 exhaust valve. When it closed, I stopped cranking. I stuck my screwdriver into the #1 and #6 spark plug holes and determined those pistons were at or near the top of their strokes. #1 was on the compression stroke and #6 was on the exhaust stroke. I then noted the position of the distributor rotor and rotated the distributor base clockwise until I had the #1 post on the distributor cap aligned with the rotor. While rotating the distributor base the points sparked brightly.

I re-installed all the components and squirted starter fluid down the carburetor throat and began cranking. Almost immediately the engine was firing on about 3 cylinders and the starter was spinning very fast. After about 20 revolutions, the engine quit firing. I repeated this procedure a dozen times until the battery began running down. A couple of times the engine almost ran on its own. At least it was not backfiring but apparently my timing and fuel mixture were not set ideally. The outside air temperature was only 48 degrees. If it had been 10 degrees warmer, I think the engine would have started. After returning home, I called Ralph and we had a nice chat and exchanged information. I later emailed Ralph a picture of the carburetor and asked about how far I should open the high speed mixture setting. He suggested 4 full turns. He felt if the engine wouldn’t run at 4 turns, then I might have a partially plugged jet. He also reassured me that I could run the engine a good 20 minutes with the water pump belt loosely connected.

The weather forecast called for very cold temperatures Monday through Wednesday. The earliest and possibly the last opportunity this year would be Thursday, December 2 when the forecast called for sunny and 55 degrees. I felt that trying to start the engine below 50 was a waste of time. In the meantime, I purchased a new set of spark plugs at NAPA. Even though the old ones looked new, I thought maybe one or two might not be firing due to sitting for 6 years. I wanted to eliminate every potential problem.

The weather on Thursday was sunny and 54 degrees when I arrived at the combine again wearing my YT cap and YT tee shirt. I installed the new spark plugs and the battery from the 51H. I made 4 attempts at starting the engine using a lot of starter fluid. On each attempt, I opened up the high speed mixture screw another half turn. On the third attempt the engine was sputtering on 3 or 4 cylinders for a few seconds. The first battery was running down on the fourth attempt so I exchanged batteries and pulled the spark plugs and dried them. All 6 smelled of gas and starter fluid. At least all 6 cylinders were drawing fuel. After re-installing the plugs, I sprayed starter fluid down the carburetor throat and began cranking. This time the starter was flying and I let go. The engine sputtered for at least 10 seconds on its own. On the next attempt, the engine was sputtering more and I held the starter in the cranking position while moving the throttle lever up and down for what seemed a good minute. Either the engine was going to start or I would burn out the starter. I was hollering “GO” over and over. The engine started coming to life when I pulled the throttle near idle and I finally I let go of the starter. This time the engine hung on and slowly came to life. It was smoking big time from all the oil I had shot in the cylinders. After about 2 minutes all 6 cylinders appeared to be firing. I slowly opened up the choke and the engine smoothed out. What a relief! After 6 years of silence, the engine was running! It is hard to describe the feeling but I stood on the engine deck with two thumbs up and hollering. I don’t remember what I said but a gentleman at the commercial building next door stared at me like I was crazy!


The combine is now running and has been moved up the lot with broken windshield
I let the engine run a good 15 minutes before I moved the combine. I tried different throttle settings and the engine was running well at various speeds. I checked for oil and coolant leaks but found none. The engine was still smoking somewhat but was clearing out. At this point I raised the grain table. It struggled at first but slowly rose. In all the excitement I forgot I had left the engine cover screen assembly on the feeder house leaning against the windshield. As the grain table rose, the screen assembly punched a whole in the bottom of the windshield and shattered the glass. I lowered the table and removed the bent screen assembly from the feeder house. I raised the table again, selected first gear and tried pulling the combine out of its ruts. After a couple of attempts with the engine revved up, the combine pulled loose and moved forward. I drove it up the lot about 50 feet. I backed it up and then proceeded forward in second gear. At least the transmission and clutch were working. The power steering was somewhat responsive. At about 30 minutes the grain table would not stay up. I jumped down to check for leaks. There was hydraulic fluid dripping on the lower front axle under the feeder house. So I shut down the engine. I did not want to burn up the two hydraulic pumps. I was elated! The engine was really running well before shut down.

I returned to the combine briefly on Saturday, December 4 in light rain. I tried to use duct tape on the shattered windshield so it would not fall out until I could get a new one installed. I looked for the hydraulic leak but could not determine the source. My next starting opportunity was Thursday December 9. It was sunny and in the mid 50s. On my first starting attempt with my YT cap on, the engine sputtered after a few cranks but I let go of the starter too soon. I sprayed more starter fluid down the carburetor throat and tried again. After the fourth crank, the engine came to life and smoothed out quickly. After a couple of minutes I opened up the choke. I climbed down and started looking for the hydraulic leak. It looked like the line on top of the axle was the leak source. I raised and lowered the grain table and looked again. Now there was a lot of hydraulic fluid leaking from the line on top of the axle. I ran the combine for about 30 minutes. I did not want to run it too long and lose all the hydraulic fluid. I tried full throttle for about 5 minutes. The engine was really sounding strong and smooth. I drove the combine up the lot another 50 feet. The power steering was working much better. As the combine moved, the windshield began to fall out.

Winter arrived in Indianapolis the week of December 12th. The forecast was for occasional rain showers and cold weather with a possibility of snow on Thursday. The Deere dealer planned on installing the windshield on Tuesday or Wednesday. The lot is now becoming too muddy for me to be able to work on the combine. I am pleased with the progress though. It was a tremendous feeling being able to bring a silent farm machine back to life after sitting outside for 6 years. My winter plans are to replace the leaking hydraulic line, make sure the transmission and the two differentials are full of 90W oil and to work on the brakes. When these items are completed, I will be ready to either drive the combine to my Indianapolis residence or have it shipped to the farm. Plenty of preparation remains before the combine is field ready. I feel pretty confidant this John Deere 4400 will soon be in the field running beans again.

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