March 22, 2019

The Hard Way


Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

If there’s a hard way to do something, I’ll find it.

You doubt me?

I have a recent example.

Two years ago I saved a lawn tractor from the metal recycling pile at the dump.  I’m not making this up.  The proof is in my garage.  Made in 1986, it’s a John Deere, Model 111, ride-on mower.  It came complete with a 36″ mowing deck.

I’ve finally gotten a glimmer why it was discarded.

At the time, there were a number of problems with it.  None looked serious.  Three of the tires were flat.  One of the blades was mounted upside down.  Both had mowed more than their share of rocks.  All three belts were in sorry shape.

Everything else was great.  The motor, a vertical shaft, nine horsepower Briggs and Stratton runs like a champ.  The transmission is a sealed unit.  It works fine.  The bodywork is shiny and green.  The wheels are bright yellow.

I pumped up the tires and replaced some parts.  That list included the power take-off and blade drive belts as well as the sparkplug.  Then I sharpened the blades, mounted them correctly and went to work.  The tractor has a nice, tight turning radius and cuts well.  In fact, it’s mowed our lawn for the last two years.

I mention all this because I did not ― at least initially ― change the drive belt.  It’s a very loooong belt.  It starts at the front of the tractor, passing around the drive pulley ― which is beneath the power take-off ― before taking in the tensioning pulley.  Then it goes through various holders designed to control belt slap, eventually circling the transmission pulley at the very back.  Then it comes up the other side of the tractor, through the clutch pulleys (two), another belt holder and back to the point of origin.  Whew.

Of course, all the pulleys have guards.  But by far the worst problem, the belt circles the steering column, which is braced and welded to the frame on either side.

I looked at all that and decided that the cracked and worn drive belt that came with the tractor would do just fine.  I tensioned it properly and got two more years of service out of it.

Alas!  I don’t care what DeBeers says, nothing is forever.  In September, the drive started slipping.  I didn’t dare re-tension the belt.  It was too far gone.  Dieting didn’t seem to help.  The inevitable finally struck.  The belt broke on the steep embankment in front of the barn.  Fortunately the brake works.  I shut off the engine, picked up the pieces and pushed the tractor into the garage.

The mowing deck came off first along with the two new belts.  Then I fired up the compressor and blew the underside clean.  (Sure, I had to identify what I was looking at, but I’m never going to get all those grass clippings out of that building.)  Next came the power take-off followed by all those belt guards, guides and pulleys.

Finally, the only thing preventing me from installing the new belt was the steering column.  It’s gear and sector steering.  The sector is splined to the shaft.  The shaft is spring-tensioned in the bushing.  The spring is compressed and held in place by a cotter pin.  That, in turn, is located within the three-inch space between the back of the block and the firewall.

Not a lot of room.  Especially not for removing a cotter pin that was happily rusted into place, undisturbed over the last 25 years.

Now do you see why I left it alone?

It took me close to three hours just to disassemble the steering.  Never mind cleaning, lubricating, adjusting and putting it all back together.  Then, of course, I had all those pulleys, guards, guides and tensioners to fuss over.  Don’t forget the power take-off.  That went in before adjusting the clutch, remounting the mowing deck and reinstalling those two other belts.

I was filthy, tired and cranky by the time I finished.  From start to finish, the job had taken all day.  I hadn’t stopped for lunch, either.

A couple of days later, I told my friend Rollan Walker about the experience.  I was still shaking my head.

“What?” he asked, incredulous.  “John Deere never planned that.”  (He’s a big fan and restoring an early Model B.)  He immediately began an online search.  Then he started laughing and called me over while tapping his monitor.  “You’re supposed to grind away the welds on either side of the steering brace and twist the column before installing the belt.  Then, when you’re done, just twist it back and tack it in place.”

I looked at the pictures online.  What can you do?  I sat back and laughed at that poor idiot who took the long way, spending all that time disassembling and reassembling, making sure the steering wheel was properly positioned, lubricating the entire linkage and doing it all unnecessarily.

“At least I know now why the machine was discarded,” I announced.

Rollan’s brow lifted.  “Why is that?”

“Whoever did it took the best way.  They just bought a new tractor.”

I’m still despairing over my methods.

If there’s a hard way to do something, I’ll find it.