By CELESTE BAUMGARTNER
ROSS, Ohio — Eight Ross High School/Butler Tech 2012 seniors installed a John Deere tractor engine into a Dodge truck in their Engineering Design class. They won regional and state awards – and then were first in the nation at the National Skills USA Industrial and Engineering Technology competition in Kansas City.
The truck, which they called The Farm Boy’s Fantasy, was featured in the March 2013 issue of Diesel World magazine. The seniors were Jake Fritz, Nathan Gander, Zach Habermehl, Tommy Hall, Doug Loos, Alex Slade, Ben Warman and Nick Zaenkert. Their instructor was Eric Huhn; Bob Zaenkert, Nick’s dad, was advisor.
“We had had this John Deere motor sitting around our farm for awhile and we’ve always talked about putting it in a truck,” Nick said. “We were thinking of things we could do for our senior project. That came up and everybody thought it would be a really cool idea.”
They bought a 2001 Dodge Ram 1500. It was rough, with lots of rust and dents and a blown transmission. They tore it apart and started planning the design. The four-cylinder turbo-charged diesel engine they installed came out of a John Deere 6410, Bob said. They cranked it up to 180 hp.
“We tested the motor, pulling it in and out of there 20 or 30 times,” Nick said. “We worked on it at the high school and brought it back to the farm on the weekends. It took the whole school year, from September until June.
“The transmission was a big problem. The tractor motor was a lot heavier and it is a lot bigger physically, taller, wider, than the truck motor. It was a heck of a feat.”
“We got a lot of life lessons out of it,” said Habermehl. “We didn’t really have any motivation, going into it. Bob pushed us and it was like a test of the real world. There were sometimes where we would want to give up; we’d think, ‘This isn’t going to work, how are we going to do this?’
“Bob would say, ‘We’ve got to make something happen instead of just sitting around looking at it.’”
“It was fun,” added Loos. “Bob always said, ‘Make it happen, leave it better than you found it and give more than you take.’ Those were the three rules we had to go by when we were building this truck, every day.”
When rubber hit the road
All of their efforts were tested in a big way en route to Kansas City. Bob was pulling the Dodge Ram on a trailer when the transmission went out in the truck he was driving. It was going to take several days to get the transmission fixed, there were no rental places and they had to get to Kansas City.
“I’m looking at the truck up on the trailer,” Bob said. “At this point we had only driven it maybe 100 miles or so. My wife looked at me and said, ‘You’re not going to do that.’ I said ‘Yes, we are.’ The boys built it to drive it, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
They rolled it off the trailer, Bob said; he recalled it was 100 degrees that day. The truck made it from St. Louis to Kansas City, about a five-hour drive. After the competition, they drove back to St. Louis. Bob’s truck repair was not finished, and it was 108 degrees.
“So, I drove it on home,” he said. “We put about 800 miles on it – our first test drive, under the worst conditions you could find.”
Added Habermehl: “We didn’t build a trailer queen.”
Obviously, Huhn teaches a unique class. He encourages kids to “think out of the box,” he said. The students do the design of the project and the work themselves.
In the same class in 2009, Bob helped another son, Chris, put a Chevrolet engine in a John Deere pulling tractor. That project won the Tech Prep Regional and the Ohio Skills USA awards.
“Every year my class tries to outdo the project of the year before,” Huhn said. “I didn’t think we could outdo the tractor, but these guys came through. They came up with a good idea.
“With the work they put into it – it wasn’t just at school, they came here and worked on it, too, until 11 at night and on Saturdays – it was a big commitment.”
Giving credit where it is due, the team wanted to acknowledge that Jim Boitnott did the paint work, Bob Beckman did the custom interior, Brian Drew helped with the body and suspension work and Joe Zaenkert, Chris Zaenkert and Matt Conrad “helped with all kinds of things,” they said.
For more on the story, search for the YouTube video “John Deere truck” online.