A mowing man mourns the death of handheld hydrosatic handles

Sections: Powertrain

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John Deere 165 Hydro photo

(Don Davis photo courtesy

One of the unfortunate realities of living in the rural southern U.S. is that most homes sit on substantial plots of land. That’s not really the unfortunate thing. The unfortunate thing is how much time we must spend grooming said plots of land to keep our yards from turning into a scene from “The Jungle Book” by summer’s end.

After spending a handful of summers using a push mower to down the grass on a roughly 1/2- to 3/4-acre lot at a home we rented early in our marriage, I’ve now spent the same amount of time knocking down the grass at the home we bought, which sits on a much larger plot of nearly three acres. Roughly two of those acres require mowing.

Sure, the yard is mostly flat, but I wasn’t about to push mow two acres every week. I procured a John Deere 165 Hydro stat that is just a few  months shy of sharing a birthday with me, paying $400 for a mower that needed (and still, years later, needs) a fair amount of TLC to make it work as intended.

But one thing I’ve liked about the riding mower even when other parts of the mower needed some work has been the hydrostatic transmission. John Deere and most other riding mower manufacturers equip their machines with hydrostatic transmissions, but they sure weren’t common on homeowner-grade mowers in the 1980s, when my machine was built. In fact, John Deere made a non-hydrostatic version of my tractor that had a traditional multi-speed gearbox.

The hydrostatic transmission in the case of the JD 165 Hydro is controlled via a lever on the right rear fender of the tractor, which falls naturally at-hand when riding the mower. I’ve come to think of it as a jet throttle — not because the JD 165 Hydro is fast (it isn’t), but because it feels like the throttle lever in some aircraft. Push it forward, and you travel faster. Pull it back, and you go slower or even backward, if you pull backward past Neutral. So simple.

The added benefit of this setup: It allows the smallish (by today’s standards) JD 165 to make the most of its available legroom. Most lawn tractors today rely on a two-pedal “heel-toe” setup to control hydrostatic drive speed, taking up valuable space that could otherwise be occupied by one of my resting size 12 feet. While I appreciate the automotive style of control that comes from the pedal setup found on most of today’s lawn tractors, I value the foot- and legroom more.

So there’s a small conundrum I face: I’d like a new mower one of these days. There are several nagging issues with the JD 165 Hydro I haven’t been able to fix, despite repeated attempts. Part of me would like to keep the 165 around as a restoration project and get a new tractor to handle weekly mowing duties in the summer months and household chores year-’round. But the 165 has spoiled me — positively spoiled me — on the handheld hydrostatic control handle. That handle setup has almost gone extinct.

I’ve tried using a couple of pedal-control tractors, but I just can’t jive with that system. And in casually researching potential “daily driver” lawn tractors that I might want to purchase a couple of years from now to allow for the potential JD 165 restoration project, I have found only a couple that had a hand-controlled hydrostatic unit: one a Craftsman, one a Husqvarna.

The Craftsman I saw on clearance in the parking lot in front of our local Sears. The Husqvarna I saw online as a leftover model from the previous year. Both, as it turns out, are Husqvarna tractors — the Craftsman having a sticker on its rear bodywork that said it was built by Husqvarna. The positioning of both tractors as clearance items, and the fact that none of my nearby dealers have a hand-controlled hydrostatic unit on any of their lawn tractors, tells me these are likely out of production now.

Lawn mowers aren’t exactly car tech, nor are they typically high-tech. But they’re a perfect parallel to the ever-increasing amounts of tech and options loaded into our cars. And just like cars, sometimes, the old way is still perfectly viable even when the newest trend is taking the world by storm. My preferred handle-controlled hydrostatic transmission would be like the trusty old AUX input on your head unit, while the heel-toe pedals might be compared to the USB input found in most cars today. Sure, it’s the newer, and in some ways more flexible system. But if it doesn’t improve on user experience, what’s the point?

You ponder that question this summer while I’m spending countless hours puttering around my yard — my hydrostatic drive control lever grasped firmly in my right hand.

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  • Brett

    Fascinating to learn something I knew nothing about being a city mouse. I guess someone out there adapts aftermarket controls for those who are physically challenged? Not that you want a frankenmower…

    • Lyndon Johnson

      More likely, the mower companies tell anyone paralyzed from the waist down to just by a zero-turn mower — and at greater expense than a similar cutting width ride-on lawn tractor. The commercial wannabe zero-turns are almost completely hand-controlled, anyway.

      The Sears tractor tempted me, but I’m not ready to give up on my John Deere 165 Hydro just yet. It still runs SO GOOD, and I hate to just sell it off to the next guy who won’t appreciate it for the awesome little machine it is. I guess I carry a very Hank Hill outlook on lawn equipment and trucks.

  • Richard Willems

    I agree with Mr Johnson about the foot control hydrostatic transmission. I love my 1968 Massey Ferguson MF12 hydro with hand control. I have spent many hour repairing that old tractor and I would not trade it for any new tractor.

    • Lyndon Johnson

      Oh man! Another Massey lawn tractor fan?! I love it!

      My folks have an M-F lawn and garden tractor, but not a hydrostatic drive. Didn’t know they existed that far back.

      Link us to photos! That’s almost worth a follow-up post.

  • josh

    Me too man I own a 165 and I love it they ate tough little tractors and it makes me sad at the garbage that john deere is selling now hold on to yours they are classics I also own a bolens 1668 eliminator with a snow thrower and tiller the thing is a beast too I guess I’m a hank hill too and I think new things are no good

  • Craig Klocke

    I agree – have an STX-46 with lever hydro and love it. Also looking for a newer JD with hydro lever, electric PTO, oil filter and hour meter. Any suggestions?