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.