WATERLOO, Iowa --- Fifty years ago, the last of more than 1 million John Deere two-cylinder tractors for domestic use rolled off the assembly line. Hundreds will make the pilgrimage home this week.

The 21st Two-Cylinder Expo begins Thursday at the National Cattle Congress, across the street from where the vast majority of the vintage machines were built. The three-day event is considered the premiere showcase of antique John Deere tractors worldwide.

Jack Cherry, show co-organizer and editor of the Two-Cylinder Magazine, said it took perseverance and trial-and-error to garner the notoriety. The number of exhibits, including implements, have varied immensely through the years, from as little as 175 the first year in 1987 to a high of 920 in 1992. Tractor quality wasn't always a top concern.

Exhibit standards increased over time and organizers found the ideal number - not too little for people to get bored, but not so many expo goers couldn't see everything.

About 300 antique tractors will be on display. All are in pristine condition, though a few "basket cases" are allowed as examples of what restorers often start with.

"We definitely believe a quality focus is better than quantity. If you don't have standards, it's just another tractor show," Cherry said. "What we have is the finest tractor show in the world. We don't say it, our (patrons) do."

It's not uncommon for people to spend $50,000 or more and hundreds of hours restoring an old Johnny Popper to make it look better than when it came off the line, Cherry said.

"People really like to see those," he said.

This is the fifth year in a row the expo will be held at the NCC grounds. Lonnie Elmore, director of group sales with the Waterloo Convention and Visitors Bureau, is working to make the location permanent. Cherry said visitors and exhibitors like the fact almost all tractors can fit inside McElroy Auditorium, Estel Hall and the Agricultural Building and be protected from the elements, but a decision to permanently keep the show at NCC beyond next year hasn't been made.

The history shared by John Deere and NCC makes the expo a perfect fit for the fairgrounds, Elmore said. Decades ago, Deere would often introduce new tractors at the Cattle Congress' annual fair.

Plus, Elmore said the show is great for Waterloo's economy. Expo officials estimate 9,000 people attend the show each year. Elmore said they spend about $800,000 at local hotels, restaurants, stores and other businesses.

"That's probably a conservative amount," Elmore said. "This is huge for Waterloo."

The tourism expert said NCC has contributed to the expo's popularity. Fifteen years ago, Elmore said expo officials balked at the idea of holding the event on the storied grounds.

"The older vendors and exhibitors get, the more they like being inside," she said.

This year marks the golden anniversary of the end of two-cylinder production - except for foreign sales - and the first model year of New Generation tractors, featuring four and six cylinders. The new versions have more power, but John Deere lovers say there's nothing like the pop-pop of the two-cylinder.

In addition to exhibits, there will be informational presentations about tractors Thursday and Friday. A top-notch swap meet will be held throughout the show and tractor auction on Saturday.

Promotional materials distributed by the Two-Cylinder Club, based in Grundy Center, say numbers and physical activities aren't the focus of the expo. It's a relatively quiet event, officials said, concentrating on fellowship, relaxation and the love of all things John Deere green.

That's what motivates Mike Ambrosy of Waterloo to exhibit at the expo. He and son Troy Ambrosy of Readlyn restore Deeres together.

Mike plans to bring a 1956 model 60 and Troy will show off a 1948 model B.

"There's a lot of good people you get to meet and talk to," Mike said. "It's a lot of fun."

Admission is $5 and parking is free. All John Deere employees and retirees are free, along with children 12 and under.

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