Mower power to ya!: Art Evans set out to build a better lawn mower and ended up sparking a lawnmowing revolution

Ted Kreiter

As a young man, Art Evans dreamed of being a professional drag racer “’til I figured out I couldn’t make a living at it,” the 61-year old inventor and company owner says. Instead, Evans settled for building the world’s fastest lawn mower. In doing so, he has changed the landscape of lawn mowing in America.

Until Art Evans came along, commercial mowing was a slow and tedious task performed on lumbering tractor-like vehicles. No one had figured out that better and faster mowers might mean higher productivity, or that the key to better mowing lay in a marvelous 1960s invention–the zero turning radius transmission. It took a farm boy from a tiny rural community, whose high-school class once voted him “most likely not to succeed,” to point it out.

Art Evans hardly looks the part of a multimillion-dollar company executive. His typical work attire is a baseball cap and polo shirt emblazoned with the company logo. Although he keeps a small office somewhere in his corporate complex, one can rarely find him there. He prefers to be out in the plant talking about new projects and ideas to whoever comes along.

Just tracking down the ever-moving Evans for an interview can be a challenge. “He runs on his own time–‘Art time,'” his public-relations person explains as she phones here and there to locate him. “He creates constantly, and he has wild schemes occasionally that have nothing to do with lawn mowers. We call him a genius,” she says.

The most visible product of Evans’ genius is the Dixie Chopper, a boxy silver and black vehicle that turns 360 degrees on a dime and zips along at the devilishly fast mowing speed of up to 15 miles an hour. All the while, it clips grass into a smooth, green velvet carpet in six-foot-wide swaths at a time. Plus, it almost never wears out.

“You can count on the fingers of one hand the machines that I’m aware of that’s ever been scrapped out,” Evans says confidently of the mowers he has been making for 23 years. That’s partly because the Dixie Chopper is built to last. “You know this thing is going to be around. Your grandkids are going to inherit it,” Evans says. “And when the Martians land, they’re going to try to find out what the people looked like that used to run them things.”

To make sure his mowers remain lawnworthy indefinitely, Evans designs any new parts to retrofit the older models. And new features are constantly appearing, thanks to Evans’ continuous flood of ideas. His mowers, he says, are “kind of like the Volkswagen. They all look the same.”

Dixie Choppers have all the finesse of a Sherman tank, but that’s not to say they have no frills. In fact, they may be the only mowers that come standard with carpeting on the deck, but even the carpeting is there for a purpose. It reduces the engine noise by two decibels, “a considerable amount,” Evans says. “They tried to interest us in rubber mats,” he adds, “but they don’t work like carpeting.”

Like a high-class automobile, the Dixie Chopper also sports a stainless steel body. “We went to stainless steel in later years for an image,” Evans explains. “If it’s stainless steel, a little Scotch Brite and a little decal and some black paint, and you can’t tell a brand-new one from one that’s ten years old.”

Evans started building his no-nonsense mowers in 1980 in the staging area of an old milk barn near his hometown of Coatsville, Indiana. In those days, one person would assemble the whole lawn mower. Today the barn is still there as part of a much larger manufacturing facility that churns out nearly 7,000 mowers a year, shipping them as far away as Australia, Japan, and Africa.

“We’ve sold a few overseas,” Evans says with a laugh when asked about foreign sales. “But that’s just an ego trip. You ain’t going to make no money at it. In fact, if you get paid for them, you’re tickled to death.”

Evans’ folksy grammar might make any English teacher wince, but be hind the down-home way of speaking, there functions a mind with an uncanny, keen understanding of why things work or don’t work–both mechanically and economically–and with amazing vision.

That vision was sparked in 1973, when Evans saw his first zero turning radius mower at the Indiana State Fair. “I knew right then it was the way people would be mowing grass in the future,” he says. “It was like somebody hit you over the head with a two-by-four.”

The little blue eight-horsepower mowers were steered by levers instead of a traditional steering wheel. Their maneuverability was incredible.

Evans was so taken with them, he opened a dealership and started selling the mowers. He did so well, he sold off the less lucrative auto parts business he had been running. Eventually, he offered two different brands of zero turning radius mowers. But both models had their flaws. The smaller mower broke down every 30 days, he says. The heavier model lasted twice as long before needing repairs, but the parts on it cost twice as much to replace.

Evans realized what people needed was a mower built like the old Farmall M tractor that would pay for its initial investment and then keep on running indefinitely. So the automotive-school graduate drew on his knowledge of mechanical principles and came up with something better.

“If you cut the load in half, you quadruple its life,” Evans figured. So he put the bigger mower’s transmission on the little mower, added a bigger engine, and reinforced the deck. He then used the prototype as a loaner.

Now, he had a different problem; his new mower worked so well, people didn’t want to bring it back. “You’d have to go and get it,” Evans says. “And everybody, when you did get it back, would say, ‘I want one just like that one.’ It was a red-hot little zinger.”

So Evans bought a small section of an old farm and started building Dixie Choppers.

Evans’ first manufacturing equipment was minimal. He made his deck hubs on a metal lathe that, he later learned, had been sold new to the Wright brothers. “It’s a fact,” he says.

For a long time, Evans was a lawn mower prophet shouting in a grassy wilderness. He knew he had the world’s best-built and fastest mower, but people didn’t understand why they needed it. “Time is money,” he says, “but they just didn’t get it. And when you’re the only one out there, you’re a kook.”

It was a recession that finally got his new mowing concept moving, Evans says, because recessions lead to improved productivity. They’re great for mower sales, too. “In a recession, instead of going on a $5,000 vacation, people stay home and buy lawn mowers,” he says.

But the greatest boon of all to mower sales, he believes, is El Nino, the ocean current that causes weather patterns to bring more rain to much of the country. Right now there is more moisture in the ground than in the last 24 years, he says, and mower sales are booming. And, as Evans predicted all those years ago, zero turning radius mowers are the hottest sellers of all.

“A tractor mower with a steering wheel on it is pretty much extinct. It’s like the bald eagle was,” he says.

And zero turning radius mowers are starting to take over the residential market as well. “That’s what’s driving the market today,” Evans says. “The homeowners see these commercial guys out using them, and it’s filtering down.” Once virtually alone, Evans says he now has 39 competitors in the U.S. But he doesn’t seem worried about his Dixie Choppers competing. (“We keep tweaking ’em,” he says.) The latest innovation is the addition of the new 30-horsepower Generac engine, the largest air-cooled engine now made for a lawn care vehicle.

“For years engine makers were rationing horsepower. With this new engine, there won’t be any obstacles,” Evans says with glee. “We will be able to do anything we want.”

In the Dixie Chopper research and development area, Evans points out an array of odd vehicles. There’s a Chopper with a Mazda rotary engine that runs on LP gas and another with funny-looking tires–“We’re working on a tire that won’t go flat,” Evans says. He’s also experimenting with a new treatment that could make mower blades last twice as long.

Over at his spacious airplane hanger at the Putnam County Airport, Evans surveys his other passion: his airplanes. “I started flying just so I could stay away from the phone,” he says. “It’s so intense there.”

He owns two restored Cessna single engines and a twin-engine Piper Seneca; a Flight Star Experimental plane, which he built; a high-tech Hurricane; three paraplanes; a gyrocopter that he used to fly at airshows; and a Citation Bravo twin engine corporate jet. Gyrocopters used to crash a lot, he says, pointing to a large tail section on the gyrocopter. “I invented this stabilizer,” he says. Now they are a lot safer.

Musing, Evans recalls how he worked for ten years for IBM before he started selling auto parts and then building mowers. “I used to tell them someday I’d be parking my corporate jet on their driveway,” he says. Now he owns the jet, “but IBM isn’t there anymore,” he says.

Also parked in the hanger is a Dixie Chopper mower that Evans converted into an airplane tug and fuel truck–another of his ideas.

“I have so many ideas,” he says. “I’ll never be able to build all of them.”

COPYRIGHT 2003 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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