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Engine of the Week

John Deere Rat Rod with a 496 Big Block Chevy Engine

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We’ve been cranking out articles on an array of Sick Week vehicles and engines that we got to see during our week in Florida, but you haven’t seen anything like Jesse Madaffari’s rat rod. It’s a 1972 John Deere tractor cab on a GMC S15 truck frame with a 496 big block Chevy engine capable of 10-second passes. Go ahead and read it again – you read it correctly. When we approached this rat rod from across the lot in Gainesville, we were drawn in like moths to a flame. Jesse was kind enough to give us a few minutes to unpack all the details.

Jesse Madaffari (green hoodie) admires his 1972 John Deere 7520 cabbed rat rod with an S15 frame and 496 big block Chevy engine.

“This was something that has been floating in my head for seven or eight years now,” Jesse Madaffari told us. “I substitute teach, and I was in Photoshop one time and I gave the kids freedom to go find something on the internet [for me to build a rat rod off of]. Of course, they knew I was into John Deere and they found somebody who had built a little parade vehicle using a 4020 cab. I looked and I went, ‘Hmm?’ I noticed it didn’t have a bar, so I knew it couldn’t be fast. I thought, somebody needs to do a real one of those, and so the dream started.”

Jesse isn’t new to the drag-and-drive scene. He’s been a staple of Drag Week for many years, competing with a C10 square body that housed this same 496 big block Chevy engine and John Deere livery. But this new rat rod build is something truly special.

“I was originally going to put it on an old C20 truck I had,” Madaffari says. “I was going to use that frame and try to cut it out and all that. My buddies out here told me that was dumb, and I should start with something else. I ended up using an ‘82 GMC S15 as the base and a 7520 John Deere cab.”

Jesse actually used to work on a 7520 John Deere tractor when it was in the field. He admits that they weren’t the greatest tractors thanks to the dry clutch and some other nuances, but the cab was exactly what Jesse was looking for in his new vehicle, and he knew where to find one. 

“I knew a farmer who got as much out of it as he could and salvaged it out to the local salvage dealer in south Texas – Grove Brothers,” he says. “I knew it was there. When the idea to build this rat rod came up, I got ahold of Grove and I asked if that cab was still out there. He didn’t know, so the next time I was down visiting my parents, I went out there and he said whatever you find is yours. I started tramping around and lo and behold it was there against a fence. It had sunflowers all over it and a tree growing up through the roof – it was a mess. But, I looked at it and knew that was it.

“I also found an old, burnt 4450 tractor hood that was real ratted out. Grove asked me if I was sure those were what I wanted, and I told him I was sure. He had his guys cut the trees to get it out and that’s where the build started. When I got it home, my wife looked at it and went, ‘What did you do!?’”

Jesse’s wife is in charge of making his vehicles look good, so she painted the cab and did all that work, which is referenced with a “Graphix by Mimi” logo on the top of the cab.

“She’s in charge of the pretty,” Madaffari says. “She also put stickers on it to try to match the square body that I’ve done Drag Week with for all these years.”

Inside the frame rails of the rat rod sits Jesse’s coveted 496 big block Chevy, which features a Scat crank, Scat rods, Chevy pistons, and aluminum heads with a 10:1 compression.

“It’s easy on the street,” he says. “This engine was in the square body and I freshened it up a couple of years ago. It has 70,000-80,000 miles on it. I’ve gone through a couple of cams. It has a roller cam in it now from Cam Dynamics. The lift is right at .680, so it’s easy on the valvetrain. It makes more low-end power than any cam I’ve ever had in it, and it sounds pretty good. The whole top end is from Crane, and it’s got roller rockers and Howard’s solid roller lifters.”

Jesse went on to tell us that he hasn’t gotten rid of his old square body. He’s since set it up for towing, and as soon as he gets a trailer built, it’ll be pulling this John Deere rat rod around. Despite that future plan, the John Deere rat rod is Jesse’s daily driver – as long as it’s 50 degrees and warmer.

“I drive it everywhere,” he says. “You can’t drive it and not smile.”

Helping keep the big block engine running cool is a high-volume oiling system that treats the springs to enough oil to stop any potential issues.

“In drag racing, you actually try to keep oil from getting to the top, but in these drag-and-drives, the killer is the valve springs,” Madaffari says. “I found out a long time ago, if you get oil up there, that helps keep everything cool. My seat pressure, I think, is about 160-165-lbs., and with the .680 lift I don’t have to worry about coil binds on it. I am running double springs, not triples. I used to run triples, but that was just a little overkill on the street. Since I’ve gone to the high-volume oiling system, I haven’t had any spring problems. It’s about as bulletproof as I think I could get it.”

Jesse proved that durability during Sick Week where he ran in the C group as part of the Bulls Eye Challenge class. These competitors were attempting to run a time with a decimal place as close to each day’s number as possible. Day 1 was 52, Day 2 was cancelled, Day 3 was 24, Day 4 was 48, and Day 5 was 66. Jesse ran ETs of [email protected] mph, [email protected] mph, [email protected] mph, and [email protected] mph for an average of [email protected] mph.


Watch Jesse burnout:

“Running a 10.00 is my goal,” he told us. “This thing weighs 3,250 with me in it. I’ll be putting it on the bottle. It’s built for that. The weak link right now is a converter. I’m basically doing first and second and just kind of coasting through the quarter. I’m having a good time, and that’s what this really is all about.”

Madaffari told us his 496 big block puts out over 700 horsepower, and it’s a sight to see the John Deere cab fly down the strip. Regardless of the horsepower output or the ETs on the track, Jesse’s rat rod is awesome, super unique and is sure to put a smile on the face of any person who sees it.


Engine of the Week is sponsored by PennGrade Motor OilElring – Das Original and Engine & Performance Warehouse Inc./NPW Companies. If you have an engine you’d like to highlight in this series, please email Engine Builder Editor Greg Jones at [email protected]

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