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Steering Toward the Future: A Deep Look at Crawler Tractor Steering Systems

With this issue, we welcome Robert Pripps to the pages of Farm Collector. Author of several books of interest to old iron fans (The Big Book of Farmall Tractors, John Deere: Yesterday and Today, Big Book of Farm Tractors, Big Book of Caterpillar, Ford Tractors and more), Pripps’ name is familiar to anyone with an interest in antique tractors.

His topic in this issue is the evolution of crawler tractor steering systems. In the late 1800s, steering systems on steam-powered traction engines with crawler tracks were fairly straightforward, if primitive. Introduction of the internal combustion engine in the early 1900s complicated everything. Years went by before individual steering brakes were added to early gas crawlers.

Picture a crawler at work in the field in, say, 1910 or ’15. Picture operators who perhaps had little or no experience with motive power. It must have been an absolutely maddening process – touch a lever, depress the clutch or track brake and many things happened, likely none of which was intended. It’s no wonder that a market for rein-drive tractors like the Power-Horse existed as late as the late 1930s.

Nothing is as constant as change, and yet 1915 truly was a time of change. Tremendous change began to blow through farm country, the result of technological progress unimaginable just a few years earlier. None of it worked as promised, some of it didn’t work at all, much of it was confounding, but even die-hard horse farmers began studying up on how to convert horse-drawn implements to use behind a tractor.

The impact of the technological advancements of the first half of the 20th century was impossibly widespread. In his article on crawler tractor steering systems, Pripps delivers a narrow but deep look at that progress, giving us a full measure of context in the process. Supported by terrific archival photographs that capture the march of time, Pripps’ article helps us more clearly understand the significance of each step forward. Give it a gander. The next time you see crawlers on display at a tractor show, you’ll enjoy a new perspective on tracks! FC


Leslie C. McManus is the editor of Farm Collector magazine. Contact her via email.