Caterpillar Thirty in Paradise

Historic Caterpillar Thirty crawler tractor restored by Maui man

Hank Tavares with his 1925 Caterpillar Thirty

Hank Tavares with his 1925 Caterpillar Thirty.

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In 2000, when Hank Tavares first saw an abandoned 1925 Caterpillar Thirty crawler sitting in a weed-covered sugar cane field on Maui in the Hawaiian Islands, he was about the only person who could actually imagine its potential as a restored collectible. His wife, Renee, was solidly in the other camp. “She thought I was totally insane to want to buy it,” he recalls. 

When Hank approached the farmer who owned the land about buying the ancient machine, the farmer told him he could have it for free if he’d just haul it away. The farmer’s grandfather had purchased the crawler years earlier to use as a parts donor.

Thus began Hank’s unique venture into the land of antique crawler tractors. Although he’d been a diesel mechanic for 30 years and worked on large equipment for Hawthorne Pacific Corp., a Maui Caterpillar dealer, the restoration of the Caterpillar Thirty would be his most monumental project yet.

For the next four years, Hank poured every spare minute he had into the Caterpillar Thirty, working from his garage, carport and under a backyard tarp at his home in Makawao. The project started innocently enough. “I wanted people to drive by, admire it and stop in and talk about it,” he says.

Mechanical from the start

Hank grew up in Honolulu. As a youth, he and three brothers (two of whom now also work as mechanics) were regulars at local junkyards, where they gathered mechanical treasures that they’d haul home, take apart and rebuild.

Following graduation from high school, Hank enrolled in a mechanical apprenticeship program offered through the county. A few months later, while working on a Cummings engine with a county mechanic, he contacted a local Cummings dealership, looking for a service manual for the engine. The manager was so impressed by Hank’s knowledge of engines that he offered him a job.

Years later, when he became interested in antique tractors, Hank began looking around the island for prospects. Decades ago, new crawlers were routinely purchased from California Caterpillar dealers to work the islands’ sugar cane and pineapple fields run by large corporations. When the corporate farms upgraded, the used equipment was sold to small farmers. As the years passed, many pieces were abandoned and forgotten. One – a 1925 Cat Thirty – caught Hank’s eye.

Transition tractor

As found, Hank’s Thirty promised to be a challenge. “It was in pretty sad shape,” he admits. “It was a true basket case.” The tracks were disconnected and laying underneath the rusting hulk. The side fenders, intake exhaust manifold, magneto, seat and frame, seat brackets, one engine block plate and carburetor were missing. The engine had been flooded at some point and the cylinders were corroded.

It took months to remove the pistons from the barrels and new piston rings had to be installed. In all, Hank ended up doing a lot of sheet metal work (the tropical climate is brutal on old tractors) and machined nearly 20 replacement parts. Paint was special ordered to match the tractor’s original color.

Hank believes his Thirty is a transition tractor representing the period in 1925 when C.L. Best Tractor Co. of San Leandro, Calif., and Holt Mfg. Co., Stockton, Calif./Peoria, Ill., consolidated to form Caterpillar Tractor Co. “It has parts from both Best and Holt,” he says. In conversations with Jim Zimmerman of Antique Crawler Parts, Orchard, Iowa, whom he’d contacted as a parts source, Hank began to suspect he had something unique on his hands. “Jim kept pointing out all kinds of special things on the tractor,” he recalls.

The tractor had no serial number tag when Hank found it, but it falls into a range from S3775 to S4115. “It’s rare because the Caterpillar Thirty has a solid bar from frame to frame and a coil spring on the end of the tracks instead of the lift spring that most Cat Thirties have,” he says.

Hank’s Thirty is a wide-gauge tractor (measuring 60 inches from the center of the track shoes), which is typical of those shipped to Hawaii. “Ninety percent of the tractors shipped to Hawaii were wide-gauge, high-clearance,” he says. “They were made for the sloping hillsides we have here. Our land isn’t flat; it’s all mountains. From what I know, Caterpillar made the wide-gauge tractors just for Hawaii. That’s why they’re so rare, and the mainland collectors come here to get them.”

The restored Thirty has a narrow, one-man seat. “That’s the first type Caterpillar made for that tractor,” Hank says. Another special feature is the front track idler spring. “It’s very small and round,” he says. “That’s the first type Caterpillar made for the early tractors.”

Crossing the Pacific – again

When he finished the restoration project, Hank invited his wife, Renee, to view the result. At that point, the tractor was under a tent in the backyard; Renee had not been following day-to-day progress. “She was totally amazed,” Hank recalls. She wasn’t the only one. In 2008, the Thirty grabbed the attention of West Coast Cat enthusiasts and Hank was invited to display his tractor at the summer national show of the Antique Caterpillar Machinery Owners Club at the Dan Best Ranch, Woodland, Calif.

When you live in Hawaii, taking a tractor to a show on the mainland is no easy task. Caterpillar dealerships on Maui and Oahu (Hawthorne Pacific), as well as Peterson Tractor, San Leandro, Calif., agreed to pick up the shipping tab. Hank loaded his 9,400-lb. classic into a shipping container and the Cat made its way back across the Pacific.

Attending the show was a huge thrill for Hank. “I met a lot of antique tractor enthusiasts,” he says, “and received a lot of good comments from people who saw my tractor.”

The next project

An active member of the Antique Caterpillar Machinery Owners Club of Hawaii, Chapter 11 (and now serving as club president), Hank has gone on to restore other pieces of old iron. His collection includes three D2 Cats, a Cat 22 and a 1943 Farmall Model H. The latter, he notes, was “just too good a deal to pass up, and it already ran.”

Years earlier, the Farmall had been sold at a government surplus auction and then used in pineapple fields. Later, it was sold to a Maui farmer. Hank gave it a cosmetic restoration and tune-up, finishing just in time to load the Farmall onto a farm equipment float in the Makawao Paniolo Parade held in July 2009.

Hank’s current project is a 1945 Caterpillar D4 bulldozer. In running condition when he got it, the dozer’s steering clutches have since been repaired and reinstalled. The project is on track for completion this year. Like his Cat Thirty, the D4 will be another major project. Hours of work, countless dollars – “but it’s all worth it,” Hank says. “It’s a labor of love.”

Tractors in the tropics

Paradise and antique tractors: For some, the two go hand-in-hand. The old iron hobby is alive and well in the tropics of Hawaii. Reflecting a long history of Caterpillar use in the islands’ sugar cane and pineapple fields, Hawaii is home to Chapter 11 of the Antique Caterpillar Machinery Owners Club.

Though small in numbers (the group has about a dozen active members), Chapter 11 meets quarterly and participates in four public events each year. Members display pieces from their collections at the festivities, which include the Maui County Agricultural Festival, held in April at the Maui Tropical Plantation at Waikapu; the Upcountry Ag & Farm Fair in June in Makawao; the Makawao Paniolo (Hawaiian for cowboy) Parade in July, Makawao; and the Christmas Festival in December, Makawao. FC 

For more information:  Hank Tavares, e-mail: mauigascats@yahoo.com.

Now living in Sandpoint, Idaho, freelance writer Cecil Hicks grew up on a family farm in north central Illinois. He worked for 16 years as a firefighter (including seven years as a smokejumper) in Washington, Alaska, and Idaho and is a retired elementary school teacher. Contact him at 131 Red Clover Dr., Sandpoint, ID 83864.