Rescue Party Saves 22 Caterpillar

New “old” tractor makes life interesting, in this case a 22 Caterpillar crawler tractor saved from a field

This ex-World War II armored vehicle transported us to the long dormant tractor’s location.

This ex-World War II armored vehicle transported us to the long dormant tractor’s location.

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When a new member arrives in your family, everything changes. A wise older gentleman told me that one child really didn’t make much of a change in a couple’s lifestyle. The second child, however, made major changes. The most obvious one being that finding someone to look after “children,” as opposed to one child, was much more difficult. According to the sage, the third child – and any thereafter – made the family a unit that no longer was a collection of individuals. From then on it was known as a single entity. 

The above sociological observation might be applied to the addition of a new collector vehicle to a person’s stable. We all know individuals who own one prized automotive object. Their lives pretty much go along without much change from before. A second old motorized vehicle makes a big change and each additional one molds the owner into a member of a subculture that is unique. Rarely is he still referred to by his occupation. From then on, he is described as being part of the old car world, old tractor world or other specific category of collectors.

We won’t discuss how new children arrive in a family, but one of the most common ways in which a new vehicle arrives to join others somewhat like it is the grapevine that spreads the word of an individual’s interest in old machinery. Before you know it, an appealing old object comes into view. How can it be ignored? You just about have to take it in and care for it.           

Taking in a Cat 22

For my brother and me, one example of that was the late 1930s 22 Caterpillar gasoline tractor that was offered to us out of the blue. One day, word arrived that a retired farmer had such a tractor that was available if we wanted it. It was understood that no money needed to change hands. Disposing of other farm equipment, the owner just wanted someone with the reputation of being interested in old vehicles to take the 22 Caterpillar and value it. It had been last used in the 1960s and was running at the time but, as the farmer seemed to remember, it had some mechanical problem that would need to be addressed to make it 100 percent.

We didn’t procrastinate. Within a few weeks we organized a retrieval party to save the old tractor. The group included my brother and me along with three of my sons who were old enough to be interested and capable of helping if there was anything we two adults couldn’t do.

More than fully equipped

On the appointed day my brother drove to the farm with his pickup and I took my World War II 1943 Autocar M-15 multiple gun motor carriage. The motor carriage started out as an armored half-track with a turret on the back that contained a 20 mm cannon and two .50-caliber machine guns. It was designed to protect Allied convoys from air attack first in North Africa and later in Europe. After the war the need for trucks was so great that civilians removed the turret and tracks and made it into a heavy-duty cargo truck. The front remained as built with 1/4-inch armor plate impervious to any hostile fire smaller than .50-caliber armor-piercing shells.

The tractor was found far down in a field parked under some trees. The pickup was left close to the road and everyone rode there in the gun carriage. Previous retrieval experiences had educated us; we were fully outfitted with all necessary “bring an old vehicle back to life” items.

It was understood that to load the crawler tractor it had to be running. Thus we had to find a fairly high dirt bank that we could back up the truck to. That would make the bed level with the ground. If the tractor was mobile it could be driven on. We would concern ourselves about that if our resurrection efforts proved effective.

Moment of truth

Tractors of that era didn’t need batteries since they had magnetos and were crank-started. Although exposed to the weather in our dry climate for several decades, the old Cat’s engine was free and exhibited signs that it might indeed be a runner. Oil was added to the cylinders to provide lubrication for the long dry pistons. The gasoline system was cleaned and proved to be pretty much free from the rust and crud often found in long dormant gas tanks. The magneto was opened up and cleaned. We took turns turning the engine over with the crank to make sure things were oiled up inside.

After completing all preparations, we primed the carburetor and turned the engine over a quarter-turn with the crank. Gasoline engines with large cylinders like the little 22 Caterpillar has are designed to be cranked like that. Spinning the engine is unheard of and, if tried, often results in broken hands and wrists. Amazingly, after several attempts the engine coughed and roared into life. We all stood around grinning like idiots. Water was added to the radiator and we were in business.

Since my brother owns a 22 Caterpillar like the one we were salvaging, he was made the designated driver as we attempted to get the tractor about a quarter mile to where it could be loaded. The rest of us made sure all our retrieval materials were taken back. It didn’t take long before the mechanical problem the farmer mentioned became obvious. One steering clutch was inoperable. All crawlers, no matter how well set up, have a tendency to drift one direction or the other when in motion. In our case, the little tractor wouldn’t go very far before it was not heading where we wanted to head. With only one usable steering clutch, it became necessary to stop often and back up to get headed again in the right direction.

That was no big problem! We had a running, moving tractor that held high promise for better days. The distance to the truck was traversed and a suitable dirt bank was located. The little tractor climbed right up on to its chariot. Away we went with our treasure. Since small crawlers don’t weigh a whole lot, the heavy-duty truck drove like it had nothing but a fly on its back. When we got to our destination, unloading required just another dirt bank of proper height. We had saved a noble old Caterpillar for posterity.

Tackling the driveline

As all tractor enthusiasts know, repairing an internal driveline problem requires it to be broken in half. That is one of the major hurdles that must be overcome in such a repair. Since crawlers are basically large hunks of cast iron with components that weigh a sizable amount, that “breaking in two” requires a lot of work. Unlike wheel tractors that can, with the proper technique, be separated and the two sections rolled back on the wheels, crawlers require the tracks be removed, which most often means the body of the tractor is basically flat on the ground. Just rolling the parts apart isn’t an option.      

With enough effort it is possible to get things separated so repairs to the steering clutches are possible. Fortunately the parts supply for old tractors of most kinds has improved in recent years so the 22 Caterpillar can regain its proper mobility. It then becomes part of the larger old tractor family. In this case it and its siblings all have yellow paint. FC 

A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school. For more than 50 years he’s worked on his uncle’s hay and grain ranch during the summer. Currently they swath, rake and big bale 1,000 acres of dry land hay each summer. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 MST or by e-mail at cballard@northrim.net.