Finding the First Caterpillar Tractor

Author Photo
By Don Mcloud

Doug and Matt Veerkamp with the 1926 Caterpillar Twenty and the first model Caterpillar Fifteen, built in 1929. The two relics are part of their collection of 125 antique Caterpillars. Photo courtesy of Caterpillar.

Matt Veerkamp was on a parts search 13 years ago in Arbuckle, California, when he was asked to take a look at a rusty old Caterpillar Twenty. Matt wasn’t too excited about the offer, but that changed when he saw the tractor. The serial number stamped on the transmission case and the engine block read, “EXP 0000-L.”

The serial number tag on the Caterpillar Twenty. Built in San Leandro, Calif., and Peoria, Ill., the model was in production from 1927 to 1931. A total of 8,289 Model Twenty Cats were built. Photo courtesy of Matt Veerkamp.

Matt called his father, Doug, with the information. “Yeah, we’ll take a chance,” Doug recalls saying over the phone. After the tractor arrived at the Veerkamps’ home in Placerville, California, where the two run Doug Veerkamp General Engineering, Matt started researching and confirmed they had something special.

“By golly, it was the first brand of Caterpillar tractor of the new company,” Doug says.

The Caterpillar Twenty before the Veerkamps restored it. The Twenty was conceived as a replacement for Holt’s Caterpillar 2-Ton. Photo courtesy of Matt Veerkamp.

The Twenty, an experimental unit, was built in 1926, after the 1925 consolidation of C.L. Best Tractor Co. and Holt Mfg. Co. that resulted in formation of Caterpillar Tractor Co. Not only was it Caterpillar’s first tractor built entirely off its new design, it was the company’s exhibition model, which it showed at county and state fairs and other venues in an effort to gin up interest in the new product.

Not yellow, and not gray

The Veerkamps are seasoned collectors specializing in antique Caterpillar tractors, as well those produced by Holt and Best. Doug started the collection, but Matt proved a quick study. Matt is also a serious collector of Caterpillar literature, including print ads, catalogs and product brochures.

Once they began to restore the tractor, the Veerkamps made other discoveries. “It was in pretty rough shape and had been painted Cat yellow,” Doug says. That wasn’t the tractor’s original color. “Caterpillar colors back then were gray and red,” Doug says. “But they painted this one white because of the specialty of what it was.”

 As the two kept scratching, they also discovered nickel and brass plating in many places. “It was pretty cool to find all of that under the old yellow paint,” Doug says.

The Caterpillar Twenty was featured on the cover of an early issue of the Caterpillar Magazine.

Holding on to this one

After about four months, the Twenty was as good as new. “We took it down to the last nut and bolt and overhauled the engine,” Doug says. “We redid virtually everything and made it into brand new condition.” Today, the relic runs smoothly, “just like it was a new tractor.”

The Twenty is powered by a 4-cylinder gasoline engine and started by a hand crank on the front of the radiator. “It was quite a hit back in the day,” Doug says, “because it sure beat the heck out of horses and mules.”

Matt Veerkamp with the Caterpillar Tractor Company’s first Twenty, an experimental unit later used as a demonstrator at state fairs. Matt discovered the tractor during a visit to the Traynham Ranch in Arbuckle, Calif. As it turned out, the ranch owner’s wife is a direct descendant of C.L. Best. Repainted Cat yellow, the Twenty eventually ended up on the ranch, where it was used for occasional jobs. Photo courtesy of Caterpillar.

The Veerkamps often get offers on the Twenty, including one from Caterpillar, but they’re not interested in selling. Doug hopes the tractor will stay in the family for generations. “It’s one of a kind, the first Caterpillar tractor ever built,” he says. “It’s a very, very, very unique piece.” FC

Don McLoud is senior editor of Equipment World magazine. Reprinted with permission from www.Equipment- World.com, where this article first appeared. Email the Veerkamps at info@ veerkamp.com.

Published on Feb 4, 2021

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