Rare 1917 Bullock Creeping Grip Crawler

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Front view of Robert Lefever’s 12-20 Bullock Creeping Grip showing the round radiator, side-mounted fuel tank and belt pulley.
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Drawing of a 12-20 Bullock Creeping Grip tractor from the 1919 Cooperative Tractor Catalog.
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Rear view of the same tractor, revealing the cooling fan, mid-mounted engine, steering levers, high seat and rear starting crank.

Many years ago, I visited the Coolspring, Pa., engine show and, while it was virtually all old engines, there were two tractors in attendance. One was a 1917 Bullock Creeping Grip crawler and the other was a 6 hp Quincy tractor from 1914, neither of which I’d seen before. I was able to find out a little about the Bullock Creeping Grip, but not much has turned up on the Quincy.

Car builder shifts gears

In the fall of 1910, William Colby, a Mason City, Iowa, man who had started several successful companies including the People’s State Bank of Mason City, decided to get into the car business. Colby hired David W. Henry, who had been fooling around with cars for 10 years, to design and oversee the manufacture of the new Colby automobile.

Three 40 hp, 4-cylinder Colby autos were quickly built in time for the Chicago Automobile Show in February 1911, and in the summer of 1911 a Colby race car driven by Indy veteran Billy Pearce placed third in the Kane County Trophy race in Elgin, Ill. Pearce won several big races in his No. 20 Colby “Red Devil” machine until dying in a crash late in the year. Colby introduced a new “underslung” car for 1912, but it was rather expensive and the Colby company finances were a shambles. In December 1911, Colby merged with National Co-operative Farm Machinery Co., Davenport, Iowa.

Iowa builder tries tracks

Meanwhile, John F. Appleby had invented a cotton picker and was looking for a company to market the machine. Appleby is famous for perfecting the knotter mechanism that made twine tie binders possible and is still in use on today’s square balers.

Early in 1912, Western Implement & Motor Co. was organized in Davenport, and took over National Co-operative Farm Machinery Co. John Appleby was named vice president of the new firm and planned to use it to sell his cotton pickers. Western Implement & Motor Co. products listed in a 1912 farm directory included tractors, trucks and automobiles, along with harvesters and cotton pickers. A Western ad shows a picture of the 45-60 hp “Creeping Grip” tractor with tracks at the rear and a pair of steel front wheels for steering. The large engine is set over the front axle, a big fuel tank and toolbox are over the tracks, and the driver sits in between.

Western made plans to move the farm implement factory to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1913 and increased its capitalization to $2 million. In October, Colby Motor Co. went under completely, Colby was ousted as president, and the assets were acquired by Standard Motor Co., which didn’t last long itself. Just 551 Colby cars were built and the only one known to survive is in a museum in Mason City.

Birth of the Baby Creeper

The demise of Colby knocked out Western Implement & Motor Co. as well, and the firm filed for bankruptcy. The man who had invested the most in the company, Chicagoan H.E. Bullock, owned $75,000 (about $1.7 million today) worth of Western stock. Bullock also had loaned the firm $16,000 for which he was assigned the Creeping Grip tractor patents as collateral. There was a hassle over who actually owned the patents, but Bullock ended up with them, and bought the rest of the firm’s assets for an additional $16,500.

Bullock then started Bullock Tractor Co. in Chicago and introduced a smaller 30-20 “Baby Creeper” for 1914. The engine was moved from atop the front wheels to directly over the tracks to give better traction. In 1916, the Creeping Grip 12-20 replaced the Baby Creeper. This machine did away with the front wheels and steering wheel and could be turned in a 10-foot radius with steering brakes. Early tractors were powered by a Giles horizontal, 2-cylinder engine, but after a short time, a Waukesha 4-cylinder power plant was adopted.

The Bullock Creeping Grip had a large, round tubular radiator at the front, the engine amidships and a bench seat at the rear. The tractor cost $1,250 in 1916 ($26,790 today), had one speed forward and one reverse, weighed about 7,200 pounds, and there was no canopy or hood to protect the machinery. For 1919, the engine speed was increased and the Creeping Grip was rated at 18-30 hp, while the price was raised as well, to $2,250.

Franklin Tractor Co., Greenville, Ohio, had been building a small crawler, called the “Franklin Flexible,” for a few years. The Flexible had an Erd 4-cylinder engine and was rated as a 15-30. Pictures show a compact little crawler with a rear-mounted belt pulley and a steering wheel mounted on a vertical shaft similar to the Cletrac Model F.

In 1920, for unknown reasons (probably financial, as this was the height of the post-Great War agricultural recession), Bullock and Franklin merged, forming Franklin-Bullock Tractor Co. Not much is known about the new firm, except that it was out of business by 1922.

Preserving the past

The Bullock Creeping Grip I saw at Coolspring in June 1998 was on its way home from the big sale at Oscar’s Dreamland in Billings, Mont. The sale of Oscar Cooke’s lifetime collection attracted bidders from all over the world and included 320 rare tractors, 29 steam engines, 40 antique cars and trucks, and 150 hit-and-miss engines, along with hundreds of implements, cast iron seats, wagons and buggies.

Oscar’s Bullock Creeping Grip, built in 1917, is one of only two or three known to exist. It was purchased by Robert Lefever, Peach Bottom, Pa. Lefever is well known in tractor collecting circles for the excellent reproduction tractor hoods and fenders he makes. His Bullock tractor was in pretty good shape and seemed to be complete, although I didn’t get to hear it run. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to see such a rare machine, and I’m very thankful for the many guys like Oscar Cooke and Bob Lefever who preserve these rare bits of farming history. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.

Read more in Bullock Creeping Grip: World War 1 Training Vehicle.

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