Early Crawler Tractors

Crawler tractors were almost unstoppable with their substantial track surfaces but were difficult to repair.

| October 2015

Allis Chalmers Crawler

Every mechanical detail appears intact – with the exception of the rolled-up tracks.

Photo by Clell G. Ballard

In areas like ours, where deep winter snow usually doesn’t melt until late March or early April, prompt preparation of the soil for spring planting is difficult. Level ground is plenty moist, and lower areas are often super wet and sometimes still have standing water.

In the first six decades of the 20th century, dryland grain was the major agricultural endeavor and, of necessity, fields were quite large. Farmers naturally utilized crawler tractors because their substantial track surfaces made possible travel over most field surfaces, with the exception of the wettest areas.

Having grown up in such an area, I never saw a crawler that didn’t have wide agricultural tracks. In fact, when, in my teens, I saw a Caterpillar with the narrower regular tracks, I was almost amazed. I didn’t know crawlers could be bought that way. The average small farmer had limited resources, and machinery was expensive, so a crawler was his only tractor. That meant that it was used in roles that wheeled tractors usually filled. When it was time to mow hay, for instance, wood blocks that were higher than the grousers were bolted to the track pads to protect fields from being torn up during turns. A crawler tractor mowing hay may have looked unusual, but it worked very well.

No proper facilities

Those same small farmers rarely had a shop of any kind. What served as a shop often was just a small outbuilding or part of a barn. Tools, lubrication items and repair parts were kept inside. The entrance to many such buildings was just a walk-in door. A door wide enough for a tractor wasn’t necessary, because the building itself was too small to hold a vehicle. The farmer was a rugged individual who was able to maintain his equipment out in the open in all types of weather.

Unfortunately, one needed repair couldn’t be taken care of in the ordinary manner. Whenever a problem arose with a tractor’s internal transmission gears or final drive, a major repair effort was necessary. Wheeled tractors with those types of problems are really hard to repair because they have to “be broken in two.” The actual supporting framework of most tractors is the huge casting that houses all the gears. To get to those gears, the two major parts of the tractor have to be unbolted and separated. As difficult as that is, since both the front and back of the tractor have wheels, when the unbolting process is complete, the two halves can be rolled apart. Of course, support must be provided for the two parts so they remain approximately level with each other. A flat, even work surface is essential.      

Major repairs uniquely challenging

A crawler, on the other hand, is a different breed of cat (no pun intended, although my early years were spent driving Caterpillars). They, too, can have transmission and final drive problems. In addition, because crawler steering clutches are heavily utilized, they are likely to experience wear and occasional breakage. If a crawler has problems with any of those components, it will have to be “broken in two.”