Equipment Spotlight: Crawler Tractors

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Line up of CAT crawler tractors being sold at a Ritchie Bros. unreserved auction

The origin of crawler tractors, defined by their use of tracks instead of wheels, reaches as far back as 1713 when Frenchman M. D’Hermand created a goat-pulled crawler-tread trailer.

A number of designs and prototypes followed that original proof of concept but the first crawler track vehicle put into production didn’t come until nearly 200 years later.

It wasn’t until 1901 when a need arose for a log hauler that could get traction in the snow that the first production vehicle to feature a crawler track system was released – the Lombard log hauler.

The first crawler tractor

Crawler tracks were applied to earth moving vehicles for the first time in 1904 by construction pioneer Benjamin Holt.

With its vehicles suffering from poor traction in the western state’s tender rich soil Holt Manufacturing Company began experimenting with new wheel designs to stop its tractors sinking into the soil.

Designs to cope with the traction issue initially called for simply adding more and larger wheels – leading to more and more complex vehicles that grew up to 46 feet wide with tires as wide as 6 feet.

Eventually crawler tracks were settled on to replace the increasingly cumbersome vehicles and, after successful tests, the company sold its first crawler tractor in 1906. It was steam-powered.

The bulldozer is born

By 1906 Holt had developed and sold their first gasoline-powered crawler tractor. Dubbed “Caterpillar”, the gas-powered Model 40 crawler featured a four-cylinder engine rated at 25 drawbar horsepower.

At first the new tractor was used primarily for agricultural work but when a large blade was attached at the front the bulldozer was born. With their front-mounted blade, bulldozers became effective earth-moving machines, increasing the crawler tractor’s usability tremendously.

An early 1953 John Deere crawler tractorAn early 1953 John Deere crawler tractor

Over the years advancements were made with hydraulics added and blades fully incorporated into tractor design to make the seamless vehicle we know today.

The tank connection

With their ability to traverse nearly any kind of terrain crawler tractors were soon noticed by governments for war-time use.

Early armored cars quickly added the more versatile crawler tracks. Capable of combat in muddy conditions like jungles and marshes, the new crawler tanks were used in combat throughout Europe, Asia, and the Pacific during World War II.

Into the modern era

As time moved on crawler tractors got larger, more powerful, and more comfortable. 1963 saw the release of the HD-41 by Allis-Chalmers, a crawler tractor with a 70 tonne operating weight and a 524 horsepower engine.

Thankfully for operators, focus eventually shifted to operator comfort. Hydraulic controls took the place of heavy hand wheels and air conditioned cabs were equipped with radios, adjustable seats, and creature comforts like cup-holders.

To find out more about the history of crawler tractors and how they work check out the article about crawler tractors on

Search our current inventory to find crawler tractors being sold in upcoming auctions. 

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1 comment

vlad.petruk on agosto 23, 2012 said
Wow, I did not know that a history of crawler tractors begins in the 18th century.

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