A Tractor Experiment

Caterpillar Model Expo 20; Caterpillar Tractor Co., 1927; 7000lbs. Heidrick Ag History Center.

The Caterpillar Twenty tractor has the distinction of being the first tractor designed by the Caterpillar Tractor Co.  It is easily recognizable as an early Caterpillar because of its grey color. (Many people today associate Caterpillars with their yellow color, but in the first few years after the 1925 merger between the C.L. Best Tractor Co. and the Holt Manufacturing Company, Caterpillar tractors were actually grey.  In 1932, the company offered either grey or yellow, but in December of 1932 the Best company decided they would only produce tractors in the standard yellow color. This little tractor might not be yellow, but it does hold an important place in Caterpillar history as a machine that combined the expertise of both Best and Holt.

Caterpillar Twenty Tractor Manual, Capterpillar Tractor Co., San Leandro, CA: 1927. Heidrick Ag History Center Archives.

Design on the new Caterpillar Twenty began in 1926.  The design was supposed to introduce a smaller, more affordable tractor, and was meant to replace the “2 Ton Caterpillar” previously produced by Holt.  Advertisements about the Caterpillar Twenty lauded the tractor as being “new in size, new in rating, new in price, [and] new in that it embodies the latest accumulation of the many years of “Caterpillar” experience.”  But how did Caterpillar use the accumulated knowledge of both the Best Tractor Co. and the Holt Manufacturing Company to create such a “new” tractor?

By letting a teenager try to run it into the ground, of course.  In 1927, two experimental Caterpillar Twenty tractors were produced with the sole purpose of testing them for flaws. One of these experimental Twenty tractors was given to Caterpillar Chairman C.L. Best’s teenage son, Dan. Fifteen year old Dan was told to drive the tractor anywhere and everywhere on the grounds of Caterpillar’s San Leandro factory.  After stressing the machine as best he could, Dan reported back the faults that he noticed.  Production on the Caterpillar 20 began in 1927, and was successfully produced until 1933.

Caterpillar Model Expo 20: Caterpillar Tractor Co., 1927, 7000 lbs. Heidrick Ag History Center.

Although the Model Twenty had flaws and was not ready for production, the experimental tractor was used for a few years at C.L. Best’s Diamond B ranch in Livingston, California. The tractor was later saved from the scrap piles and given to C.L.’s grandson, Dan Best II, to be used on his Woodland farm.  After being parked on the Woodland farm for some time, the one-of-a-kind Caterpillar Model Twenty found its home at the Heidrick Ag History Center.

Read more about the Bests and the formation of the Caterpillar Tractor Co. in Ed and Sue Claessen’s new book, Making Tracks: C.L. Best and the Caterpillar Tractor Co.  Both authors will be at the Heidrick Ag History Center on Friday, September 23 for a book signing; RSVP to the event by emailing aghistory@aghistory.org or by calling Rocio at 530 666 9700.

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