Classic Machines

Earthmoving equipment as an art form

This month we’re doing something a little out of the ordinary. The 30s, 40s and 1950s were the zenith of stylish industrial design and class. In this article, we take a look at how industrial design influenced the earthmoving industry of the day. By Richard Campbell

Industrial design really came of age in the 1930s with such notable names as Henry Dreyfuss, Raymond Loewy and Otto Kuhler.

Of these three visionaries, Dreyfuss is probably the best known, designing everything from furniture to fly swatters and telephones but he did not indulge in the products of the earthmoving industry.

Otto Kuhler designed more streamlined locomotives for the US railroads than all the other industrial designers of the period put together.

He was also an acclaimed artist.

His styling was very Art Deco to the eye, and he was involved with the LaPlant-Choate and Allis-Chalmers companies for a time as a design consultant.

However it was Raymond Loewy who stands head and shoulders at the forefront of earthmoving machinery design.

Loewy had an exceptionally flowing style which rounded off all sharp angles creating very graceful looking pieces of machinery in an industry more known for brutish looks rather than style.

His designs were used by International Harvester, not only for farm tractors but also the TD-6, TD-9, TD-14, TD-18 and TD-24 track type tractors.

It was Loewy who gave them their rounded bonnets, grilles interspersed with stylish chrome strips and their rounded fuel tanks.

They were smart looking tractors!

Loewy also designed the majority of I-H dealer premises’ interiors, giving them all a friendly ‘family’ look.

Not quite so well known is the work Loewy did for Caterpillar in designing the exterior of that Company’s first wheel tractor, the DW10.

Loewy’s design with headlights faired into the fenders, curvaceous radiator grille and smooth lines made the DW10 look like a high class automobile rather than a utilitarian piece of equipment.

There is of course, always a drawback somewhere in the mix and with earthmoving machinery this rears its head as cost to manufacture and serviceability.

In the case of the Caterpillar DW10, it took twice as long to create those lovely faired and flowing panels than it did to just create a right angle join – style cost money!

Also, it was not always easy to access certain points of the machine that required regular servicing.

The end result was that Caterpillar, although very pleased with Loewy’s work, reverted to more ‘ergonomic’ means of manufacture by 1947.

When General Motors bought the Euclid Road Machinery Co in the early 50s, GM had a whole team of specialist designers, the Fisher Body Works, to work with in redesigning and styling GM’s new acquisition.

Comparison of Euclid machines from the 40s and 50s will verify the advances that GM designers introduced.

One manufacturer who did not employ industrial designers was LeTourneau.

Mr R.G, who was a very practical man,  preferred to design everything himself.

It was of no concern to him if a machine looked ugly as long as it worked!

LeTourneau would not have won any prizes for ergonomics back in the day either.

However, his machinery did work – and kept on working.

It was not only the machinery, but also the publications from this time period that are, in the author’s opinion, the best presented and most highly informative pieces of literature ever offered to the prospective purchaser.

They are true art pieces compared to today’s brochures which are quite lacklustre and sterile by comparison.

Most of the publications from the 30s, 40s and 50s contain a wealth of black & white photos (full colour printing was rare prior to the 1960s), cutaway drawings and highly detailed breakdowns of the respective manufacturer’s products.

For the modeller they are a Godsend of details.

Of particular interest are those brochures published by the big manufacturers of the day – Caterpillar, Allis-Chalmers, LeTourneau, Wooldridge, Euclid, International-Harvester and LaPlant-Choate.

Also worthy of note are the suppliers that provided blades, buckets, cable controls and other equipment to these major manufacturers as their publications can be a wealth of good information of rare and unusual items and provide hours of viewing pleasure.


Even toy company’s of the era were involved.

None of the plastic rubbish that today purports to being an earthmoving machine and lasts five minutes in the sandpit.

Toys of the 40s & 50s from manufacturers such as Doepke, Structo and Nylint (not forgetting Boomaroo in Australia), depicted actual machines, were made of real steel, had real rubber tyres with authentic tread patterns and operated prototypically.

Surviving examples can nowadays change hands for lots of money.


Collecting Literature

There are quite of lot of people out there that collect literature from the 30s, 40s and 50s time period and your author is no exception.

Some pieces, which were once given away free by the dealerships, can now attract quite astonishing prices and there is a growing demand for literature from this time period.

Originals are always preferable to reproductions but sometimes that is the route you have to take to fill a gap in your collection.

Be aware of scalpers – they are out there and can ask quite unreasonable prices.

Where to find these goodies – Ebay &Trade-Me are good starting points as is the Historical Construction Equipment Association which regularly disposes of duplicate items from their archive.

Specialised auction houses such as Aumanns are also a good place to look but bidding can get quite expensive on rarer items so beware.

Have a limit and stick to it.


As the paper these items were printed on is now, in some cases, almost 90 years old, some due care and diligence has to be exercised in looking after your old publications.

Storage in acid-free plastic envelopes in a binder of some sort is a good investment, as is keeping an inventory of what you have (saves duplicating an item).

Humidity is an enemy – it loves old paper, as is exposure to direct sunlight which will also deteriorate your prize possessions.

Happy Collecting!





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