Forgotten companies – Cletrac

In its heyday, Cletrac was quite an innovator and made a wide range of track type tractors which were very popular. Today, it is almost forgotten. By Richard Campbell.

Cletrac, or to give the company its proper name, the Cleveland Tractor Co, was established in 1916 by one Rollin H White. Rollin White was one of three brothers, all mechanically minded (their father invented a practical sewing machine in 1859), and he was sent to Cornell University to broaden his mechanical aptitude skills; graduating in 1899. His first successful invention was a flash boiler for a steam powered car that was very successful. Rollin teamed with his other two brothers to form the White Internal Combustion Engine Company, whose aim was to provide a good reliable power source for vehicles. An offshoot of this operation managed by Rollin, was the Cleveland Motor Plow Co, formed in 1911 to manufacture machinery for agricultural purposes, but Rollin could see an even bigger picture and, in 1916, set up Cletrac, to design and manufacture track type tractors for farm and agricultural use.

White set up his new company on Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, coincidentally also the home of the Euclid Road Machinery Co. Its first product was the Model R, a 10-horsepower track type tractor weighing just over a ton that was introduced in 1916. The Model R was replaced by the slightly larger Model H in 1917. The Cletrac track type tractors were very innovative, as from day one they all featured good horsepower to weight ratios, and differential steering actuated by planetary gear sets, a concept later copied by International-Harvester, but not introduced by Caterpillar until 70 years later!

The company was also well known for the robustness of its final drives and undercarriages with users reporting very low costs of operation compared to other brands. Another innovation was the one-piece forged track shoe, first introduced on their Model 15 tractor in 1931.

Cletrac was also only one of a small handful of track type tractor manufacturers not to enter the marketplace with a wheel tractor first, as all of their machines being tracklayers.  Cletrac built and supplied some small artillery tractors for the US Army Expeditionary Force in WW1 to tow cannon but, as it was to discover, not all military contracts were to be profitable.

Cletrac’s next track type tractor was the Model W that was introduced post-WW1 in 1919. This was a 12-horsepower tractor weighing around two tons, but it was Cletrac’s next offering that was to be truly ground-breaking. This was the Model F introduced in 1920 and featured, 50 years before Caterpillar’s D10, an elevated (or hi-drive) sprocket. Designed solely for agricultural use, the Model F barely weighed one ton and, although quite popular in its day, was only manufactured from 1920 to 1922.

Things were going well for Cletrac and over the next 10 years the company introduced a whole raft of new tractors including the models15, 20, 30A, 30B, 40, AG and AD ­– just to mention a few. The Wall Street stock market crash in the 1920s did not seem to affect Cletrac too adversely and it was ‘business as usual’ at the Euclid Avenue manufacturing facility. In fact, during its first decade of operation, it was said that Cletrac manufactured and shipped over 30,000 tractors for use domestically and for export. Design and development of larger track type tractors was also undertaken in the early 1930s and several large models were introduced culminating in 1936 with the very large Model FG that weighed over 12 tons bare and was powered by a 6-cylinder Hercules diesel engine putting out 84 horsepower.

World War Two                                                                                                                     

During WWII Cletrac was contracted by the US Government to make a range of equipment for the conflict, including several models of tracked high-speed artillery tractors.  But although the company had plenty of military orders, financially there was not a great deal of profit from these contracts and the jigs and other equipment in the factory by now were in dire need of replacement.

Domestic sales of equipment had practically dried up due to the war, and the export market was, for the time being, out of action for the same reason. The ultimate outcome of all this was a severe lack of funds to invest in new tooling and research and development of new models for when the war was over. Rollin White made the difficult decision to sell the company to the Oliver Corporation of Chicago, Illinois, who had shown an interest in the company.

Oliver Corp, was already a very long-established concern and active in the agricultural sector, but was seeking to expand into the construction machinery business. The acquisition of Cletrac gave it a well-respected brand and at the same time saved it millions of dollars in research and development costs in the short term. A deal was therefore struck, and in 1944 Cletrac was sold to Oliver.

For a time after the sale, existing Cletrac stock was marketed as ‘Oliver-Cletrac’ with some machine names taking an “OC” prefix in their designations in deference to the prior company, but not long after the sale the name Cletrac quietly disappeared.  Oliver continued to manufacture track type tractors (many of Cletrac origin), plus some new machines of its own design at a new facility in Charles City, Iowa until 1965 when all track type tractor production was discontinued. These days, Cletrac and Oliver track type tractors can only be seen in private collections and at vintage machinery shows.

Cletrac engines, transmissions and attachments

Cletrac used both petrol and diesel engines in its track type tractors. While some of the gasoline engines were of Cletrac’s own manufacture, the company could draw on a range of suppliers for engine power. Its diesel engines came from a variety of suppliers including Beaver, and Hercules, (who were a particular favourite). Cletrac manufactured all of its own transmissions and these were usually machine-specific to suit the characteristics of a particular tractor and its intended application. Like other track type tractor manufacturers of the 1930s and 1940s, Cletrac did not manufacture its own attachments, leaving this job to specialist manufacturers. Although Cletrac did not officially align itself specifically with any one equipment supplier for attachments, Heil and Isaacson attachments were often sighted on a lot of tractors leaving the factory.

The New Zealand connection                                                                                           

Cletrac machines were imported into New Zealand from a very early stage and the brand was very popular amongst farmers (Cletrac’s original target market). Cletrac’s also found favour with logging contractors, where the types power to weight ratio and general ruggedness made it a favourite.  Cletrac tractors were also cheaper to buy than many of their contemporaries, especially Caterpillar. Today they are sought after by restorers and tractor collectors.

For the model collector                                                                                                                  

Regrettably, models of Cletrac tractors are very few and far between and I only know of three, two of which are very rare and equally expensive.  The most common model available is the old Dinky Supertoys ‘Blaw-Knox Bulldozer’ that was first issued in the early 1950s.  It is actually a Cletrac Model FD with a Heil hydraulic bulldozer and is to a scale of 1:43. The reason Dinky mistakenly called it a Blaw-Knox is because B-K were the UK distributor of Cletrac. Examples of this model are fairly easy to obtain through Ebay.

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