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Cletrac W12-20

In the early 1910s, car manufacturer Roland White saw an opportunity to participate in the ever-expanding tractor market.

But White wasn’t satisfied with building just another tractor. He’d experimented with a wheeled tractor when it occurred to him that what farmers needed – particularly Midwestern farmers – was a crawler tractor, powerful but light, advanced but affordable. Those criteria were met – and then some – when he introduced the first Cleveland Tractor Company crawler in 1916.

That first crawler, the Model R, was quickly succeeded by the Model W 12-20 in 1918. And it was this model that established Cleveland Motors and its Cletrac tractors as a serious contender in the crawler market. So much so that crawler giant Holt was forced to react by beefing up his line of little crawlers like the Caterpillar Ten.


One of the major attractions of the Model W was certainly its price. It sold for $1,385. Consider that the Fordson (which is credited for introducing horsepower to more farmers than any other tractor) first sold for $785 when it was introduced in 1918.

But the Fordson was crude by the engineering standards of this time. The Model W was anything but rudimentary.

Indeed, the Cletrac crawler is considered one of the most advanced tractors of its time. For starters, it employed the unique Controlled Differential Steering mechanism (patented by White) and a planetary gear system that delivered power to both tracks even on turns. This design was not only very efficient (the W pulled 52% of its own weight when evaluated at the Nebraska Tractor Test), but also it greatly reduced soil berming when it was turned, a problem with all crawlers at this time. Cleveland referred to this advance as the Tru-Traction system. Its basic principle would be utilized by all Cletrac crawlers in the future.

Engineering firsts galore

Cletrac crawlers also introduced many other advances unheard of in the 1920s, such as the use of an air cleaner system and roller bearings (both used to extend engine life) and tracks made of manganese instead of cast iron. The latter innovation extended the life of Cletrac tracks and reduced their weight.

Weight was a heavy issue for Roland White. His intent was to fashion a tractor that was light on its feet yet still offered all the tractive advantages of a crawler.

Cleveland promoted their crawlers as being able to deliver more power to the ground compared to wheeled tractors and being able to do so while producing far less soil compaction. This claim is the first recognition of the negative impacts compaction had on crop yields by a manufacturer, a distinction that would not become commonly acknowledged for decades to come.

White also was dedicated to building a crawler for ready use by Midwestern farmers. And that intent can best be seen in his Model F, the little brother to the Model W. The F was specially designed for cultivating row crops like corn. The machine was one of the first crawlers to employ a top drive sprocket, a concept still in use today. The F was designed so its tracks could be raised and made wider, marking it as one of the first tractors to feature this radical concept.

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