A new book by publishing house Octane Press chronicles the development of high-horsepower four-wheel drive tractors from International Harvester, Steiger, J.I. Case and Case IH.
Lee Klancher, lead author of Red 4WD Tractors and owner of Octane Press, said the book describes how four-wheel drive tractors evolve from three very different perspectives.
“You have International Harvester, which was one of the biggest companies in the world at the time, and their approach to 4WD was frankly kind of a mess,” Klancher said.
“They kept outsourcing it, and it kept not working,” he said.
“They eventually did bring to bear all of their technological might in the ’70s and created the 2+2, but that’s a corporate approach to a four wheel drive tractor.”
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J.I. Case was a smaller player in the market and didn’t have a lot of money or staff, but it figured out how to deliver a crab steer tractor that was economical while still being an efficient, very powerful and useful, Klancher said.
“They were actually number one in the industry in the early ’70s for a brief time in that four wheel drive segment,” he said.
Klancher said the story of how the Steiger tractor developed is one of the best stories in agriculture.
In 1958, three northern Minnesota farmers — two brothers and their father — decided to build their own tractors in their dairy barn.
“To go to that to becoming a world leader is unbelievable,” he said.
“It’s unbelievable enough to build your own tractor, but then the path to making it in the heavy equipment industry — there were probably five points in their history where they really should have failed, and something happened.”
More than 50 interviews were conducted with the people who built the Steiger tractor company, which allowed the stories behind the development of Steiger tractors to be told in a dramatic fashion.
“The Steiger guys were amazing,” Klancher said.
“We spoke to most the principles in the company who were still living about what happened.”
Red 4WD Tractors uses vivid images and illustrations to chronicle the technological development of the tractors, and many of the images were taken by Klancher.
He said one of the reasons he started Octane Press was a desire to produce technical stories in more detail with a larger focus on images than other publishers typically use.
Red 4WD Tractors was produced by the same team that wrote Red Tractors 1958-2013 and Red Combines 1915-2015.
Octane Press publishes books within the transportation niche with a focus on how machines are built, designed and, in some cases, raced.
“I divide our company into four areas: we have agriculture machinery, motor sports, we have adventure motorcycling and we have custom motorcycles,” he said.
“That’s the core of what we do.”
Klancher said he and his wife started Octane Press with $500 and an on-demand book and then used its sales to expand the business.
Octane Press now has approximately 60 published books.
“Every year we do one or two or three things by me, depending on what we have in the hopper, and five or six or eight by other people,” he said.
“I also work with collaborators, like with the red books. This helps spread out the work load, and it makes the book that much stronger.”
Klancher said he’s noticed that people tend to have a deeper connection with tractors than they do with the other machines he writes about.
“These are the machines that make these guys a living, so this isn’t what I do on the weekend or in my free time. This is day in day out kind of bonding with that machine. I think that is a big part of it.”
He said nostalgia also plays a role in farmers’ connection to old tractors.
“These machines can take you back to a time, so for some of them, it might be that when they look at that old Steiger it takes them back to when they were a kid, or it makes them think of their dad or uncle,” Klancher said.
There is also the utilitarian aspect of big, rugged, pre-electronic, older tractors that farmers who respect the technology appreciate.
“I also think that these machines are really kind of unique, in that they are still very effective tools, especially those late ’70s Steigers,” he said.
“There’s a good percentage of them that are out working.”
Klancher started writing about farm machinery in the 1990s with a small paperback called Farmall Tractors.
“The history of the farm tractor is really the history of the mechanism of agriculture, which is the transformation of our society,” he said.