Matt Veerkamp found the first Caterpillar brand crawler tractor ever built while he was on a parts search about 14 years ago.
Seven years after discovering and restoring that 1926 Caterpillar Twenty, lightning struck again.
He found another first in Caterpillar’s crawler tractor history.
“I’m always on Craigslist,” says Veerkamp, who runs Doug Veerkamp General Engineering with his father, the company’s namesake.
“I'm always looking for something, looking for a deal.”
He will often find equipment to buy, and restore at the family construction company’s shop in Placerville, California. The Veerkamps own 150-plus pieces of antique equipment, some of which have been exhibited at the Caterpillar Visitors Center in Peoria, Illinois, and have traveled the world for exhibitions.
As he was browsing Craigslist one day he came across a rusted old Cat crawler tractor that looked unusual. “It had some goofy looking parts that just struck me as odd,” he recalls.
The sprockets and rear hitch looked different than on typical Cat machines of the late 1920s. And the side of the radiator did not signify the model number. “This one is just flat; it doesn’t say anything,” he says.
The seller was only 45 minutes away, so Veerkamp went to check on the piece after doing some research. When he saw the serial number, he knew he had found something special.
The “EXP-00-V” serial number was similar to the one on the 1926 Caterpillar Twenty he had found earlier, which had the serial number “EXP 0000-L.” The Twenty was an expo machine the company used to take to fairs and other events around the country as a promotion for its first model. Veerkamp says it was also an experimental machine for the first Caterpillar brand tractor, similar to what manufacturers today call prototype or concept machines.
“So judging on the history of that, the EXP serial number was the first one made experimental,” he says.
The 1929 Caterpillar Expo Fifteen that Veerkamp was looking at that day in 2014 was in poor condition. It was covered in rust. The axle was broken. The engine was severely damaged.
“It was a complete rebuild from the bottom up,” Veerkamp says.
The seller simply wanted an antique Cat he could take his son on for rides. The Fifteen had been his grandfather’s. He had no interest in doing the extensive restoration it would take. But he also knew the tractor was special.
Veerkamp was able to strike a deal by trading a Caterpillar Twenty-Two that was running and offering some cash.
He later verified that it was the expo model for the Caterpillar Fifteen. It’s also the only one known to exist.
When he got the Fifteen home to the shop, he discovered some other unique things about it. Some of the parts, including the axles and gears, were from Caterpillar’s Model Ten.
“Because the Caterpillar Ten was the model previous to the Cat Fifteen, I think when they built this thing they had a whole bunch of stuff they tried to pull over, but it was too light weight,” he says.
“The production model Cat Fifteen was different in a lot of ways than this one.”
Caterpillar began producing the Fifteen in 1929. It was the company’s third model, preceded by the Twenty in 1926 and the Ten in 1928.
Veerkamp determined he had the prototype or concept Fifteen. “It was a bigger version of the Cat 10, which came out the year previous. And I think they ran it, figured out what didn't work and then made a production model after that.”
Cat produced about 7,500 Fifteens. They were mainly used for farming, logging and construction. They run on a 15-horsepower, 4-cylinder gasoline engine and are started with a crank on the front of the radiator. They were discontinued in 1931.
Veerkamp restored the Expo Fifteen to look as it would have in 1929. It required machining some of the broken prototype parts. The Veerkamps own other Fifteens, so they were also able to use parts from them.
The color was another thing that needed to change. It had been painted Caterpillar yellow, but the company’s expo models were painted white. (The production model Fifteens were gray with red trim.)
Veerkamp conducts extensive research to ensure accuracy when restoring equipment.
“I’ll spend hours researching black and whites (photos), getting with Caterpillar corporate archives just to make sure the pieces we have are being restored correct, they look correct, they operate properly,” he says.
It took six months to restore the Fifteen. Today, Veerkamp says, it runs like new. Kids can even operate it.
Veerkamp put rubber tracks on it so it can be used for charity hayrides and local parades. “There's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that come and ride this thing,” he says.
Check out this video of the Fifteen in December:When asked if he ever plans to sell it, he responds quickly, “Never.”
“This will be in the family until my kids sell it or it's donated to Caterpillar, one of the two,” he adds. “It's not going anywhere.”
The family feels the same about their unique 1926 Caterpillar Twenty. “That’s the unicorn,” Veerkamp says. “Caterpillar’s first model ever produced as a company, and we have the experimental model of that.”
Finding the Expo Fifteen comes in a close second.
“People are surprised,” says Veerkamp of their reaction when they see both antique machines.
Then they inevitably ask, “How did you get two number ones?”