Tractor Trendsetters: Caterpillar Rubber-Track Tractors

Published on: 16:12PM Mar 10, 2010

Written by Larry Gay

During the mid-1980s, there were rumors that Caterpillar was developing a 4-wheel-drive tractor for the agricultural market. In the summer of 1986, Caterpillar introduced a unique tractor equipped with rubber tracks which was designed to compete with 4-wheel-drive tractors. Caterpillar had started by building experimental 4-wheel-drive tractors, but switched to the rubber-track concept during the development program. Production of the Caterpillar Challenger 65 started in early 1987 at Caterpillar’s Davenport, Iowa, factory.

The rubber tracks were 24.5-inches wide and were reinforced with steel cables bonded into the rubber. There were 36 sets of lugs on each track to provide traction. The rubber tracks reduced slippage, increased flotation, and enabled the tractor to travel on roads at speeds up to 18 mph. The Challenger 65 was powered by a 6-cylinder, 638-cubic-inch Caterpillar diesel engine which was turbocharged and intercooled. It was rated at 270 engine horsepower and produced 232 PTO horsepower. The full powershift transmission provided ten forward speeds.

The Caterpillar Challenger line was expanded to two models for the 1991 model year and to four models with engines ranging from 285 to 335 horsepower for the 1994 model year. Production moved from Davenport to Aurora, Illinois, and then in 1996 to DeKalb, Illinois.

New for the 1995 model year were the Challenger 35 and 45 models, rated at 175 and 200 PTO horsepower, respectively. These two rubber-track tractors with large diameter track drive wheels provided clearance for row-crop work and the adjustable undercarriages could be set from 60- to 88-inch tread widths. The rubber track widths ranged from 16 to 32 inches. The Challenger 35 and 45 were built with a turbocharged and intercooled Caterpillar 403-cubic-inch diesel engine and a 16-speed full powershift transmission. A third row-crop model, the Challenger 55 with 225 PTO horsepower, was added for the 1996 model year. The 35, 45, and 55 were first manufactured in the New Holland factory in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with the Ford Genesis tractor transmission, cab, and 3-point hitch. In 1999 production was moved to the DeKalb factory.

During 2001 Caterpillar completed the new Lexion combine factory near Omaha, added a line of tillage tools, and introduced a new series of row-crop tractors. Then in December 2001, Caterpillar surprised the industry by announcing it was selling its line of Challenger rubber-track tractors and its DeKalb factory to AGCO. Today the Challenger rubber-track tractors are built in AGCO’s factory in Jackson, Minnesota, but are still sold by the Caterpillar dealers.

Larry Gay is the author of four farm tractor books, including Farm Tractors 1975-1995 and Farm Tractors 1995-2005. These books may be obtained from ASABE at 800-695-2723 or, click publications, click history books, and see tractors.