22 May 1998

WILL TRACKLAYERS HIT ROCK BOTTOM

ANDBOUNCE BACK?

FALLING sales mean few in the UK tractor business have much to smile about, but crawler tractor salesmen have suffered more than most.

Crawlers used to be big business, with British makers building more than 2000 a year in the mid-1970s, mostly for export. Since then UK production in this country has almost ceased and sales of new tracklayers here have shrunk to an estimated 30 in 1997, declining by more than 80% in 14 years.

If sales continue to fall at this rate, the tracklayer will soon become an endangered species on UK farms, but there are indications that the market may have reached its trough and the next trend could be upwards.

One reason for optimism is that crawler tracks still have some significant advantages over wheels. Despite recent progress in tyre design, tracks are still hard to beat where low ground pressure is essential, and they remain the most efficient way to convert engine power

The 242hp Caterpillar Challenger 45 in Claas colours.

The 360hp Case IH Quadtrac is based on a Steiger pivot steer tractor with four rubber tracks. Case reports seven have been sold in the UK to date.

FALLING sales mean few in the UK tractor business have much to smile about, but crawler tractor salesmen have suffered more than most.

Crawlers used to be big business, with British makers building more than 2000 a year in the mid-1970s, mostly for export. Since then UK production in this country has almost ceased and sales of new tracklayers here have shrunk to an estimated 30 in 1997, declining by more than 80% in 14 years.

If sales continue to fall at this rate, the tracklayer will soon become an endangered species on UK farms, but there are indications that the market may have reached its trough and the next trend could be upwards.

One reason for optimism is that crawler tracks still have some significant advantages over wheels. Despite recent progress in tyre design, tracks are still hard to beat where low ground pressure is essential, and they remain the most efficient way to convert engine power into drawbar pull, particularly on heavy land.

Another factor is the marketing arrangements for Caterpillar rubber tracked crawler tractors, easily the top selling make in Britain. Caterpillar moved to the top of the sales league after introducing the Challenger with reinforced rubber tracks in 1988, one of the most important technical advances in crawler tractor history.

Caterpillar lost some sales last year during the distribution switch from Levertons to Claas UK, but now, with the changeover completed, Claas is stepping up the marketing pressure and is predicting a significant rise in sales this year.

"We are very optimistic," says Simon Weeks, who runs tractor marketing operations at Claas UK. "We started selling Challengers towards the end of last year, and so far we have sold 20. The aim is to sell 50 Challengers during the first 12 months, and I believe that is a realistic target."

Mr Weeks should be helped by this years UK launch of the new E series Challengers, a four-model range covering the high horsepower market with outputs of 310, 340, 375 and 410hp. They are based on the previous models, with new styling to match the smaller Challengers. Power outputs for the E series are up, hydraulic pressure and flow rate both increased, the cab interior is improved and noise levels reduced.

E series prices range from £125,000 to £148,000. Challenger 35, 45 and 55 models with power outputs of 212, 242 and 270hp start at £85,000.

Competition for the big Challengers comes from the Case IH Quadtrac, a recent arrival in the UK which is developed from the 360hp Steiger tractor with articulated steering. Case organised an ambitious demonstration programme for the Quadtrac last autumn, which was a big success, said Case spokesman Graham Black.

"We were lucky with the weather, which was wet for some of the demos, and this is ideal for showing off the advantages of the Quadtrac," he says. "We have orders for seven Quadtracs so far, including some already delivered, and we expect this to increase to a dozen by the end of the year."

JohnDeere range

Another recent arrival in the high hp market is the 8000T tracklayer range from John Deere. The four models are based on the 8000 series tractors, with rubber tracks replacing wheels and tyres. A friction drive system powers the tracks, which have hydrostatic steering, and correct track tension is maintained by hydraulic cylinders exerting pressure on the front idler wheels.

John Deere says sales have started well, and some of the customers are farmers and contractors who were already familiar with the standard 8000 series tractors, but liked the idea of the tracked versions. Power outputs for the 8000T tractors are from 185 to 260hp, and prices start at £103,900 for the 8100T. The standard 8100 tractor with four-wheel drive is priced at £72,030.

Reinforced rubber tracks are also a feature of the Morooka range from Japan; in fact, Morooka claims it invented the idea. Yuasa Warwick Machinery, the UK distributor, offers a nine-model range with power outputs from 65 to 335hp and prices from £38,500 to £85,000. Recent development include a switch to Cummins engines instead of the previous Komatsu diesels for some of the bigger tractors.

There are also a few sales each year of smaller tractors with traditional steel tracks form Italian manufacturers including Landini, Same/Lamborghini and the New Holland Series 85 crawler models. These include narrow versions for working in orchards and vineyards, particularly on steep slopes, where the extra stability of a tracklayer can be an added safety factor.

Half-track conversion

Another option for farmers and contractors who want the benefits of crawler tracks is Richard Larringtons half-track conversion kit. This is known as the Hydraulic Positive Drive System (HDPS) and uses an endless belt running on rubber blocks to allow limited road use.

The HDPS tracks can be supplied for most medium-size four-wheel-drive tractors, and track widths are available from 14in for rowcrop work to a 36in size giving extra flotation on soft ground. Contact pressure on the soil can be as low as 3.79psi for the 36in tracks, the makers say.

Customers include vegetable and root crop growers, particularly on heavy land, and the price for a complete kit with 24in medium width tracks is about £18,000. &#42

Richard Larringtons half track conversion is an option for those who want some of the crawler tractor benefits: 3.79psi ground pressure is claimed.

The 260hp 8400T is the biggest model in John Deeres four-model range of tracklayers.