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new books
Bobcat: Fifty Years
By Marty Padgett; Motorbooks/MBI; $34.95; 216 pages; ISBN: 0760328145; 2007

Eddie Velo with the first skid steer, which he used to clear out his barn. 
Joe Brett
Eddie Velo with the first skid steer, which he used to clear out his barn.

Search for “skid steer” on the Internet, and more than one million hits pop up. The construction industry’s most visible some would say most visibly copied compact machine came from the minds of two blacksmithing brothers, Louis and Cyril Keller, who fabbed up a three-wheeled loader in 1957 for Eddie Velo, a farmer in Rothsay, Minn. With 50 years behind it, the innovative machine will likely keep skidding around for another half-century. A new book tells the first part of the story.

In the beginning, Velo asked the Keller brothers to find a better way to clean out his turkey barn. Within a year, the two brothers had designed and built a crude loader with a distinct belt-and-clutch drive that allowed the wheels to counter-rotate, so the machine could turn around within the length of its own frame.

Toughening up the first loaders was not easy. Belts had a tendency to slip, and some of its original parts came from a local jail because it was the hardest steel they could find. A 5-hp engine with a rope starter supplied power. But the effort paid off. “I consider this machine so valuable that I wouldn’t sell it at any price,” Velo wrote the next year.

The resulting machine the Bobcat skid loader is today “the Swiss-army knife” of the construction industry, says Frank Manfredi, an equipment analyst in Mundelein, Ill. Bobcat machines have made wealthy people out of countless contractors, and the Kellers. They duo started collecting $15 permachine when the Melroe family took over production. But over the years, the Kellers collected higher royalties on new machines and settled with several patent copycats.

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Part of the genius behind its turn-on-a-dime drivetrain was its ability to transfer from agriculture. “Pioneers cultivating North Dakota grain fields saw potential in an idea…then unleashed it on a country that happened to be in the beginning of a massive transformation from farmscape to cityscape,” writes author Marty Padgett. The trend toward urban renewal continues and will require more compact machines and attachments, equipment designers say.

Worldwide, about 80,000 skid loaders are sold every year, notes Charles R. Yengst, an equipment analyst in Wilton, Conn. North America soaks up about 80% of these nimble vehicles, but they are found just about everywhere, from Dubuque to Dubai.

Skid-steers are still relatively inexpensive because Bobcat, the market leader with an estimated 30-40% share, froze prices for 10 years and upgraded its factory with robotics to stave off competitors. Even Toyota posed a threat to Bobcat in the mid-1980s, the book explains.

Bobcat employees “tried to figure out every single year how they could pick up a 3-4% productivity improvement,” Yengst says. The company bought up automotive tooling and adapted the car-making machines of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler for loader production.

The only key detail missing in the book, which was completed last spring, is Bobcat Co.’s pending sale to Korea-based Doosan Infracore, expected to close by year-end, which could net Ingersoll-Rand more than $3 billion, according to analysts. The book was conveniently finished before Doosan’s offer.



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