Equipment Spotlight: Wheel Loaders

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1984 Caterpillar wheel loader

Wheel loaders are one of the most common types of heavy equipment used on construction sites today. The versatile machines have a huge number of applications including material handling, digging, load-and-carry, and site preparation.

But despite their eventual importance the first prototype wheel loaders weren't developed for nearly a hundred years after the first steam-powered tractors had come on the scene.

We would have to wait until the 1920s before the idea to mount a loader bucket to a small agricultural tractor gave birth to the first prototype that would become the wheel loader.

Early rigid-frame wheel loaders

Early wheel loaders were simple machines, basically tractors with a wire rope mounted bucket that relied on a gravity driven mechanism to dump loads no bigger than 0.5 cubic yards.

By 1939, the first self contained, two-wheel drive, rubber tired loader – the Hough Model HS - had been developed by Chicago Engineer Frank G. Hough.

Wheel loaders were now becoming integrated, rigid frame, machines and manufacturers like Caterpillar and Terex/Euclid began to slowly join the market.

Tilt control arrives

Nearly 30 years after the initial prototype came one of the most significant milestones in the development of the wheel loader: the introduction of the articulated frame in 1953.

Up until that point, wheel loaders had suffered from poor maneuverability in small spaces and had a fixed tilt bucket that limited their effectiveness.

The articulated frame, pioneered by Mixermobile Manufacturer with the Scoopmobile Model LD-5, made it possible for the operator to control the tilt of the bucket. This made it far easier to load and dump with the machine, opening up new types of work that could be done.

With hydraulics added shortly thereafter, something close to the modern wheel loader with the ability to dig as well as load began to take shape.

Moving the pivot arm

The final step in forming the modern wheel loader would involve the pivot arm.

Initially mounted in close proximity behind the operator, pivot arms posed a significant safety risk as they moved up and down. Visibility was impaired, especially with the arms in their raised position, and there was the potential for the arm to interfere with the operator.

By the early 1960's, a collaboration with the National Safety Council had led most manufacturers to reposition the arm pivot to the front of the operator rather than behind, a significant improvement to safety.

Wheel loaders have a growth spurt

With the basic design of the wheel loader largely determined by the 1960s, attention turned to making the machines larger and with larger payload capacities.

1967 Caterpillar 988 wheel loader 1967 Caterpillar 988 wheel loader

Starting with Caterpillar's Model 998 in 1963, with a 6-cubic yard capacity, things quickly ramped up to 10-cubic yards and beyond as industry surveys revealed demand for even larger loaders.

By the 1970s wheel loaders with capacities as high as 21-cubic yards were being developed.

The largest wheel loader in the world would eventually be LeTourneau's L-2350. Boasting a 2,300 horsepower engine and an 80-ton, 53-cubic yard capacity, the L-2350 can load a 300-400 ton mining truck in four to five passes.

To find out more about the history of wheel loaders and how they work check out the article about wheel loaders on

Search our current inventory to find wheel loaders being sold in upcoming auctions.

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