Say the word “Bobcat” and most of us think of the white front-end loader we see daily on farms, construction sites and clearing snow or, perhaps, responding to natural disasters. Even from a distance, the color and silhouette are unmistakable, the brand memorable, even iconic.
It wasn’t always that way. Not when the Keller brothers invented a three-wheeled loader for a turkey farmer six decades ago. Not in 1958, when the brothers joined Melroe Manufacturing Company to produce the company’s first M60 self-propelled loader (of which they built 18). Not the M200 (of which 400 were built starting in 1959.)
It was a few years before fame would come to Gwinner, North Dakota.
M400 – Four-Wheel Drive and Skid-Steer
In 1960, wanting to give the loader more traction, they added a rear drive axle and created the four-wheel-drive M400, which could now be called a skid-steer loader. (Ironically, the term “skid-steer” wasn’t widely used until the 1970s.) The M400 only slightly resembled the machine we know today, but it did get noticed. Contractors were intrigued. Bulk fertilizer handling was a hot market. But despite the enthusiasm of the early adopters, the M400’s exposed drive system was plagued with issues. Dust and debris clogged drive chains and fertilizer corroded clutches and bearings.
Disappointed, in the spring of 1961 the Melroe brothers decided to end production and walk away from the fledgling skid-steer loader business (after building some 200 M400s.) Of course, we know the story didn’t end with that management decision. After a few days — and hearing from customers who had come to rely on the loader but needed parts to keep it operating — the brothers gave the go-ahead to start on a new design. More engineering resources were thrown at the project, so the next model would be more durable and it would have a distinctive look, color and brand.
M440 – New Name, Color and Logo
After a year of research and development, the M440 was nearly ready. Engineers had opened the front end to make entry and exit easier. They enclosed the drive system for better reliability and durability. And while earlier loaders had been designed to meet the needs of farmers, the new M440 was ready for heavy-duty industrial use — as it still is today.
In late 1962, the focus turned to branding. The brothers thought the name “Melroe Self-Propelled Loader” was not particularly catchy — but they liked animal names. A new color was required, as Melroe farm implements were painted red and, they warned, avoid using yellow, orange and green — the brand colors of other manufacturers.
For help, the Melroes consulted a Twin Cities advertising agency — Gould, Brown and Bickett. Lynn Bickett suggested painting it white, knowing the loader would work inside dairy barns. “Melroe red” would be the accent color. Then, looking at animal names in the dictionary, he suggested calling it “Bobcat,” after the prairie animal that was described in that dictionary as tough, quick and agile.
Meet the Melroe Bobcat® Loader
With the name and paint scheme set, the logo was next. Over the lunch hour, Bickett’s art director played with the existing oval “Melroe” logo, adding a second oval containing a graphical bobcat pouncing on the word “Bobcat.” The result of that half-day’s work remained in use until the next logo was designed in 1977.
More Development Needed — the M444
The M440 answered the critics, but lubrication was still a problem. The new loader’s drive chains carried oil to the clutches, but it wasn’t sufficient. A quick redesign solved the problem — diverting return flow from the hydraulic system to pressure-oil the clutches.
With that simple modification, the M444 was launched in 1963. It had a two-cylinder 15.5HP Onan engine, with 1000 lbs. rated capacity and weighing in at 2410 lbs. The selling price was $2750, plus another $95 for a utility bucket. A dirt bucket was $154 and a set of manure forks was $87.
More Power — the M500 and M600
Customers loved the M444, but soon they were asking for more power. The 1964 model M500 offered a two-cylinder 24 HP Kohler gas engine — same rated capacity but a lot more power. It weighed 3042 lbs. and sold for $3500. In 1967 came the 25 HP M600 offering a 4-cylinder, air-cooled Wisconsin engine. Surely that would satisfy customers’ increasing desire for power.
Time will tell (for more on that subject, see our blog on the M970 “Big Bob”.)
Key Concepts — 70/30 Ratio and Skid-Steering
When an interviewer asked Roger Melroe about the still-new loader in 1967, he replied — in an understated fashion — “the Bobcat loader started in 1962, preceded by several years of research and development.”
What did they learn during the 1958-1962 R&D period?
Perhaps most important was a key physics lesson on weight distribution — what would become known as the 70/30 ratio. Engineers experimented with the location of the axles and the distance between them. The loader handled best when 70 percent of the weight was over the front axle (and 30 percent on the rear) with the bucket full. When the bucket was empty, the reverse was true. This allowed the loader to perform its classic “skid-steer” turn — where the lighter axle skids around the heavier axle, pivoting within its own length.
No Slowing Down
In the 54 years since the launch of the M440 Bobcat loader, the skid-steer concept has been described, demonstrated — and used daily — countless millions of times, making the name and the machine a worldwide icon. At the start of the 1960s, Melroe Manufacturing Company was a farm implement maker doing $1 million in business. Ten years later, the company was doing $25 million in sales. During that time, total volume went from 1000 loaders in 1964 to 10,000 in 1967 to 20,000 by 1970. In 1980 the number hit 100,000 units. In 2001 it was 500,000. In 2014, the number topped one million.
And there is no sign of slowing down
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See early Bobcat loaders in action. The film Bobcat is a Farm Boy at Heart – produced in 1970 – shows early Bobcat loaders at work. It starts out in front of the Gwinner, North Dakota factory, and shows the early Melroe agricultural implements that led up to the Bobcat loader. Building a market for skid-steer loaders required selling the concept and persuading users that this loader could actually do significant work. This 3 minute clip from the Farm Boy film introduces a Minnesota farm boy, Kelly Lemke, who used the Bobcat loader on his family’s farm.
Bobcat Square Dance — produced in the late 1960s — depicted Bobcat loader maneuverability and agility without saying a word. The film was even shown on the children’s TV series, Captain Kangaroo.
Watch the slide show below to see more photos and download early specification sheets and literature.