The Caterpillar Starter Kit Story
The story of a unique invention that got its start in Cuba
Written 2010 rewritten 02/06/2016 unedited
I am pretty sure everyone has heard the expression “Necessity is the Mother of Invention”, well this story is a classic example of just that.
In 1978, I was fortunate enough to have met two Cuban refugee’s that had come to the United States after Fidel Castro had taken over their island in 1958.
These two fellows had invented a series of products that converted Caterpillar Diesel engines over to using electric starting motors, and they had invented it all while they were still in Cuba.
Their invention, has over the years helped to save a lot of money for thousands of owners of Caterpillar bulldozers and tractors. Their inventions fit equipment that had been manufactured by the Caterpillar Tractor Company from the year 1939 up to the year 1969.
In the years from 1939 to 1969, the Caterpillar Tractor Company had designed their diesel engines to use a small gasoline engine, called a Pony Motor, to start up their big diesel engines.
The reason they used a small gasoline engine to do this was very simple, it was because the big Caterpillar Diesel engines were difficult to start, especially in cold weather. So to solve this problem, they used a small gasoline fueled motor, and ran the larger diesel engines oil and water through it. When the oil and water were sufficiently warm enough, a clutch was engaged and a helicle gear on the small gasoline pony motor was engaged into the flywheel of the larger diesel engine, and the small gasoline powered engine turned the diesel engine over until it started up, this was the system Caterpillar Tractor Company used for years, and it worked perfectly.
But as the years passed, the electric starter motor manufacturers in the United States started making heavy duty 24 volt direct current starter motors that were now powerful enough to start the big Caterpillar diesel engines. So that’s Caterpillar Tractor Company started offering electric starters as an option, it was mainly for use on machines working in warm climates. But because many places had both hot and cold weather, the pony motor system was still used on most Caterpillar equipment.
If a customer had a diesel engine with a gasoline pony motor starter, and he wished to convert over to an electric starting system it was a very expensive and labor intensive project. The big diesel engine needed to be pulled out of the tractor or bulldozer and a new flywheel ring gear be installed, and a new engine rear housing called the bellhousing installed. The engines helicle flywheel gear needed to be changed to straight teeth because the drive gear on electric starters had straight teeth, and the bell housing needed to be designed with bolt holes to mount an electric starter.
Caterpillar tractors, because of the hard and abrasive work they do, wear themselves out, so usually when they show signs of wear they are taken out of service and overhauled. When the equipment is
Overhauled, its common practice to replace all the worn out parts. In the cold climate countries this is usually done in the winter when the ground is too hard to dig in.
So when a Caterpillar tractor engine is overhauled, the little pony motor is also usually overhauled at the same time. All the repair parts to rebuild Caterpillar Engines are usually readily available from Caterpillar dealers. To obtain Caterpillar parts in the United States was relatively easy, as there is an authorized Caterpillar dealer located in every major city, and they all sell parts at fixed prices set by the Caterpillar Company. However this is not the case overseas, outside of the United States, Caterpillar appoints exclusive distributors, and because they are exclusive, they all overcharge their customers, and they can get away with it.
This factor along with the problem that over the years Caterpillar themselves started discontinuing some parts to rebuild the pony motors, started to make rebuilding the pony motor very difficult and expensive. The rebuilding of a pony motor gradually went from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, and finding parts to rebuild them became harder and harder.
So in the late 1950’s, in Cuba, something needed to be invented to economically replace the pony motor. It was just becoming too expensive for owners of Caterpillar equipment to try and keep rebuilding them, and as I said, “Necessity is the mother of invention”.
This story may be a little too technical for most people, but after reading it you will see how a Cuban tractor mechanic, who didn’t speak a word of English invented economical starter motor kits to convert Caterpillar diesel engines, to use readily available and economical 24 volt electric starting motors.
In 1978, our Company was in Miami, under the name API, which was short for Automotive Parts Industries. We were assembling new heavy duty diesel starter motors for the commercial truck market as well as for export.
The starters we assembled were the same as a Delco Remy Multi-position starter. This was a 12 or 24 volt starter motor that the Delco Remy Company had designed in the 1960’s, so that meant that our starter motors, with some slight modifications, could be used on most every kind of U.S. made diesel truck and tractor engine.
Back in 1978, three basic major original Equipment manufacturers of diesel starter motors in the U.S. There was the Prestolite Co, the Leece Neville Co, and the Delco Remy Co. The Japanese and Chinese manufacturing companies had not as yet made any inroads into the U.S. market.
Now enter Willy Silva and a fellow named Geronimo Lazo, both from Cuba.
On a Monday morning in 1978, a fellow came in to see us, he introduced himself as Willy Silva.
Willy said he was from originally from Cuba and had had escaped from there when Fidel Castro took over the country in 1958.
Willy Silva, was a pleasant looking, portly, blond haired guy that looked more Scandinavian than Cuban, and he spoke perfect English as well as Spanish. Willy said that his company in Miami was called The U.S. Tractor Company.
Willy said that he would be interested in purchasing our new multi-position starter motors. So we sat down and discussed prices. Willy appeared to be satisfied, and he said that he would return with his partner, a fellow named Geronimo Lazo.
When they came back, Geronimo Lazo was perhaps around 50 years old, and had a dark ruddy complexion and wavy black hair. Geronimo spoke hardly a word of English, and he was dressed in a mechanics uniform. I told him that I had never met anyone named Geronimo before.
Willy then said, that he wanted us to sell, them for 20 to 30 diesel starters per month, but he said he wanted a special price, because they would not be needing a front end housing on any of the starters we made for them. This was an unusual request, I had never had a customer request something like this before.
When I asked Willy what their company was using the starters on, he became a little evasive, and he said it was for a special application. As I could see he didn’t want to tell me, I didn’t push the issue. Other than his being evasive, Willy Silva seemed to be pretty smart fellow when it came to dealing with electrical parts, and I took an immediate liking to him.
I tried to speak in Spanish with Willy’s partner Geronimo, but I could see he was also uneasy and evasive about discussing with me what they were doing with the starters.
Every week when Willy Silva would come by to pick up a load of starters, we would sit in my office and talk for a while.
Willy told me that he and Geronimo were both in the industrial tractor business in Cuba. He said, back then, Geronimo was one of the leading specialists in rebuilding Caterpillar tractors there. He also told me that when Castro took over the country in 1958, he had confiscated all the private owned businesses, and that’s when Willy and Geronimo fled Cuba for the United States.
Willy said he and Geronimo, had been friends in Cuba for a long time and because they both came to the United State at exactly the same time, they automatically went into business together.
I liked talking to Willy, because he was so intelligent, on mechanical subjects, but when we talked, I always felt that Willy was always being little secretive, I had the feeling that he distrusted me but I didn’t have a clue as to why.
Over the next few years, Willy and Geronimo continued buying starters from us, and their business with us increased.
One day in 1983, Willy Silva came alone to see me. He said, “Geronimo and I are ready to kill each other.” He said “We are arguing every day.
Willy had a brochure in his hand and he gave it to me. The brochure was from their company, U.S. Tractor, and it had pictures of several Caterpillar starter motor kits in it, all using our API starters.
It was the first time I had ever seen their brochure, or had any idea of what they were doing with the starter motors they were buying from us. I realized that it was the secret that they were always keeping from me.
Willy explained that he and Geronimo were assembling electric starter motor kits to convert Caterpillar diesel tractor engines over from a pony motor. So now I knew exactly what they were doing with our starter motors.
Willy said, “Geronimo Lazo was one of the smartest Caterpillar mechanics he ever met, and in Cuba, he had crawled under every model of Caterpillar Tractor, and Geronimo was the guy who had invented all the adapters required to convert the Caterpillar diesel engines to work using electric starters.”
Willy said, “Today to rebuild a Caterpillar pony motor, now cost around $6000.00 and the parts were becoming obsolete.” Thus customers that owned Caterpillar diesel engines were so happy to be able to buy the electric starter kit made by U.S. Tractor Company.
Willy said that he really liked his partner Geronimo very much but there was a problem. Willy wanted to expand the business and go into building and exporting AC generator sets, but Geronimo didn’t want to do it.
Willy, again said, “Geronimo was a Genius, but because he spoke no English, he needed someone to work with him, that was one of the real reasons they formed the company U. S. Tractor, and had become partners.”
Willy said, “He and Geronimo were always afraid that if I found out what they were doing, I would copy Geronimo’s invention, because he had never patented it.”
Willy said, “Now, the problem was, he felt that their Company, U.S. Tractor, was hindering him from doing the generator business that he always wanted to do. Willy said, “I always wanted to design and manufacture generator sets, as I have an electrical engineering degree, but Lazo didn’t want to”. He said that this problem had been bothering Willy for several years.
Willy was very unhappy with the whole situation, and he had finally decided to break up his relationship with Geronimo. But he was very concerned about what would happen to Geronimo after he broke up their company. That’s when so Willy said, that he had a proposition for me.
Willy said that Geronimo was the inventor of all the adapters used in the starting kits, and he had all the original patterns and molds to make the parts. Also, he said that Geronimo had designed all the angle gears that were needed to convert the API starters to fit the Caterpillar engines.
Willy suggested that our company A.P.I. start making the kits, and we could continue buying the adapters and special gear parts from Geronimo. This would give Geronimo an income and Willy would have a clear conscience about breaking up his business relationship with him.
Willy also said, our company would need to use Geronimo as a consultant, as he knew everything about the Caterpillar tractor and engines, and could answer any customer’s technical questions.
Willy said he knew that Geronimo Lazo, would be mad at him, but he had no alternative, and he trusted that I would do the right thing financially with Geronimo.
Boy, was I surprised, now all of a sudden, after all these years, Willy now said he trusted me.
The next day, Geronimo Lazo came by to tell us the exact same story that Willy had told us.
Geronimo said that Willy was destroying a perfectly good company and he was pretty mad about it. He said he thought Willy was crazy to want to go in the generator set business.
I told Geronimo Lazo not to worry, we would take over the production and sales of the kits and he could supply all the parts to us that he wanted to, and he could earn a good living doing it.
For us, it was pretty exciting, the prospect of entering into a new type of business.
Once we started making the Caterpillar kits and selling them, I noticed a whole new attitude on the part of Geronimo. All the years that I had felt that Geronimo hadn’t trusted me, and now I found him eager to want to teach me everything that he knew about the Caterpillar parts business.
We took U.S. Tractor’s catalog and put all the information in our computer system, and then we started advertising in several tractor magazines which included the yellow paper “Rock and Dirt”.
By 1983, Geronimo had become like a father to us. Every time we had a technical question, he would come over and study the Caterpillar microfiche until he had an answer.
We continued selling the starter kits, and it was a lot of fun, because we had daily calls from contractors and farmers from all over the country wanting to buy starter conversion kits. We couldn’t believe that so many old Caterpillar tractors were still out there, and still working every day. Some of the farmers that called had Caterpillar bulldozers that were built in 1939, and they were still running them.
Every phone call we received became a technical adventure for us, as Caterpillar Tractors had so many variations of their equipment. But fortunately we always had Geronimo Lazo to figure everything out.
We had customers in Alaska that wanted electric start kits. When we told them there was no way o to warm the water and oil, they didn’t care, they said they would build a wood fire under their engine. Some said that in the cold Alaska climate, once they started their Caterpillar diesel bulldozer up, they never shut it off until the project was done.
One of the amazing things about Geronimo Lazo’s starter kits were the helicle angle gears he had designed to mesh with Caterpillars helicle tooth flywheels. From an engineering standpoint, everyone that saw them said his angled gears should never have worked, but they did, and they worked well.
Over the years, we received several phone calls from people who claimed that they were the actual inventors of the Caterpillar starter adapters. Some callers, even wanted us to cease and desist from selling the kits, and some threatened law suits. But we knew the real inventor was Geronimo, and he was the first, so I told all of them that we were licensed by the real inventor of the kits, and I never ever heard from any of them again.
When we took over and started selling the Caterpillar kits, we realized that there was one problem that Geronimo had never resolved. Whenever a pony engine was removed and an electric start kit installed, the starter needed a source of 24 Volt current to work, and there were two ways of accomplishing this.
One way was to have a truck with 24 volt batteries pull up to the tractor and then jump start it. The second method was to install 24 volt batteries on the tractor. But if an owner opted to install batteries on the tractor, they needed a way to charge the batteries.
All the older Caterpillar tractors had a 6 or 12 volt gear driven generator on the machine, they were there to charge batteries to run spot lights, but those generators were not adequate to charge 24 volt batteries. Also all generators were gear driven, this meant the generator was bolted into the engine where it meshed with an internal gear. And the gears were then lubricated by the engines oil.
The trick was for us to design a 24 volt late model alternator. One that was gear driven and could replace the original inadequate 6 and 12 volt generators. It was an item that needed to be invented.
We knew that everyone buying a Caterpillar electric start kit would buy one.
We studied the problem and with the assistance of one of our Taiwanese suppliers we invented a special aluminum adapter attached to a 24 Volt alternator, it had a special shaft that allowed the gear off the original Caterpillar generator to be installed on it. The new 24 Volt alternator was then bolted on the Caterpillar engine replacing the original generator, and It worked like a charm. Everyone that bought a starter kit purchased one of the alternators from us.
In 1992, my wife Katherine had taken over the management of many of the operations of API, including our API Marine Division and the national sales of the Caterpillar kits.
Katherine had mastered the Caterpillar Kit business and she always enjoyed talking to all the Caterpillar tractor owners who called us. Each tractor owner had their own story to tell, like the old timer that told her that he was in a wheel chair but still had someone help him get on his tractor, he wasn’t typical but he bought a starter kit and alternator kit, to keep his old bulldozer running.
As Katherine’s management duties grew, she became more involved with the running of our new military company, called CME Arma Inc, and she started to delegate the handling of the Caterpillar kit sales to other employees.
We had a warehouse manager named Rolando and Katherine gave him the opportunity of dealing with the Caterpillar kit customers, Rolando earned commission on each sale he made.
Around 1995 we started noticing the sales of kits dropping off dramatically, everyone thought it was due to the age of the tractors, or possibly we had saturated the market.
Then one day Katherine received a disturbing call from a customer who said he had one of our starter kits that had failed, but we had never had a kit that failed. When Katherine asked the customer for our invoice number, it was not our invoice.
It appears Rolando was taking customer orders for kits, then stealing the parts from us and having someone assemble and ship it to the customer, and that explained the decline in sales.
We listened in on Rolando’s phone conversations and confirmed what he was doing. The following week, we heard Rolando telling a customer that a kit was $1000.00 from API but he could direct the customer to a better company that had it for only $800.00.
So we had a meeting and discussed what to do. We knew that prosecution rarely gained anyone anything, and going through the trouble of verifying how many kits Rolando actually stole was impossible. So before we called in the police, we decided to leak the information over the weekend to our employees that we knew about what Rolando was doing.
On the following Monday morning, as expected, Rolando never showed up for work.
In 2008 Geronimo Lazo passed away and we attended his funeral and we met Lazo's wife, brother and his entire extended family. I was very gratified to learn from them that Geronimo always spoke highly of our relationship and our company. I believe Geronimo Lazo was truly a genius, his invention of the Caterpillar electric starting kit saved thousands of Caterpillar tractor owners a lot of money for many years.
It has been over 40 years since Caterpillar discontinued using the Pony Motor and customers still call to buy the electric starter and alternator kits for those old machines, although not as many people call now as in the past. We, over the years have probably converted the majority of those old Caterpillars.
Who would ever think, some of those Caterpillar Bulldozers are over 50 to 75 years old and still running.