Jim Coles: Garage Mahal, Montana

  • story by David M. Brown
  • photos by Bryan Coles
  • posted on 03/2022
  • posted in: Great Garages

If he chooses, Jim Coles can joyously fish, hike, ski or boat year round in magnificent Whitefish, Montana. But, without reel, boots, oars or poles, he’s still happy enjoying his 40 Caterpillar and Deere tractors and engines, 1934 through 1968, at his Snow Ghost Ranch, 13 miles north of town and 60 miles south of the Canadian border. He and his wife “CK” also have a home in Scottsdale.

“With retirement, we will now be spending the majority of our time at this ranch,” he says, noting that they acquired the property in 2000. “It is strictly a game preserve, with all activity centering on wildlife enhancement.” Just northwest of glacially formed Flathead Lake, the ranch is adjacent to about two million acres of National Forest. The ranch is equally covered with forest and meadow areas, has one river, three creeks, 22 wetlands and 12 prolific springs; it’s a great wildlife habitat,” he explains.

Tamer, his regal Garage Mahal collection includes seven fully restored John Deere two-cylinder-engine tractors, 1934 thru 1959, and 33 Cat tractors and engine. He began collecting about 40 years ago, in 1981.


His oldest is 1934, youngest 1968, and about two thirds have been restored. “Pieces have been added at a fairly steady rate, challenged by the value of scrap, making finding of equipment more challenging,” he explains. “As equipment gets older, its productive value decreases immensely, causing those without a nostalgic viewpoint to dispose of it.”

Some tractor fans start collecting with 1920s examples, which were built to run on gasoline, but his pieces are all diesel, most equipped with gasoline starting engines. His collection began with the acquisition of a 1948 5U series D2. “Caterpillar made the mandatory move from gasoline to diesel power in the very early ’30s; the design change was a true ‘bet-the-farm’ call at the start of the Great Depression,” he says.

For design, Caterpillar progressed quickly before WW II, but little upgrades were made during the war. “Postwar, design progressed at a very rapid rate, with a very sophisticated and productive family of equipment available by 1960,” he adds. His collection focuses on this period.

James Coles' garage in Whitefish, Montana. Photo Bryan Coles

His love of the hardware is long standing. “I have possessed it since playing with tractors in a sandbox,” he notes. “Recognizing that passion at an early age made career directional choices very easy.”

He grew up in the Bay Area of California, and, after earning an engineering degree, worked for Caterpillar Tractor Company in Peoria, Illinois. “I have always enjoyed the ag world, having worked in it for six summers during high school and college in northern Idaho,” Coles says.

In Peoria, the company formally trained him and he held various positions. “During this time, I gained significant respect for the design talents of the company,” he adds.


After three years, he was transferred to Denver, covering the Rocky Mountains for Cat as a machine sales rep. He left in 1973 to form a Peterbilt truck dealership in Casper, Wyoming, eventually expanding into Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Oregon and northern California. He sold the 18-location operation in 2014 to retire and enjoy Cats in Whitefish.

These CATS are Dear

Here are a few of Jim Coles’ prized tractors:


1934 “Diesel 35” –– The earliest tractor in the collection, this track type is so called because it has 35 horsepower. Very popular in the ag market, the 14,000-pound classic has a 3-cylinder diesel engine with an in-line 2-cylinder gasoline starting engine. Gasoline start went from standard equipment to an optional attachment in 1968, with electric 24-volt start becoming standard because of advancing componentry.

1937 Cat D17000 –– This Cat has a 60-degree Vee engine and a single-plane crankshaft, producing 126 horsepower at 900 RPM; the engine weighs about 80 pounds per horsepower. Four blocks, each with two cylinder liners, sit on the crankcase. There are eight separate heads. Note the exterior push rod tubes.

“This engine was strictly an industrial engine, meaning it was not installed in any Cat machines. Its market was marine power, small locomotive, draglines, generator sets, etc.,” he explains. This particular engine was originally purchased by the Army and drove a pump. Postwar, it powered a crusher in a small Montana copper mine; Coles acquired it from the retired owners of the mine. A two-cylinder starting engine tops the flywheel housing.


1938 Caterpillar No.212 motor grader –– This was Cat’s smallest diesel 6-wheel motor grader. The octogenarian is powered by a 37-horsepower 4-cylinder 4-inch-bore-x-5-inch stroke engine, the same one used in the D2 track type tractor. It has a 5-speed transmission and the tandems (two rear axles) are chain driven.

“There are so many grease zerks on this machine, I challenge anyone to find them all,” Coles says. This unit spent its life working for a county in south central Washington. “Cat dropped both the D2 and the No.212 in the early fifties,” he explains. “They were too expensive to build as a relation to their productive capacity.”

The Cat 5.75-inch-bore x 8-inch-stroke family: 4-cylinder D8800, 6-cylinder D13000 in the middle and the V-8 D17000 –– The four cylinder, built in 1939, was first owned by the Navy, drove a generator on a skid package and was a standby generator on a destroyer. “I removed the generator and installed a flywheel clutch with a single 3:1 reduction,” he says, adding that the same model engine also powered the D7 track type tractor.


The 6-cylinder was built in 1937. It was owned by the Boise Water Department and powered a standby pump. When Coles acquired it, total usage was 2500 hours.

And, the D17000 was Cat’s first entry into V-type engines.

1944 8R series D8 –– One of a number of WW II D8 veterans in the collection, this one was built in March 1944, the same month Coles was born. The 8R D8, weighing 40,000 pounds, was the main tool used in the Pacific by the SeaBees for airport construction, so important for the island-hopping strategy that eventually won the war. The other vets in the collection are primarily engines used for electric power generation and water pumping.


“Cat was unique in wartime; their factories kept building the identical product, not changing much other than the color of the paint,” he explains. “This was quite different from factories converting from automobiles to airplane production.”

The only changes the military asked for on this unit was a convex radiator guard and a welded pocket at the four corners of the track “swing frame” to attach rigging to when loading and unloading from a ship. This also has a two-drum cable control unit on the back for operating a pull type scraper, which was primarily used for cutting and filling for grading work on the airports.

1952 5U series D2 –– This track-type tractor was set up for ag drawbar work and spent its first life on a farm near Craigmont, Idaho. For about 20 years, it was stored in a barn before a collector told Coles about it.  This tractor produces 37 horsepower, and with the very wide track shoes had a ground contact pressure of about 1 psi, which the ag industry liked in order to avoid compaction. Cat dropped the D2 soon after this unit was built. The market was moving to larger more productive units.


1947 3T series D7 –– “Every collection has its ‘barn-find,’ and this is mine,” he says. “This tractor spent its life on a dry land farm in northeastern Montana. In 1950, at 2400 hours, a piston failed, and the farmer stored the unit in his barn where it sat for the next 60 years. Finally, the farmer’s wife told him to empty that barn before he died, and a friend told a friend who told me about the unit.”

He took a lowboy tractor trailer rig with a winch and retrieved the unit. “With the exception that the wood in the cab was rotted and both the diesel engine and gasoline starting engine needed overhaul, the tractor was in absolutely perfect condition,” he says.

Doug Hansen, Hansen Wheel and Wagon Co., in Mitchell, South Dakota, restored the cab using hickory material. Note the inline two-cylinder starting engine alongside the four-cylinder diesel.


Track-type tractors were used extensively in the ag market in Western states to achieve higher drawbar pull, less dirt compaction and stability on hillsides, versus wheel-type, 2-wheel-drive tractors. In later years, with improvement in wheel tractors, this was to change, he explains.

“Every collector has his favorite piece, and this is mine.”

Engine RM180 –– This V-8, along with the inline-6 D343, and an inline 4, the D340, made up the 5.4”-bore family designed in the late 1950s and introduced in 1960.

“This family represented a massive turning point in Caterpillar engine design,” he says. The RM180 was a 90-degree, naturally balanced V-8.  All three engines had twin overhead cams, 4 valves per cylinder, parallel ported, turbocharged with a waste gate and a water-to-air aftercooler.

The bore and stroke is 5.4 inches by 6.5 inches, full load 2100 RPM and full lug 1400 RPM. It represented a 10-liter, 15-liter and 20-liter displacement family. Prior to this family, all Cat engine design was 2-valve push rod configurations, and, with one model exception, all engines were naturally aspirated.

This family was the last “purpose built” family of engines, that single purpose being powering Cat vehicles. “This family generated roughly three times the power stroke cylinder pressure of former designs,” he says. “For Cat, it was about like Boeing going from propellers to jets.”

The RM180 shown was produced from 1960 to 1972 and powered all Cats’ large haulage equipment offerings. “For me, it’s the engine that built the interstate highway system, and because of its significant pioneering design, it has always been one of my favorites.”

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