RACINE — Racine resident Steven Vogelman might have discovered the Holy Grail, unearthed buried treasure and captured a unicorn all at the same time.
Last year, Vogelman came into possession of what appears to be a 50-year-old, handmade, one-of-a-kind prototype of a garden tractor built by Colt Manufacturing, a Milwaukee company purchased by J.I. Case in 1964.
Vogelman’s discovery shocked and awed the nation’s cultish clan of garden tractor collectors, aficionados and researchers, who communicate via online forums and meet at tractor shows.
“There has always been speculation that there was a Colt prototype out there, but I assumed it was gossip,” said Steve Graber, a longtime Case collector from Monticello. “I feel what Steve has is a one-and-only, I really do. I had to see it to believe it. And after seeing, I believed it.”
It is called a Colt 2+Tools. It has a bench seat for two people and a rear box for carrying tools. The tractor could plow snow, cut grass and pull a trailer. It was forerunner of today’s Gator-type vehicles.
“This was ahead of its time,” said Vogelman, who retired from the Racine Wastewater Utility last year. “It was a new concept. It was a whole new ballgame for the industry.”
In 1966, Colt built prototypes for the model at a plant in Winneconne, but no one knows for sure how many. Colt created promotional brochures with photos of the prototype, but all production records from the plant were destroyed, Graber said.
Case, which owned the plant, decided to stop producing Colts and developed a lawn tractor called the Case T-90, which had the same features as a Colt 2+Tools. Only about 50 Case T-90s were made, and only about 20 have been found. They are rarities in the lawn tractor world and a restored T-90 can be worth up to $10,000.
A perhaps apocryphal story has a Case executive spotting the Colt 2+Tools prototype in 1966 and ordering plant workers to re-paint it with the sand and red Case colors. That tractor was shipped to the Case’s Clausen plant in Mount Pleasant, where it was used for various tasks until the lakefront plant closed in the early 2000s.
Vogelman believes that’s the machine he has had in his garage for the past year, lovingly restoring it practically piece by piece.
Vogelman’s father gave him the tractor last summer. He purchased it at an auction for $25 several years ago. After his dad obtained it, the tractor mostly sat under a tarp, rusting away.
His father told him the story about the tractor and after some research and talking to experts, Vogelman believes he has the Holy Grail of lawn garden tractors.
“I think it’s the real thing,” he said.
Experts seem to agree. Vogelman announced his finding last year on ColtCaseIngersoll.com, an online forum of lawn tractor experts and fans. The enthusiasts were more than a little enthusiastic about even the inkling that Vogelman had a Colt 2+Tools prototype.
“Simply amazing,” one post said. “This is the holy grail of Colt, Case and Ingersoll. This is just a crazy awesome find.”
“I am in total agreement that this is a Colt 2+Tools prototype, but was it the only one?” asked Jim Daezner, a Saginaw, Mich., resident who has been collecting and researching Colt and Case garden tractors since 1970.
Daezner, who keeps a registry of Case T-90s, said someday another Colt prototype could surface. “I never say never on these things,” he said. “You could be eating your words.”
Vogelman has been restoring his machine for almost a year. He fabricated some new parts using the same 16-gauge steel the original tractor was constructed from. He scraped away paint, found original tires and original Colt decals. He said he does something every day in his garage and hopes to finish it early this summer.
“If nothing else, it’s been a hell of a lot of fun,” he said with a laugh.
It could also be worth a hell of a lot of money. With a restored Case T-90 worth about $10,000, Vogelman’s one of a kind could be worth twice that. Graber wouldn’t even guess how much more.
“It only takes one collector who really, really wants it to make the price,” he said.