Elton Long
(Photo courtesy of Case Corp.)

Elton Long, mechanical engineer who lead the design team that developed the first American-made, integrated loader backhoe, died April 6 in Burlington, Iowa. He was 81 years old.

Early in his career, Long designed heavy equipment for American Tractor Co. of Churubusco, Ind. When Case Corp., Racine, Wis., acquired ATC in 1957, Long and his colleagues were in the midst of designing a new type of machine that would eventually become the bread and butter of contractor fleets around the world. After joining Case, Long rivaled the efforts of Joseph Cyril Bamford, founder of U.K.-based JCB. Though heavily debated, historians say JCB produced the world's first fully integrated unit in 1954, the JCB Mark 1. Shortly after the ATC acquisition, Case shipped the first American-made unit, Model 320, on Feb. 26, 1957. Prior to the JCB and Case designs, loader backhoes were for years bucket implements rigged haphazardly on farm tractors, with parts sold and warranted separately.

"The integrated loader backhoe is an important machine in our history," says Tom Berry, archivist for the Historical Construction Equipment Association, Bowling Green, Ohio. But the journey of the tractor loader backhoe (TLB) was not an easy one, says Keith Haddock, an equipment historian in Calgary, Alberta. "The TLB was unique, but initially, it did not catch on very well. They worked on small jobs and did work that was formerly done by hand labor. As these machines became more reliable and affordable, they became more popular. By the late 1960s, Case was leading the world in TLB sales," says Haddock. What's more, a post-war building boom helped put these machines to work, he adds.

Long served as a pilot in WWII. He earned 16 Air Medals, a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Haddock believes Long's war experience contributed to his mechanical ability. "He was one of many pioneers in the construction industry...many of these people gained experience from WWII, where they utilized a lot of heavy equipment," Haddock says. Long was awarded 46 individual patents while leading product development at Case, where he spent roughly 30 years before retiring as vice president of engineering.

Loader backhoes hit a critical mass in 1998, when more than 62,000 units were produced worldwide. About 33,000 of these machines were shipped to contractors and rental houses in North America, according to Chuck Yengst, equipment analyst in Wilton, Conn.

Elton Long's design for the Case 320 was North America's first single-source loader backhoe. (Photo courtesy of Case Corp.)

Today, Haddock estimates that between 60 to 70 manufacturers produce loader backhoes worldwide–those with the largest market share include Case, Caterpillar, Deere, JCB, New Holland, Terex, Komatsu and Volvo. However, Yengst notes that skid-steer loaders and mini excavators have far surpassed the loader backhoe in numbers, but he adds that "loader backhoes have been around and long time and still are a major product." The rise in popularity of the loader backhoe, says Haddock, "was a major achievement and was based on the Elton Long design. He is not a household name, but his efforts are certainly recognized."