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JCB at 75: Charting the rise of a British manufacturing super power

This year marks the 75th Anniversary of JCB, one of Britain’s most successful agricultural and construction equipment manufacturers. Simon Henley looks back at some the company’s illustrious history and identifies a few of its most enduring highlights and successes.

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JCB's World Headquarters, Rocester.
JCB's World Headquarters, Rocester.

The story of JCB is one of the greatest narratives in the chronicles of British manufacturing history. It is a story of one man’s self-confessed thirst for knowledge and his quest to prove his ability to his family, which would lead to him establish one of the 20th Century’s most successful British company’s, and one of the most recognised names in the world today. That man was Joseph Cyril Bamford CBE.

 

Having served in the RAF during World War II, in October 1945 Staffordshire-native Joe Bamford started an engineering business building all-steel trailers for the local farmers, after he was sacked from the family business, Henry Bamford & Sons, by his father’s cousin. Using scrap metal taken from redundant air-raid shelters and surplus parts from military vehicles, Mr Bamford built his first trailer in a 3.7m by 4.6m (12 foot by 15 foot) garage in Uttoxeter, using a second hand welder.


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Pictured in 1995, Joe Bamford with his son Anthony.
Pictured in 1995, Joe Bamford with his son Anthony.

According to legend, the first trailer (pictured above) was part-exchanged for an old farm cart and £45 at a local market. The money he received from the sale enabled Mr Bamford to build a second trailer. The date of this sale, October 23, was also marked by the birth of his son Anthony. Today, the first trailer built by Mr Bamford along with his welding set, now takes pride of place at JCB’s world headquarters in Rocester.

 

During the next few years, several things would happen. Firstly, Joe Bamford would expand his repertoire to include both two and four-wheel steel trailers. He would also develop a hydraulic tipping system, becoming the first trailer manufacturer in Europe to introduce this type of technology.

Major development

Major development

By 1948, Joe Bamford was employing six-people and the business had moved into a stable block at Crakemarsh Hall near Uttoxeter. This year would also mark a turning point for the company, as 1948 would be the year J. C Bamford would introduce the Major Loader.

 

The Major Loader was an industrial specification hydraulic loader, designed for the Fordson E27N Major tractor, hence its name. However, what has since been described as the first fore-end loader of its kind to be offered in Europe, was cleverly developed so it could be fitted onto other popular tractors of the time, including the BMC Nuffield Universal-Four.

 

In 1950, Joe Bamford moved his company once again, this time to an old cheese factory in Rocester. The site, which would eventually become the location for company’s world headquarters, has since expanded from 0.4 hectares when Joe Bamford bought it, to the 70 hectare site we know today.

 

Following the company’s move to Rocester, in 1951 J.C Bamford introduced a compact version of the Major Loader, known as the Master Loader. By 1952 the company had expanded its product line with the introduction of a new mid-mounted tractor mower and a new half-track conversion system for Fordson tractors, which featured heavy-duty rubber tracks, designed to fit over the tractor’s rear wheels.

 

The JCB half-track system would later famously be used by Sir Edmund Hilary, when he successfully piloted three Ferguson TE20 tractors equipped with JCB tracks to the South Pole in 1958. Sir Edmund had previously become the first man to conquer Mount Everest, in 1953.

Birth of the backhoe

Birth of the backhoe

In 1952, Joe Bamford had embarked on a trip to Norway to promote and sell his new half-track system. It was during this trip that Mr Bamford would see something which would change not only the course of his company’s business, but ultimately cast his initials into the pages of British history.

 

It was a rudimentary backhoe loader attached to the rear of a tractor. Inspired by what he had seen, he immediately returned to Rocester and began the development of what would become the JCB Mk I Excavator. At its launch in 1953, the earliest JCB excavator was little more than a Fordson Major Diesel tractor, equipped with a hydraulic backhoe (or back-actor) and a JCB Major Loader, with the option of a rudimentary cab. However, despite its crude appearance more than 500 of them were sold.

 

The year 1953 was also the year when the initials JCB first appeared. The famous logo first seen on a prototype machine, known as the JCB Load-Over. Based on the Fordson Major, the Load-Over featured a boom which travelled over the top of the operator, allowing it to both load and tip from either the front or back of the tractor. Only two would be built.

 

While the design of the Load-Over did not survive beyond the prototype stage, the famous JCB logo (which was designed by Leslie Smith at Derby Media) did survive, and is still used to this day.

Also surviving is the JCB backhoe loader, although it would be a few more years before it materialised as the purpose-built machine we recognise today.

 

The next crucial stage in the development of the JCB backhoe was the introduction of the Hydra-Digga in 1957. Based on the Mk I Excavator, the new model featured a larger boom and dipper, and 50 per cent more bucket capacity. While it was still obviously built around the Fordson Major tractor, the Hydra-Digga was by now painted the familiar yellow we recognise today.

 

The year 1958 marked the debut of the name Loadall, which was the title given by JCB to a new innovation in hydraulic loader design, which integrated the hydraulic oil reservoir into the chassis. In fact it would be the combination of the Hydra-Digga and the Loadall which would introduce the first specifically designed JCB backhoe-loaders the following year, when JCB introduced the Hydra-Digga Loadall 65 models.

3C ups the ante

3C ups the ante

By 1960, the short-lived Hydra-Digga Loadall was replaced by the new JCB 4, which introduced dual hydraulics and two-lever excavator control, in addition to JCB’s new SpaceView cab which could accommodate several people. JCB upped the ante again in 1961 when it introduced the smaller JCB 3, which was marketed as being able to dig a hole while tight against a wall or fence.

 

The JCB 4 would become the 4C in 1962, however, the greatest innovation in backhoe design would materialise in 1963 with the launch of the JCB 3C. Designed by engineer Derek Prime, the 3C featured an integrated chassis and a side-shift sliding back-actor, which enabled the operator to work in an offset position so he could see exactly what he was doing when trenching or ditching.

 

The year 1964 brought several more important events. JCB would export its first 4C backhoe to the USA, and introduce a compact backhoe known as the 2C. It would also debut its first 360-degree tracked machine, the JCB 7.

 

Yet arguably the biggest event of the year was when Joe Bamford gave a £250,000 bonus to the employees of his company, enabling some of them to buy their first homes. This startling act of generosity, garnished Mr Bamford and JCB a great deal of coverage in the national newspapers.

Company expansion

Company expansion

During the course of the next few years, JCB would go from strength to strength. The JCB 3CII backhoe arrived in 1968, and by 1969 more than half of JCB’s production was being exported, earning the company the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement.

 

At home, the company’s Rocester facility had been the subject of a significant expansion and modernisation. The company was investing heavily into new machinery and became one of the first British manufacturers to invest in computer numerically controlled machine-tool technology and robotic welding.

 

In 1970 JCB opened a factory in Baltimore USA. Here in the UK, 1970 marked the inaugural year for the introduction of the JCB Dancing Diggers display team. Between 1971 and 1973, the company’s turnover doubled from £20m to £40m, earning the manufacturer two more Queen’s Awards along the way. In 1972 alone, the company built a record 6,000 machines.

 

By the time JCB celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1975, it had grown to become one of the largest and most successful engineering, manufacturing and export companies in Britain. Its influence was also prevalent throughout Europe. For the first time, JCB France announced it had sold more than 100 units per month, but that was not the biggest news of the year.

 

On December 31, it was officially announced that Joe Bamford, who was now 60, had decided to step down and retire. His son Anthony would now take over as JCB’s Chairman. At the time when Anthony Bamford took over the reigns at JCB, the UK was in economic melt-down. Yet JCB was still a thriving company, and under Anthony’s control it would continue to be successful, with the introduction of more machines and technologies.

Loadall legacy

Loadall legacy

One of Anthony Bamford’s earliest triumphs was the 1977 introduction of the JCB 520 telescopic handler. The success of the 520 would lead the way in a new market sector for wheeled-loaders with telescopic booms, and ultimately reintroduce the Loadall name into the JCB portfolio, with the launch of the 525 Loadall in 1980.

 

Today, the extensive Loadall line-up stands as one of JCB’s most successful product ranges, dominating the telescopic handler market in the UK, while holding a significant market share in countries like France, Germany and the USA.

 

By 1978, JCB’s annual sales had extended to £84m, prompting the company to invest in a new transmission factory at Wrexham. The following year, Anthony Bamford would make the first of many JCB investments in India, setting up a manufacturing joint venture with Escorts of India. This was a bold move in 1979, yet it was one which would ultimately pay dividends. Today JCB has five factories in India, and the brand is as well-known among the Indian people as it is the British.

 

The dawn of the 1980s, saw the launch of the JCB 3CX Sitemaster backhoe loader. Developed at a cost of £24m, the new model introduced a melee of technology which JCB claimed could improve productivity by up to 60 per cent in comparison to the out-going JCB 3CII model. The 3CX would become the company’s most successful backhoe to date.

 

Throughout the eighties JCB continued to grow, introducing a new articulated wheeled loader range in 1981. During the next few years it would launch a new range of mini-diggers, start building equipment for the military and announce a record turnover of £150m in sales during 1984. In 1985, as JCB celebrated its 40th anniversary, the 100,000th JCB backhoe loader rolled off the production line at Rocester.

Fastrac to a new era

Fastrac to a new era

Arguably one of the greatest accomplishments of JCB during the 1980s was the development of a top-secret High-Mobility Vehicle known internally as Project 130. The brainchild of Anthony Bamford, the project was initiated in June 1986, when design engineer David Brown joined JCB to head the 130 programme.

 

With a team of just four hand-picked design engineers and draughtsman selected from the automotive, truck and transmission industries, the Project 130 team would eventually design, build and test 15 different prototype versions of what we call today, the JCB Fastrac.

 

The JCB Fastrac made its debut at the Royal Smithfield Show at Earls Court in December 1990, where JCB exhibited a pre-production prototype of what had taken four years and £12m to develop. Production of the Fastrac commenced in June 1991, in time for the official launch of the new Fastrac 125 and 145 models at the Royal Show the following month.

 

While the current generation 4000 Series Fastrac is the most popular to date, the recent surge of interest into the Fastrac brand has been fuelled by JCB’s investment in producing two high-speed versions of the tractor, which in 2019 set two Guinness World Records for the highest speed in a modified tractor.

Lord Anthony

As well as celebrating its 75th anniversary, this year also marks 45 years since Lord Bamford succeeded his father. Upon the announcement of his retirement in 1975, Joseph Bamford stated; “There cannot be any limit to the successes of JCB.”

JCB milestones

  • 1945: Joseph Cyril Bamford builds his first all-steel agricultural trailer in Uttoxeter
  • 1948: J.C Bamford introduces the front-mounted Major Loader
  • 1953: Mk I Excavator backhoe launched
  • 1963: Revolutionary 3C backhoe loader introduced
  • 1970: Dancing Diggers display team is established
  • 1975: Joseph Bamford retires. Anthony Bamford becomes JCB Chairman.
  • 1977: JCB debuts its 520 telescopic handler - the name Loadall would be added two years later.
  • 1981: The new 3CX Sitemaster backhoe loader debuted
  • 1985: 100,000th backhoe is produced at Rocester
  • 1991: Fastrac 125 and 145 models are officially launched at the Royal Show
  • 2006: JCB breaks world speed record for diesel car in USA (317.02mph) with the JCB DieselMax
  • 2013: Produces its one-millionth machine, a JS220 tracked excavator
  • 2019: Fastrac breaks British and Guinness World Records for fastest modified tractor
  • 2020: JCB Celebrates 75-years.

Gallery

fastrac 4000
fastrac 8000
wft
loadall
fastrac drilling
fastrac spraying
435 p6
wft closeup p11
wft clos p11
fastrac p16
shovel p25
loadall teagle
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