Blast from the Past: Kato 550G ex­ca­va­tor

When Ron Horner saw an old Kato 550G ex­ca­va­tor in a Lith­gow yard, it took him back to his first job as a 22-year-old heart and started his heart rac­ing so much that he just had to stop and take a closer look

Earthmovers & Excavators - - Contents -

Mar­vel­lous what you find when you start “see­ing and not just looking”. Re­cently, on what turned out to be the most pro­duc­tive ‘Ron­nie’s Road Trip’ yet, I once again found my­self ven­tur­ing into the bow­els of NSW and, in par­tic­u­lar, the Blue Moun­tains.

On part as­sign­ment and with a bit of time up my sleeve to take in the sights for a change,

I found my­self in the lovely Blue Moun­tains town­ship of Lith­gow.

Now, to some folk that know me, this would not be an un­usual event as I grew up there as a kid. I owned a pub there in an­other life, and it is where I started my earth­mov­ing ca­reer as a con­trac­tor.

That was way back in the early 1970s, when I was work­ing on a ma­jor rail line reconstruction project and fit­ted the first Krupp 600 hy­draulic rock breaker bought into the coun­try to a new Kato 550G ex­ca­va­tor.

And it just hap­pened to be a Kato 550G that I spied in Ge­orge Pierce & Co’s Lith­gow yard.

If you have a pas­sion for ma­chin­ery, cars, trucks or any­thing old, you’ll know the feeling of that rush of blood and adrenalin you get when you find some­thing that is as close to your heart as the old Kato 550G is to mine.

So it was that I just had to get in for a closer look. But first, a lit­tle back­ground …


Any­one old enough to re­mem­ber Thiess Kato and Thiess Toy­ota would be very long in the tooth and prob­a­bly suf­fer­ing some form of de­men­tia by now, so it might not be best to ask them … but I can tell you that with­out Thiess Broth­ers the cur­rent state of ex­ca­va­tors in Aus­tralia would be nowhere as buoy­ant and ex­cit­ing as it is today.

You see, way back in 1934 three broth­ers from Toowoomba regis­tered a com­pany and laid the foun­da­tion for what has turned out to be one of Aus­tralia’s most suc­cess­ful earth­mov­ing and min­ing companies, Thiess Broth­ers.

Lead­ing by ex­am­ple and not be­ing con­fined to old-school work prac­tices, Thiess be­came the first Australian-based com­pany to win a con­tract on the Snowy Moun­tains Scheme and went about se­cur­ing equip­ment to com­plete the tasks.

A visit to Ja­pan in 1959 to se­cure the Australian fran­chise of the tried and proven Toy­ota Land Cruiser mar­que led the broth­ers Thiess to in­ves­ti­gate some earth­mov­ing equip­ment seen work­ing in the re­gion.

With a nat­u­rally in­quis­i­tive na­ture, the boys were al­ways on the look­out for some­thing which could give the com­pany a lead­ing edge over its ri­vals. They saw a Kato hy­draulic ex­ca­va­tor and, see­ing the po­ten­tial in such a ma­chine, made their way

to the Kato Works fac­tory and stitched up the Australian fran­chise.

The Katos were not the first ex­ca­va­tors in Aus­tralia, as some other brands had found their way in via Europe and Eng­land, but they were def­i­nitely the most pop­u­lar.

By the time the 1970s had come along, any rep­utable con­trac­tor wanted to own or al­ready owned a Kato ex­ca­va­tor. Re­li­able and with a parts avail­abil­ity sec­ond to none, Katos were the ma­chines of the decade.

Their ac­cep­tance by the in­dus­try and pop­u­lar­ity was un­prece­dented, and when Banbury En­gi­neer­ing took con­trol of the deal­er­ship, Kato held a mas­sive 80 per cent mar­ket share of all ex­ca­va­tors sold in this coun­try.


My in­volve­ment with Kato ex­ca­va­tors started way back in 1974/5 when I was work­ing on the orig­i­nal Moomba to Sydney Gas Pipe­line and had the op­por­tu­nity to get my hands on a brand new Kato 1500 which, in its day, was well re­garded as not only the largest ex­ca­va­tor but also the best in Aus­tralia.

Work­ing the Ditch Crew I learned to op­er­ate dig­gers, first a Hopto [LINK] then an old At­las. When the per­ma­nent op­er­a­tor got sick, Ditch boss Tom Ford threw me the keys to the 1500 Kato and, at 22 years of age, I sat my arse in it and be­came the Kato King for a week.

Lit­tle did I know that this was a defin­ing mo­ment in my life.

Af­ter fin­ish­ing a cou­ple of pipe­line con­tracts and sav­ing all of my hard-earned cash, I had the op­por­tu­nity to buy my own ex­ca­va­tor.

Of course, there was only one on my mind and that was a Kato.

I went on to buy about 25 Kato ex­ca­va­tors over a pe­riod of about 10 years and un­in­ten­tion­ally be­came a pioneer in the in­dus­try of ex­ca­va­tors and ham­mers.

The mem­o­ries of those heady days live long and I’ll al­ways re­gard Horner Kato as one of my best achieve­ments and lega­cies.

These days old earth­mov­ing equip­ment, be­lieve it or not, is get­ting pretty hard to find in any suit­able con­di­tion for restor­ing or even in a ba­sic work­ing con­di­tion. The heady days of high steel prices saw many of them scrapped for their metal and melted down in some over­seas steel mill.

Iron­i­cally, it was in the shad­ows of the ru­ins of Aus­tralia’s very first steel mills that I found the Kato 550G. Lith­gow, be­lieve it or not, had the first com­mer­cially vi­able steel mills in Aus­tralia be­fore Hoskins moved his Australian Iron and Steel Mills on to Wol­lon­gong and even­tu­ally com­bined with BHP.


A quick phone call to owner Ge­orge Pearce re­quest­ing ac­cess to photograph and doc­u­ment the old girl was granted. His grand­son, Craig, runs the Ge­orge Pierce & Co con­tract­ing busi­ness these days, and took me on a personal tour of the yard.

We un­cov­ered some real gems, with the Kato 550G be­ing my favourite.

The Kato 550G weighs in at about 14 tonnes and runs a non-turbo Mit­subishi diesel en­gine. The four hand/foot con­trol sticks and two travel levers are tell­tale signs that this ma­chine is a real blast from the past.

The cabin is as ba­sic as one could ask, with sim­ple but ef­fec­tive gauges, but back in the day this was state of the art. You could have a ra­dio fit­ted from the fac­tory and win­dows that ac­tu­ally opened to let some air flow through the cabin.

The front widow could be lifted up and over the op­er­a­tor’s head so you could see through the fogged-up win­dows and get some fresh air, but there was no air-con­di­tion­ing or heat­ing avail­able on this model (which was a bit of a bug­ger in a Lith­gow win­ter).

The four hand/foot con­trol sticks and two travel levers are tell-tale signs that this ma­chine is a real Blast from the Past.

The seat was com­fort­able for the day and a big im­prove­ment on the ap­ple-box seat­ing ar­range­ment of the old chain-drive Kato 350s that pre-dated this model.

No fancy hy­draulics were re­quired in those days as the small com­mer­cial hy­draulic pump fit­ted to the Kato ran at one con­stant flow and was con­trolled by a sim­ple link arm from the cabin con­trols to the valve bank.

Pull or push a lever and the link­ages opened or closed the valves in the valve bank, en­sur­ing ef­fec­tive op­er­a­tion of the rel­e­vant hy­draulic rams. Sim­ple, and nothing com­pared to the con­trols and tech­nol­ogy avail­able today.

This par­tic­u­lar ma­chine was plumbed for a hy­draulic ham­mer and, as luck would have it, I found an old Krupp hy­draulic rock breaker in the cor­ner of the same yard.

The track drive mo­tors proved that this was in­deed an early model as the travel mo­tors pro­truded well in­side the track frames, but this ma­chine had pro­tec­tive steel cov­ers fit­ted to pre­vent any ma­jor dam­age should the op­er­a­tor get caught up on a rock in a quarry or pit.


Still painted up in near-orig­i­nal Kato colours with straight pan­els and ex­tremely neat in ap­pear­ance, this 550G ma­chine would not be out of place in any con­trac­tor’s yard today.

The pre­sen­ta­tion of this dig­ger is a credit to the Pearces.

Craig tells me that the ma­chine still works two con­tracts a year with the Krupp rock breaker and, with a few new bat­ter­ies fit­ted, it would start and run like a clock.

I de­vel­oped of pas­sion for dig­gers way back in the ’70s – a pas­sion which has never waned. I was then, and still am, in awe of the ex­ca­va­tor and the con­tin­ual evo­lu­tion we wit­ness today.

Kato and Thiess Bros, the Australian earth­mov­ing, min­ing and con­struc­tion in­dus­tries thank you and will al­ways be deeply in­debted to you.

1. This 14-ton­ner is a true sur­vivor 2. Ron Horner is taken back to where it all started 3. The Kato still works two con­tracts a year with a Krupp rock breaker


Ron­nie at the con­trols of the Kato 550G ex­ca­va­tor

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