ContractorForgotten companies

Forgotten companies: Austin-Western

Our subject this month is Austin-Western, a highly innovative  company who manufactured a wide range of machinery from the late 1800s through to 1973 when the Company merged with Clark International and what remained of its once extensive product line was absorbed. By Richard Campbell

Originally founded in 1877 in Aurora, Illinois, Austin-Western was formed by fellow workers from a railroad construction company who specialised in grading for railway road beds. (Authors note: The Austin half of the partnership had nothing to do with the English Austin Motor Co.)

One of their first products was a horse-drawn scraper on wheels which held around ½ cubic yard and could be used to cut, carry and dump material for embankments and the like.

Other models of increased capacity soon followed and the fledgling outfit was soon known as the Western Wheeled Scraper Company.

By the early 1900s the Company was also manufacturing railroad dump carts which were loaded by steam shovel and used to transport material further than a horse-drawn scraper.

A great number of these dump carts were employed on the Panama Canal project which only boosted the Company’s reputation for solid, well made equipment.

The company also experimented with long blades mounted under railroad freight cars for levelling the fill material, a very early form of grader although the actual claim of inventing what we now know as the modern road grader lies with J.D.Adams.

The company further consolidated its position developing new implements including motor graders, street sweepers, road rollers, rippers and mobile cranes, their product range being squarely targeted at the utility market, local bodies, councils and railroads.      It was probably this diversification that carried the Company through the Great Depression.

In 1935, the Company introduced it’s first all-hydraulically operated 4-wheel towed scraper, a 12 cubic yard model, ironically called the “12 Yard”.

This was a very interesting piece of equipment, as, apart from being hydraulically operated at a time when practically everything was cable operated, it carried its own gasoline engine and hydraulic pump along with it, mounted on the rear of the scraper. (most track type tractors of the day not being equipped for hydraulic pumps).

Commands for the scrapers operation were delivered electrically to the scraper via two flexible cables as most tractors of the period at least had some form of rudimentary electrical system.

Unfortunately for Austin-Western, the idea doesn’t appear to have been too popular, most likely to the high purchase price and customer unease at hydraulic systems, which were, in the 1930s’, expensive to maintain, slow acting and leaky!

Unfazed, Austin-Western introduced a follow up scraper in 1936, the “5 Yard” which was all cable operated and whose overall structure drew heavily on the failed 12-Yard model.

This appears to have been far more successful but was discontinued with the advent of World War II when all unnecessary manufacture was curtailed.

The 5-Yard was the last scraper manufactured by Austin-Western, their attention being turned to other forms of equipment following the War.

One thing that Austin-Western did very well was motor graders, and the Company had gone from strength over the years developing new concepts and certainly pushing the innovation envelope.

Austin-Western were the pioneer in all wheel drive graders, both four wheel and six wheel drive models being offered.

Known as the “Pacer” series, models ranged from small utility versions to large construction site models which were very popular in the USA and abroad.

One of the things that set Austin-Western’s graders apart from other manufacturers’ graders was they were hydraulically, rather than mechanically operated, Austin-Western having persisted with their development of hydraulic systems and successfully applying it to road graders.

Another unique feature of Austin-Western graders was the ability to ‘crab steer’, which allowed for the wheels with the most traction to remain on a hard surface. On the four wheel drive models this was accomplished by large ball knuckle joints on both axles which allowed the wheels to be offset.  On the six wheel drive models, the rear driving tandems were mounted on a small turntable, which when unlocked, allowed the assembly to pivot around 15 degress from centre. A very robust length of chain ensured that the rear end stayed attached to the machine and did not permit over articulation.

This feature was retained by all Pacer models until the range was discontinued.

Austin-Western made a licensing deal in 1950 with well known English Manufacturer Aveling-Barford in which two of Austin-Western’s designs would be built in the UK under the name “Aveling-Austin”

The two models decided upon were the Pacer 99-H and the Super 500, which were both powered by UK-sourced diesel engines rather than spending overseas funds (which the UK didn’t have much of after WWII) on importing American diesels. Variants of the UK manufactured machines were powered by Leyland (common), UK-built Cummins (common), Gardner (uncommon) and AEC (rare).

As well as domestic UK production, these machines were also exported to Commonwealth countries in fairly sizeable numbers until the licence build agreement ran out in 1958.

For whatever reason, production of these machines continued in the UK, after the agreement expiry, all subsequent production carrying the Aveling-Barford logo even though the machines origins were American!

Austin-Western also developed and manufactured a small range of portable crushing equipment intended for small contractors and railroad ballast yards. These were manufactured up until the mid 1960s when the range was discontinued and they are now quite rare to find in one piece.

In 1953, Austin-Western became a division of Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton (BLH). Baldwin themselves had a major manufacturer of steam locomotives but the writing was already on the wall for the demise of steam loco’s with the arrival of the diesel engine, which cost less to run, maintain, didn’t require a water top up every 50 miles and was very clean compared to steam engines.

Baldwin were looking to broaden their horizons and a construction related business made good sense to them.

This relationship was a little bit rocky, but did produce an outstanding machine in the form of the Model 410 rough terrain crane, a mobile crane suited for all manner of operations.

Austin-Western faced serious competition in this field from outsiders such as Pettibone, and even from within, as Lima, part of the BLH group, also manufactured a very similar all terrain crane.

When the dust finally settled, it was Austin-Western who emerged victorious, their competition all having fallen by the wayside and the Model 410 was eventually carried over into the Clark portfolio.

Enter Clark

Clark Equipment bought Austin-Western lock, stock & barrel from BLH when the latter company folded in 1973 and almost the entire Austin-Western range was carried over and re-branded as Clark. In the short term this was fortuitous for Austin-Western, but Clark succumbed to financial pressures of the recession of 1980 and thus ended the reign of Austin-Western when Clark Equipment shut up shop for good.

The New Zealand Connection

Several Aveling-Austin branded motor graders were imported into NZ during the period that Aveling-Barford had the manufacturing licence. These machines were widely dispersed throughout the country and some were re-exported to Greece in the mid-1970s (courtesy of Rex Moore Machinery) as used 4×4 motor graders were highly sought after for maintaining that countries tortuous back roads. The majority of these machines were of the Pacer 99-H type

For the Model Collector

It is nice to report that you are in luck when it comes to models of Austin-Western equipment. EMD Models of the USA (available through Buffalo Road Imports) has models in 1:50 scale of the 4×4 Pacer 400 (an updated 99-H) and the 6×6 Pacer 500.  Your author has also seen models (to various scales) of the 410 all-terrain crane.

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