Machinery & Products

Replacing contractors with pure grunt

By John Droppert

Recently, I have had cause to review my policy on ‘DIY vs hiring contractors’. Several times.

A Council-ordained requirement to move around 300 cubic metres of fill for a construction project looked well in excess of what my venerable Buttsworth scoop could accomplish in this lifetime.

A contractor seemed the way to go. But as so often happens, one of the contractors engaged has lost the ability to use his phone or read his calendar.

The other apparently doesn’t have access to his voicemail (which earnestly proclaims that ‘your call is important to us’).

Time for Plan C. Plan C involved the purchase of a backhoe and truck, because “@#*&$^ contractors, I’m going to $*^#&^ per cent do the *#^# per cent$ job my $#*&$#* self”.

Cheap, old rubbish of course, because with a few days of work the job would be done and they could be tinkered with and eventually, err, sold.

A bit of fun and actually financially competitive with paying ‘the professionals’, should they ever deign to turn up.

We’ll come back to the rest later, but I’m going to jump ahead a few steps at this point, to focus on the subject for this column.

2017’s worst excavating outfit ended up with a Chamberlain 791 backhoe. I have used several backhoes extensively over the years, but this one is a treat.

Classic to the point of separate driving and backhoe seats, air-conditioning by virtue of the breeze (heating from the exhaust gas blowing into your face), and a driving position that involves straddling the transmission whilst sitting on the fuel tank.

To these original features, the passage of time has added an external self-lubricating oil change system (ram leaks), sloppy pins in worn bushes, and a dodgy fuel pump fix that sees the exhaust blow a volume of smoke I can only compare to a coal fired battleship.

Naturally, the brakes don’t work, the hood doesn’t close properly, and the driver’s seat is rusted to the point where you want your tetanus booster applied before operating.

As far as classic grunt goes however, this thing brings the goods. The engine is an old Perkins 212, tough as nails and light on fuel.

So far I have literally used around half the volume of diesel as hydraulic oil — though this may say more about the state of ram seals.

The hydraulics are strong: it lifts and digs and dumps like a beast.

The cycle time is so good that you have to be careful with all the slop in the pins — you could put the hoe bucket through the back window of your truck pretty quickly if you don’t stop the slew about a metre from where you want to drop the dirt. Good for throwing beyond your reach though!

It has a forward/reverse shuttle — something I’m always amazed these old backhoes manage to have but most tractors took decades to catch up with.

Perhaps best of all, a previous owner replaced the seat on the backhoe with a car seat. Who says I can’t be comfortable whilst having my need for retirement savings steadily reduced by the diesel smoke blowing across my face?

• John Droppert has no mechanical qualifications whatsoever, but has been passionate about tractors since before he could talk and has operated many different makes and models in a variety of roles for both profit and fun.