Cranemakers To The World 1939 - 1959
Coincidentally, the history of the Steel Group (now called the Coles Cranes Group), of which Henry J. Coles Limited became part in 1939, dates back like Coles to 1879. In that year Lancelot Steel established a builder's merchant's business in Sunderland. The company grew rapidly so that by the turn of the century it was one of the largest concerns of its kind in northern England. During the first half of the present century the company continued its growth, expanding into heating and ventilation engineering and, in the 1930s, into industrial catering equipment.
By then the company was being run by John Eric Steel and his brother James, grandsons of the founder. In 1937 Steel and Co. became a public company with an issued share capital of 1220,000.
It was John Eric Steel's stated intention to bring to Sunderland heavy engineering which was not connected with shipbuilding. In 1939 the first steps towards the achievement of this aim were taken with the acquisition of Henry J. Coles Limited and, almost immediately afterwards, with the purchase of the Egis shipyard on the banks of the River Wear at Pallion, Sunderland. The shipyard was renamed Crown Works (in deference to the amount of Government work which the expanded group was under- taking) and crane manufacture began almost immediately.
Crown Works has grown in the years since 1939 to become the biggest crane manufacturing plant in Europe. However, in the early years cranes shared manufacturing facilities with a veritable cornucopia of manufactured products, including catering equipment, overhead cranes and pulley blocks, fireplaces, batteries, neon lights, electric vehicles, agricultural machinery, snowploughs, anchors and anchor chains, screw jacks and heating and ventilating equipment!
In 1943 most of these products were joined under an umbrella company, Steels Engineering Products Limited. The Coles product name was retained (although there was a suggestion, rapidly rejected, to rename the products `Steel Cranes') but Henry J. Coles Limited disappeared as a separate entity.
Through the success of the EMA orders obtained during the late 1930s, the British forces came to standardise on Coles cranes throughout the Second World War. Production grew at an enormous rate so that by 1945 some months saw the output of close on 100 cranes leaving the Sunderland factory. These were almost all EMA superstructures mounted on a variety of proprietary chassis including Austin, AEC, Leyland, Crossley, Diamond T, Ford and, perhaps most famous of all, Thorneycroft. These chassis were supplied by the War Department and the workforce at Crown Works strengthened and adapted them before mounting the superstructures.
This success was not, however, without its penalties. For one thing, the standardisation (which in 1943, was formalised in a government directive) in the design of the cranes prevented any development which was not completely in keeping with military requirements. Thus it was possible in 1942 to develop probably the world's first crash recovery crane, but it was not possible to extend the capacity range beyond the 6-tons which was the limit of military requirements. Apart from projects related to military work, developments were largely limited to improved manu featuring techniques and materials, developments which instilled into the fabric of the crane making organisation characteristics which it retains to this day.In addition to limiting development of the cranes the monopoly which the military held in the purchase of Coles cranes effectively blocked the company from its commercial market. During the first 6o years of its existence, Coles had made little money but had built a world wide reputation for quality and reliability. By 1945 this reputation was, in the commercial field, a pre-war memory. The Ministry of Supply, which had controlled the marketing of cranes from all UK manufacturers, had effectively handed over the domestic commercial market to Coles competitors, by taking all of the Coles output for the forces. At the end of the war the tap was turned off, leaving Steels Engineering Products with a massive work- force, a superb product and a market which had suddenly disappeared.
Facing this situation the Steel brothers decided to attack the problem rather than seek a passive defence. In the late 1940s, enormous sums were spent on completely re-equipping Crown Works from raw material storage to final painting and despatch. Existing workshops were refurbished, production techniques. planned anew and major investment was made in research and development.
In the division of responsibilities between the Steel brothers, James took on the job of revitalising the sales effort, while Eric concentrated on refurbishing the factory. In 1946, James Steel embarked on the first of what was to become a ten year programme of visits to export territories. Often away for three months at a stretch, he visited 120 different countries, many of them on a number of occasions. He appointed dealers, cajoled them, negotiated orders, talked to customers, often for days on end. Many of the dealers appointed in those post-war years still handle Coles products.
Back home, Eric Steel was encouraging the design team to look for ways of developing the product range. The inter-war years were essentially about the search for mobility. This had been achieved by 1939 and by 1945 the diesel-electric system was as near perfect as it could ever be. The late 19405 and 19S05 were to be about utilising this perfected system to obtain bigger and better machines.
Some of the developments were simply a case of building on the EMA crane. In 1945, a Mark VII series 7 lorry mounted machine was adapted for building `Airoh' houses, which were prefabricated buildings designed to overcome the post-war housing shortage.
Other developments were of a more fundamental nature. In 1944—45 a new breed of mobile cranes was introduced with capacities of 1 and 6 tons. In 1945 Eric Steel brought in a firm of industrial designers who were engaged to style these machines to suit contemporary tastes. It was a revolutionary move, and one which laid the foundation of Coles design thinking until the introduction of hydraulic machines in the 1960s.
It was towards increased capacities that most efforts were directed, however. To a very large extent, this task was easier than that of regaining lost markets. Many of the engineering developments which had taken place during the war, bigger power sources, improved materials, better production techniques and so on, were now at the disposal of industry as a whole and the Coles design team utilised every development they could find to increase capacities. One of the main limitations on increasing capacities had been the types of tyre available. Until 1936 all wheel mounted mobiles had been on solid tyres, and the development of more highly reinforced pneumatics during the war contributed directly to the introduction of larger cranes.
EMA was the largest crane in the Coles range. Five years later 20 ton machines were being built and by 1954 these were being dwarfed by the 41 ton Coles Colossus. Throughout the 1950s, in fact, capacities were doubled and redoubled, until in 1963 the 100 ton barrier was breached with the Coles Centurion, the world's first wheel mounted crane to lift the magic figure.Throughout this development, the crane manufacturing side of Steels Engineering Products continued to grow. The markets which had been lost during the war were opened up again and the vast quantities of ex-war department cranes which flooded the market, far from killing the demand for new machines, actually increased it. The EMA lorry mounts formed the nucleus of the crane hire fleets which blossomed during the building and civil' engineering boom of the 1950s. Just as thousands of soldiers had come to admire the reliability of the machines, so the hirers came to appreciate the cranes for the same reason: the name Coles on a crane was synonymous with reliability. Coles were in at the start of the crane hire boom, through a subsidiary called Crane Hire Limited, formed to utilise reconditioned machines. It never really succeeded, largely because the hire company was essentially competing with Coles' users.
To capitalise on the improved markets and to reduce the burden on Eric and James Steel a formal sales force was established, first for the UK and then for export markets. Increasingly the cranes dominated the Steels Engineering Products line-up and during the 1950S and 1960S virtually all of the other products were dropped in favour of the cranes.
John Eric Steel died at the age of 49 in 1956. He was a remarkable man who is still remembered with respect and admiration. He had fortunately seen the fulfilment of his ambition to bring heavy engineering outside the orbit of shipbuilding to his home town. He was succeeded as Chairman by his brother James (later Sir James) who continued the development which he and his brother had started.
As the cranes grew in size and capacity and as the markets, particularly in crane hire, increased it became clear that the diesel electric system was limited. Essentially each new crane which came along was achieved not so much through an improvement in design techniques but through the application of better materials and equipment to a basic concept which had already been perfected. In essence, the Centurion of 1963 was no different from the EMA mobile of 1937. It was much bigger, of course, and used vastly improved materials and drive systems, but the concept of a diesel engine driving a variable voltage generator to power individual crane motions was the same as it had been for 25 years.
In the early 1950s, the concentration of corporate thinking on diesel— electric technology which had given the company so much success had come to border on fanaticism. But the company's management could see that, good as the system was, there were openings for other transmissions.
During that decade, the Coles management had noted the progress of R. LI. Neal and Co. Limited, who were manufacturing diesel mechanical cranes at Grantham, and of F. Taylor and Sons (Manchester) Limited, who had been developing hydraulic cranes. In 1959 both companies became part of the Steel Group, giving it an unrivalled strength with products using all three transmission systems, as well as a broader market coverage.
More importantly it provided Coles with a foothold in hydraulics. By 1959 it was clear this was more than a passing fad. Taylors had developed a unique expertise since the war, with a fair measure of success. Now the investment Was available to develop that experience, and build on that success. The telescopic age was about to be born.