Machinery in Focus: Kato’s industrial evolution

By: Ron Horner

Presented by
  • Earthmovers & Excavators

Since entering the Australian market in the 1960s, Kato has been a staple of the industry. With fond memories of the ‘good old days’ of earthmoving, Ron Horner goes back in time to his first Kato machine.

The 40-year-old Kato 550G took centre stand at the 2019 Diesel Dirt & Turf Expo

The time is fast approaching where all things relevant to the earthmoving industry is back on display.

The National Diesel Dirt & Turf Expo (DD&T) will once again be held at Penrith Panthers Exhibition and Trade Centre on Mulgoa Road Penrith from May 15 to 17 inclusive; an event one cannot afford to miss.

Not only will you get to meet up with old mates, co-workers, sales representatives and personalities, but you will also get to discuss the most important technological advancements made in machinery this last year, sit your bum in them, discuss financing, watch some very talented demonstrators take the machines through their paces, make comparisons to other models, broaden your views on certain brands of equipment, learn of the history of some manufacturers and maybe, just maybe, find a real old school gem brought out of a museum just to appease us old blokes.

At last year’s DD&T I found a 40-year-old excavator, bought out of the museum and placed on display beside the newest and most technical advanced current model of the day. Being totally taken in by the display, it slowly brought back some very good memories of a time long past.

What a difference – the 1979 and 2019 14t Kato machines


Thiess Bros changed the direction of Australia’s earthmoving industry when it brought the first of the Kato excavators into the country in the early 1960s – in my extremely biased opinion, the most significant point in Australia’s excavator history.

Within a couple of years, Kato was flooding the market and even when Thiess Kato sold out to HC Sleigh (Banbury Engineering), the market share soared to an unbelievable 80 per cent of sales of all excavators in the Australian market.

So popular were Kato excavators at that time that all excavators, irrespective of the brand, were commonly known not as excavators, but as a Kato.

I was extremely fortunate to be on a major pipeline project in the early/mid ‘70s, engaged as an excavator operator, and had formed a deep, lifelong passion for them, but my favourite just happened to be the Kato models.

Having ran a US-built Warner Swasey 700A Hopto, a German-built 1702 Atlas, a Kato 1100G and the only Kato 1500G in Australia at that time, my love affair never waned and my passion has only developed (some may say) into an obsession, but I offer no apologies.

I was perhaps very lucky to be around at that particular time when opportunities arose for someone to push excavators into the construction industry and to have faith in their real worth as a construction tool.

Dirt moving equipment used included scrapers, dozers, loaders and trucks, but excavators? No way. It took us a good 10 years to convince the industry of the benefits of excavators.

Excavators were deemed only suitable for digging a trench with the only one-sized bucket available at purchase. There was no quick hitch, no attachments, no air conditioning, no radio and no creature comforts, but it did have a cab.

External hydraulic drive motors


There were a growing number of contractors that could see the true potential of excavators, I was just fortunate to be one, and I purchased my first of about 25 Kato excavators way back in 1977 and promptly fitted the first ever hydraulic rock breaker in Australia (Krupp 200) to an old, clapped out, ex-Thiess Kato 350G, Perkins diesel, chain drive excavator for works in a railway tunnel project for British Rail.

Now the idea was right, the price was right, the job was right but the machine was not. Just a week into the job I knew that this was not going to work in my favour so I traded the old girl in for a brand new 550G Kato, fully hydraulic with a new Krupp 600 hammer attached to the end of the stick and, just like Thiess Bros, the rest is history.

Generating unbelievable interest within the very close knit earthmoving industry at the time, I was able to demonstrate this and many more Kato excavators to the public on behalf of Banbury Engineering (Kato dealers) and after almost 45 years, I am still demonstrating.


The industry has a huge input into and reaches many sectors of the community.

An extremely close relationship was formed with Banbury at that time, so much so that a mate of mine and fellow petrol head and Kato fleet owner Paul Jones and I bought Alan Moffat’s Chevy Monza (ex-Daytona) off him in 1980. We approached Banbury for sponsorship and Kato became the first ever full time earthmoving sponsors of an iconic national Australian motor racing car.

Unbeknown to me at the time, this was to lead me into the world of touring cars and the 1982 James Hardie 1000 at Bathurst.

The Kato sponsorship opened the door for not only Horner Kato but for Caterpillar, Komatsu, Kubota, John Deere, JCB and Kobelco to become actively involved as sponsors of the upcoming next generation of Australian Racing car drivers, namely John Bowe (Caterpillar), Alan Jones (Komatsu) and current TA2 racers Steve and Michael Coulter (Kobelco), Hugh McAllister and Matthew MacKelden (Kubota), just to name a few.

The Kato 550G’s simplistic cabin, with multistick lever operation


My days of reflection were all bought about by my visit to the Kato stand at the 2019 DD&T.

Australian Hammer Supplies out of Ingleburn (Sydney) not only are suppliers of Kubota equipment but also import the Kato brand of excavators into Australia.

Sitting pride of place beside the current model Kato MR HD514 was its predecessor, a 1979 model Kato 550G just out of Australian Hammer Supplies’ Museum, fitted with a Krupp 600 Hammer.

My old heart attack symptoms of palpitations, irregular heartbeat and sweating all returned to me in a flash. "Could this be the old Kato 550G I reviewed and demonstrated in Lithgow some years before?" If so, there is a story to be told here.

Bruce Pennells, owner of Australian Hammer Supplies, confirmed that this machine was indeed the same Kato 550G from George Pearce of Lithgow, who still had the original sales receipt from 1980.

If that’s not enough to get one’s mind going, this receipt is signed by Bruce Pennells as the sales representative for Banbury Engineering when he worked selling Kato Excavators way back then.

Now, the very same machine, in extremely good trade-in condition, has found its way back into the possession of not only the sales rep but the Kato distributor.

Freshly out of the paint shop and with a tidy up, this old girl took the shine off the newest Kato to hit the market.

It was such a trip back in history to see just what technological changes have been incorporated into 40 years of Kato manufacturing, as both machines weigh in at about the 14 ton mark and can hold a bucket at the end of the dipper arm, though that’s about all.

The good old days of sitting in a machine fitted with a cabin (bonus in those days), hopping out of the cabin to drive pins out to change the hammer/bucket (no quick hitches), no heating, air conditioning or demisters, no radio or tape/CD deck, apple box seating lacking adjustments (steel seating in cable operated machines at that time) and having impeded vision at most angles (no reverse cameras) all started to come back to mind.

As I gave myself a quick uppercut and attitude adjustment, I wandered over to the new Kato MR HD514 and placed my bum in the comfortable air ride fully adjustable operator’s seat, turned on the super quiet Isuzu engine, the air conditioning and radio, checked out the huge monitor screen, played with the blade control perfectly located to the right of the operator – and suddenly the young man’s reflections of the good old days suddenly deserted me.

My aging body sitting in this comfortable excavator cabin with all of the mod cons of today is where I belong. Those good old days were exactly that … but at last my body has encouraged my mind to be a bit more realistic because today is so much better.

As I sat in the new 2019 Kato MR HD514 and looked out the window towards the old 1979 Kato 550G I realised that excavators have been such an important part of my life, filled with creativity, hard slog, long shifts, heartache, a millionaire or broke, brilliant projects and some we’d like to forget, but what I remember most of all is a lifetime of friendships formed.

Kato 550G


Visiting field days and getting into excavators when I was younger put me on the path to where I am today. From big ideas and a humble beginning almost anything is achievable in Australia and Kato certainly played a big part in the path I took in life.

Maybe there are a couple of young blokes out there with such dreams and aspirations … it can all start with something as simple as a visit to a field day.

Book yourself and your kids to visit the 2020 Diesel Dirt & Turf Expo – you just never know what long lost friends you could catch up with and you may even help plant the seed in the mind of an aspiring earthmover and make some new friends along the way.

Why … you may just happen to learn a thing or two in the process.


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