Review: Atlas 1702 and 1602 excavator

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  • Earthmovers & Excavators

Up in north Victoria, Ron Horner spies two ’70s Atlas excavators – machines that were innovative for their time if not the most comfortable to ride.

Nick and John Riley with Ron Horner

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Driving the morning sunrise stint on a recent trip through the top end of the Murray River region of Echuca, Vic, I came across a glisten of chrome reflecting the morning sun.

The area is filled with irrigation channels as far as the eye can see and sitting atop one of those irrigation banks was an old yellow excavator, parked up, but purpose placed ready for work.

I wheeled the Landcruiser around and headed back up a gravel road to gain a closer inspection when to my amazement I realised there were not one but two old Atlas excavators ready for work and located about 500 metres apart.

My heart just skipped a beat. The mind went into auto-drive and went way back to the original Moomba to Sydney gas pipeline days of the mid ’70s when I first laid my eyes on an old Atlas 1402 Excavator and I had the misfortune to be handed to drive for a week or so.

I haven’t seen one in the flesh since then, but then again I haven’t lost any sleep or gotten too depressed either for not having them as part of my life.

That aside, the Atlas was a very innovative and well-designed excavator for its day and was way ahead of its time with some of the state-of-the-art technology and innovation brought into the design of these German-built machines.

Atlas started as an agricultural trading company in Germany in 1919 and began producing machinery in 1921, but it became a true ‘mover and shaker’ of the industry by building its first excavator in 1950.



The next issue was to find who owned the diggers as I needed to find the history of these two machines. 1970s models and still in working mode, on the same farm? (There just had to be a good story behind this).

The art of ‘cold calling’ is in my blood, so after a few enquiries I found the owner and arranged a meeting for a few days down the track.

Nick and John Riley, a father and son team from Torrumbarry near Gunbower, have a nice block of irrigated land where they run a neat Lucerne and cattle property with about 70 head of breeding cattle and calves. As Nick said: "It’s not making us a fortune, but we love the area and the lifestyle."

Now the story just gets better.

Father John, who is 87 years old and as sharp as a needle in a strawberry, may not be as mobile as he once was. A hip replacement has curbed his once agile frame and son Nick helps him around with the aid of a walker frame.

Now this is not an easy task when you are on a farm, but the love shown from son to father is reciprocated and totally appreciated, and just so good to see.

John bought the first 1972 model Atlas 1702 from a contractor in Smithton, Tasmania in about 1978. A pretty big move considering excavators were still only in their infancy in Australia and many local and federal agencies were still hell-bent on old school methods of moving dirt.

ATLAS were world class machines in the day


The 1702 Atlas Excavator sits in the 17-ton (15.4-tonne) weight division, powered up by a six-cylinder air-cooled Deutz diesel engine and twin external drive motors, and is about as comfortable to sit in as an electric chair in a divorce hearing.

Controls are simple as they are based on the ISO standards so there is no issue in finding your way around the cabin. All gauges are basic, albeit not all working, with hand cable throttle and plenty of noise when you crank the old girl up.

Now this machine has some age on it. No, not just some age, but a lot of wear and tear in all areas, and is slow to get going and doesn’t get much better as the day goes on. But hey, my body can relate to that so I won’t complain too much.

In its day, the Atlas excavator was way ahead of its time.

Fully hydraulic drive motors times two on each side. Press a button and engage the second drive motors for more speed; common as sheep shit in a shearing shed today, but way back then this was something out of the box.

What detracted from that innovative idea was that the big Linde hydraulic drive motors were very exposed and could be broken off if caught up in a rocky environment. Downtime therefore would be horrendous as I doubt you would have one or several on the shelf at the Wabco yard (the distributors).

Other innovative ideas were the slide boom adjustment, pre-drilled face shovel adjustment points in the dipper arm and the best one was the swivel boom.

Yep, today we have a rotating head on quick hitch and tilting buckets, but way back then Atlas had a swivel boom. This was optional and could turn the boom left and right (beside the cab) at about 45 degrees. This enabled the operator to excavate a level pad on uneven ground, and complete intricate batter works on irrigation canals, roadworks and construction projects (remember this was in 1976).

The 1602 Atlas atop the irrigation channels of Turrumbarry


After completing his irrigation set up works, John sold the Atlas to a local farmer who had it in his possession for about six to seven years. Eventually that farm was sold and a local machinery dealer, Lou’s Tractors in Echuca, purchased it and when Nick noticed the old Atlas in the yard, decided to buy it back and return it to its previous home.

Having the old girl back has not been without issues, as John explained.

"We broke the boom in half just beside the cabin and had to get the help of a mate to complete the necessary welding and plating repairs. Now it’s better than new. Then we put a rod through the engine block and another mate used liquid metal to execute the repairs and machining … never missed a beat since."

Needless to say you had to be a bush mechanic to keep going in those days. We are definitely spoiled for choices today. If you have a break down, a quick phone call to a major or local professional fitter/mechanic and hey presto: on site repairs appear like magic.

Fitted with an air-cooled Deutz German engine these were quite popular in their day, so much so that Ansett, the Australian-based air and bus transport group, fitted all of their busses with them as they felt they were more suited to the Australian climate and reliability issues were minimal.

The Atlas excavators became very popular with John and Nick Riley, and realising that parts would become an issue bought another Atlas (1976 Model 1602) as a working spare and another 1702 as a parts machine, which lies in the yard at the farm.

WABCO were the ATLAS dealers

This is a 13-ton (11.8-tonne) machine, still distributed by Wabco and running similar but smaller gear than the 1702 previously purchased.

Talking to John, you can still feel the pride he has and the sentimental affection he holds for the old Atlas. Both the man and the machine have gone through a lot together and apart.

Both worn out, both having fought big battles, both working together as one to create a lush and profitable business, home and farm, both cared for by Nick, both still having a big heart, and both not having finished their contribution to the cause just yet.

It’s blokes like John Riley that have made the industry what it is today, both in construction and agriculture: passionate to the end and proud as punch of his work and the old Atlas and its achievements.

It’s the new generation of guys like Nick Riley that still hang on to their father’s dreams and contributions; respectful, loving, caring and ever so grateful of the opportunities handed down and self-created that will pave the way for the future, but in doing so have been able to hold on to something that was special from the past.

Like my memories of Gunbower, the old Atlas excavator lives on in Torrumbarry.


Vintage machines

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