Most presents fit under the tree, but three I’ve been lucky enough to receive this year require a 500-acre quarry called Kevin. Located in the Staffordshire countryside, this industrial playground has, despite its name, a serious purpose as the home of JCB Research, the digger manufacturer’s development centre, where tomorrow’s machines are put through their paces.
It’s also the home of JCB Demonstration, where the company shows off its new vehicles to customers as well as to scribes like me who have seen diggers pushing earth around and reckon driving one is as easy as falling off a log. Well, after a day spent doing just that, I’m here to tell you that it ain’t. Never again will I walk past a Backhoe Loader, the digger that JCB has been making for almost 70 years, slightly less than the company has been in existence (it was founded by Joseph Cyril Bamford in 1945), with nothing but respect for its operator.
If you think patting your head and rubbing your belly is hard, you want to try operating a Backhoe’s joystick controls. There are two, and on the Backhoe, they operate the boom and dipper (the two jointed arms) and bucket or shovel and, depending on the model, have buttons and switches controlling features such as gear selection, diff lock and power boost. Each works in left and right as well as fore and aft planes. If it’s one of JCB’s tracked diggers, there will also be a couple of hand- and foot-operated levers for steering the vehicle.
To the right of the driver are panels of switches that control functions such as engine revs, bucket lock and unlock, travel speed and heating and ventilation. Depending on the model, two switches ahead of the driver deploy the vehicle stabilisers for uneven ground.
In short, a modern JCB is a technical tour de force that, despite its uncannily smooth operation and excellent ergonomics, requires a good deal of practice to master to the point that it feels like an extension of the driver. A driver such as Matt Lucas (no, not that Matt Lucas), JCB Demonstration’s team leader. In his hands, a goliath such as the 220X LC, the firm’s newest tracked excavator, can be as gentle and precise as a surgeon. “I could comb your hair with it,” he tells me as he deftly skims the ground with its 600kg bucket. Thank God I’m going bald.