Keep on keeping on: in praise of old gear

We are watching a very antiquated dumper drive up the haul road at Patutahi Quarry near Gisborne, New Zealand. It’s not the age of the truck that surprises me, so much as the speed at which it climbs towards us.

The quarry, owned by Rock Products, produces gabion, chip, road stone and agricultural lime from a very hard lime resource, from hilly slopes about 15 minutes drive from Gisborne. 

The old vehicle is one of four Aveling-Barford SL dump trucks made in the early 1970s, and it is still putting in a good day’s work. Aveling-Barford was a large UK engineering company that made road rollers, motor graders, front loaders, site dumpers, dump trucks and articulated dump trucks in Grantham, Lincolnshire, UK. In 1967 the company became part of British Leyland.

‘Tricky and challenging’

“It’s getting harder and harder to find people to drive these things,” Rock Products operations manager Mike Ross said. “They are all manual and take a bit of driving.

“Getting engine parts is also tricky – those Leyland engines haven’t been made since the mid-1970s.”

Ross could have added that the gearboxes don’t have synchromesh, and full ‘power steering’ was another two decades away when this truck was made.

{{image2-a-r-w:200}}The two old, British-made warriors work alongside a late model Cat dumper.

“They are very useful on this tight site,” Ross said. “And it’s ironic you see them both working today, as the Cat, which does the lion’s share of the work, is sitting in the workshop getting fixed at the moment.”

The original quarry opened in 1915 as a public works department site to supply ballast to a doomed inland railway to Wairoa.

The government abandoned the quarry in 1923 and the plant, largely made of wood, was extensively fire damaged shortly afterwards.

Just after the war, a Whanganui contractor called Jack Alderton ventured north to Gisborne to buy some gear. Instead, he found an old quarry and some machinery, and parts of the branch line were still intact. Using a mixture of existing machinery and rail lines and a new crushing plant, he got the operation back on its feet in 1948.

His son Frank Alderton joined the company after finishing school in 1958. When Jack passed away in 1970, Frank took over as managing director and has owned the company since.

He recalls his father initially stripping the steep hill site by hand. The overburden was thrown downhill by the shovel load, where an Aveling-Barford AG dumper removed it. Made in 1940, it was based on a Fordson petrol tractor and is believed to be the first Aveling-Barford machine in the country. It has long been retired but Frank keeps it in a shed near the quarry entrance. A family photo (see opposite page) shows Frank sitting in the driver’s seat when he was about eight years old.


A Trackscavator, the company’s first new machine purchased off Gough Gough & Hamer in 1948, loaded the old dumper.

“Post-war New Zealand was a pretty austere place,” Ross said, picking up the story. “Money and the opportunity to buy new or second-hand equipment was in short supply. Army surplus, government sales and good old Kiwi ‘can do’ supplied the basis of many a business. Rock Products was no exception.”

Post-war growth

Initially the business was called the Gisborne Lime Company, Ross added, before it became Rock Products in 1950. This was also the name of a popular American magazine, and Jack got permission to use it from the publisher.

“The 1950s saw significant growth in sales at the quarry, and machinery was built or purchased to meet demand,” Ross said. “Of course, when you are buying there are always salesmen ready to try and sell you equipment and, around this time, a young salesman from the engineering company Booth MacDonald [Boothmac] turned up on site. His name was Keith Niederer.”

Niederer, aka ‘Mr Quarryman’ in New Zealand quarrying circles, was later famous for obtaining the first licence to build the revolutionary, Kiwi-invented Barmac crusher.

“I think Keith enjoyed dealing with Jack, and vice versa,” Ross said.

“Bargaining was brutal, usually accompanied by a drink or two. And because of Jack’s phobia of banks after the Depression, a deal, if struck, was generally paid for in cash, pulled from a nearby suitcase.”


A couple of Eimco model 104 loaders were acquired in 1956 that had been used on the Rimutaka rail tunnel project built by Morrison, Knudsen & Downer, Ross recalled.

“These were used for a number of years, loading – or more like throwing – rocks at a variety of hapless Aveling-Barford dumpers.”

That same year, Jack Alderton finished building another crusher for a second product line in the plant that was a copy of a Johnson Slogger crusher manufactured in Invercargill.

With modifications, it eventually became a single rotor impactor and, incredibly, is still in use today.

“By now the company was operating road trucks as well as dozers, and was also enjoying the benefits of the new-fangled Hough wheel loaders – truly a great step forward,” Ross said.

In the 1960s, Rock Products acquired a number of local allied companies, including a shareholding in an engineering company called Monk Brothers, which at the time was also the agent for Caterpillar and John Deere – a very useful alliance, Ross said.

He started with the company in the same year Jack died – 1970.


“I was a bit smaller in those days and so was often called in to be stuffed down dark, small holes to dig out jammed line chains, elevators and blocked crushers. I should have learnt my lesson and stayed away,” Ross joked. “But there’s something about quarry dust and all that noise – I don’t really know what it is.”

Ross would eventually leave Rock Products to advance his career with Fulton Hogan and Isaac Construction, before returning to Patutahi Quarry in 2005.

The past four decades

Since starting work at Rock Products just over four decades ago, Ross has seen a lot of gear come and go.

“In 1971 the quarry bought our first Caterpillar articulated loader – a 920 model, which was a big improvement on the tail-wagging Hough.”

In 1974-75 came the purchase of a couple of new Aveling-Barford SL dump trucks.

Back then trucks weren’t delivered, they were sold from Palmerston North and driven back to Gisborne “flat out” at 45km per hour.

“Those two trucks grew to four, and were our main dump trucks until about 2005, when we bought a Caterpillar dump truck.”

{{image6-a:r-w:200}}The company also purchased an Atlas Copco air-track drilling rig, and contract drilled around the district for a number of years with this rig and a Gardner Denver.

The late 1970s also saw the arrival of the Aveling-Barford SY shuttle dumpers, which were former Kaimai tunnel grout carts.

The shuttle dumpers replaced the older 1950s SF Aveling-Barfords and are still servicing the old bin set up at Patutahi today. According to Ross, they are ‘not so’ affectionately known as ‘pie carts’!

“After a bit of a false start with a second-hand Poclain digger, which leaked more oil than a super tanker split in half, a Komatsu digger was purchased in the early 1980s, effectively signalling the end of the need for large bulldozers in our operation,” Ross said. “Today we don’t own a dozer.”

In 1991 Monk Brothers built the quarry’s first mobile cone crusher, which is still part of the company’s portable fleet.

Seventy-odd years on, the Rock Products group of companies is still based at the Patutahi Quarry and still operates a mixture of new and old machinery.

“The old crushing plant is largely unchanged since the 1950s and still breaking rocks, and the occasional person’s spirit,” Ross said.

“Those government surplus parts and railway lines have proved good stuff. The older machines have even outlived their manufacturers – the only one left is Cat.” 

Alan Titchall is the editor of Q&M, New Zealand’s quarrying and mining magazine.

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