The story of Bell Equipment began when Irvine Bell and his new bride and Company Co-Founder Eunice, settled in Zululand a few years after the Second World War.
Having completed his trade apprenticeship as a Fitter and Turner on a Northern Natal Colliery where he had grown up and after serving five years in the Army Corps of Engineers during the War, Irvine Bell applied his engineering skills in building a home-made water boring machine powered by an engine from a Willys Jeep.
Following two years of sinking water wells for a living, he took up an offer to start a farm machinery repair service on a sugar estate near Empangeni on the North Coast of Natal, South Africa. The enterprise’s ability to repair even the most extensively damaged or worn machinery soon attracted work from further afield.
When the business expanded in 1958, Irvine Bell built a new workshop on his smallholding. Now joined by his brother Robert, brother-in-law Malcolm Campbell and with Eunice keeping the books, the small enterprise, I A Bell and Company, provided a general engineering service along with limited manufacturing of Irvine’s various inventions.
Among them a self-loading sugar cane trailer and an overhead transfer crane for local farmers.
With the family home built alongside the workshops, sons Peter, Gary and Paul grew up amongst the welding sparks and machine shop swarf in a grease filled mechanical parts intensive environment.
In the early 1960’s Irvine Bell saw a further opportunity to improve the sugar cane harvesting process. While a few rudimentary cane loading machines had appeared on the scene, most were adapted farm tractors and as such lacked manoeuvrability to quickly gather a load of cane.
Irvine Bell’s approach was to develop a whole new class of machine. Utilising emerging hydrostatic technology and borrowing hydraulic motors from an old motor grader, his prototype three wheeled loader was granted a patent and named the greatly manoeuvrable self propelled machine.
Able to control each of the large drive wheels independently, the Bell Tri-Wheeler could turn instantly on its own axis. Also the simple control concept, was easily assimilated by operators without any previous machinery experience.
Choosing to focus on the general engineering side of his business, Irvine Bell licensed the manufacture of his Cane Loader to a Johannesburg based locomotive company that was active in cane transport at the time.
The quest to design productive mobile machinery was not lost on his sons. Peter and Gary’s first go-kart, scrounged together during school holidays, could pull a small tip trailer. And with a dozer blade fitted to the front of the cart to spread gravel, the rig was put to work repairing the dirt roads on the smallholding!
By the early 1970’s the business had again expanded to a new facility in Empangeni’s industrial area.
With the construction of a greenfields port in nearby Richards Bay, the Company provided many innovative engineering solutions to the port’s contracting consortium. Among them light-weight, high flotation earthmoving dumper trailers that could cope with the soft sand conditions.
Now with the next generation on board in the business, Irvine Bell, together with sons Peter and Gary developed and patented a cane cutting attachment that enabled the Tri-Wheeler to further mechanise cane harvesting.
Irvine Bell was nevertheless wary of his son’s ambition to venture into mass production, warning the boys that within a year they could lose interest after producing the same piece of machinery on a continuous basis.
Instead, after a windfall maiden production year which saw fifty units produced, the Company was rising to the challenge of successful manufacturing. Applying practical hydrostatic systems experience gained while working on sabbatical with the Vickers distributor, Peter Bell made significant improvements to the Tri-Wheeler’s design and in 1975, with the expiry of the manufacturing licence which had seen production being outsourced, Bell itself began production of complete machines.
The number of applications where the Tri-Wheeler could be used grew. Fitted with a forklift mast, the Rough Terrain Forklift version was quickly embraced by the country’s brick industry. For the expanding timber industry, a log handling version was configured. Equipped with a log grab, the Bell Logger proved to be the ideal tool to gather logs and to load transporters.
Observing the deficiencies in the adapted farm tractors used as transporters in the sugar and timber industries, Peter Bell conceptualised a more robust machine. Purpose built for haul work with a truck-style drivetrain, a steel chassis and tough earthmoving machine for construction, the Bell Rigid Tractor, together with a range of job matched trailers, found a ready market in cane and timber haulage which then expanded into earthmoving applications.
Now working in the earthmoving industry, Peter Bell saw the opportunity to apply the hauler’s strong simple design philosophy to the Front End Loader concept. He set about designing a tough ‘Built-for-Africa’ mid-size Wheeled Loader range that were destined to become market leaders in their class. After a few years of marketing their growing product range through independent distributors, the Company recognised the advantage of having its own dedicated outlets to provide customers with factory direct support. And so the Bell Customer Service Centre support network was born. Beginning with a branch in Johannesburg, Bell Equipment soon had national coverage and within a few years exports to neighbouring countries put Bell firmly on the map.
By the early 1980’s with a factory staff of just over 100, the manufacturing operation had outgrown the Empangeni facility and in 1984 a new custom built factory located in Richards Bay was commissioned. By this time the Tri-Wheel Loader range had found ready markets abroad and the plant provided product in kit form to final assembly facilities in Mauritius which in turn supplied Cane Loaders locally and into Africa. A New Zealand assembly facility provided loaders for the Australasian forest industry. In the United States, the Company first partnered with a large forestry equipment manufacturer to build American versions of the Logger. Later Bell Equipment established its own facilities in the southern timber market to distribute products exported from the Richards Bay plant.
Also during the early 1980’s a new configuration of earthmover arrived in the South African market place. These Articulated Dump Trucks imported from Europe were effective and versatile. Bell nevertheless saw room for improvement, fine tuning their design to better cope with the harsh operating conditions common in Africa.
Launched in 1985, Bell Equipment’s first Articulated Truck, the 25 ton model was a resounding success. This led to new models expanding the range. Lighter, faster models extended the artic truck application to a greater number of challenging hauls. By 1989, with the doubling of the Richards Bay plant capacity, the flagship 40 ton capacity Articulated Dump Truck was launched and our worldwide team of employees had grown to 1 650.
The Bell Articulated Dump Truck range has again expanded, breaking new ground with the mining-focused 50 ton capacity B50D. To compliment its own product range, Bell Equipment has partnered with global equipment manufacturers to provide customers with a comprehensive range of machines in the construction, forestry, mining and agriculture industries. The group has a customer devoted distribution network that is proud of their service record.
Our strategic partnership formed with one of the world’s largest equipment manufacturers, the John Deere Company, during 1999 provides the financial strength to realise our goal – be the world’s premium Articulated Truck supplier, and in Africa the equipment brand of choice. Further partnerships with Hitachi for truck distribution in 2002 and with Bomag (2009), Liebherr (2011) and Finlay (2013) have even further grown the Bell Marque.
By partnering with customers and suppliers we have been able to grow from humble beginnings, where Irvine Bell from his tiny engineering works inspired the search for a better way.