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Saving a bit of crane history

UK-based crane service company Crowland Cranes has completed and handed over a fully restored six tonne Hydrocon Highlander mobile lattice boom crane due to be presented to John Sutch of John Sutch Crane Hire in Liverpool on his 70th birthday. Because John was delayed in Europe on his birthday the crane was presented on Father's Day a few days later.

Crowland managed to find a crane parked up in a small wooded area in Tonbridge, Kent in November 2018. The crane had been there for some time and appeared to have become part of the woodland as nature began to take it back.
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Parked in the woods, November 2018

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A serial number was never found, but we do know that it had the road registration plate GFU 343D this showed that it was manufactured in 1966 and was first registered in May of that year, as a Hydrocon two axle rigid body diesel - brown. The last time road taxed period ended in December 1985 and was not renewed.
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Back on tarmac again

The crane was owned by Savage cranes although it was not sign written and may not have been in that company’s fleet. Crowland stripped the crane back to its base and carried out a complete rebuild, completing the work in April of this year. So, taking Covid out of the equation, the rebuild took around two years to carry out, although it had to dovetail with the company’s daily commercial commitments.
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Stripped to bare steel

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The paint changes everything

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The cab rebuild

John Sutch had asked Pete Issitt of Crowland if he could find and restore a Highlander having seen Crowland's previous classic restoration projects - a Grove Allen T664 in Crowland’s own rental fleet colours and a Coles Hydra 120T for Barry Barnes @ Mann Crane Hire, both of which were shown at Vertikal Days when completed.
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The finished product

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The cab including vinyl seats and tartan cloth upholstery as on the original

Sutch started out in the crane business working with Stoneycroft Crane Hire in Liverpool at the age of 20, operating his first crane - a Hydrocon Highlander - in 1973 and continuing to operate cranes for a further 17 years before starting his own business - John Sutch Crane Hire.

Speaking of the new crane, which now takes pride of place outside the company’s offices in Liverpool, he said: “I love it, they did a great job, it really is like a new crane and could go out working today."

Pete Issitt of Crowland added: “Knowing John was celebrating a big birthday we pushed the refurbishment harder to ensure the crane was ready in time. John had called me numerous occasions to check on how the crane was going etc... and repeatedly wanted to come and see the progress at Crowland, but we declined his attendance as we and his family wanted to keep it as a secret, so he had no idea as to what exactly he was getting, or when. As a service provider to the John Sutch fleet, it was always a little tricky keeping camera phones away from the progress, especially when his delivery/crane drivers often attended our Peterborough depot.”

Hydrocon a potted history

Hydrocon cranes were built by Lambert Engineering, which was established by Jack Lambert as a general engineering company in Glasgow, Scotland. He then sold the business to a George Jesner who designed the first Hydrocon crane in or around 1949. The name Hydrocon came from Hydraulic Construction with an O added to link the two abbreviations. The reason for the name was that the company claimed to be the first to use hydraulic winches in place of mechanical winches with clutches and brakes.
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A Hydrocon Highlander for the Liverpool based Wolfenden fleet at work

The first cranes were built at a small plant in Maryhill docks in Glasgow, with the company later relocating to its ‘Burnfield works’ in Giffnock in the south side of Glasgow. The first crane was purchased by a contractor Brown & Tawse, who also became a Hydrocon dealer for the north of England.
In the 1950s the company moved again to a facility in Coatbridge, previously occupied by the Summerlee Iron Works. By 1963 the company had around 500 employees and Jesner sold the business to GEMS - General Electrical Mechanical Systems, which was publicly quoted. As part of the deal, he was appointed as a director and before long became deputy chairman, a post held for the rest of his life.

When Jesner started out, he mounted the cranes on army surplus chassis, of which there were plenty following the war. As with many crane companies at that started in the immediate post war years he would attend the many auctions of ex-military equipment held at the time, purchasing any suitable looking vehicles and refurbishing them, before installing the crane superstructure along with a new cab, usually made specifically for the application in fibreglass. The two large circular bosses on the front of the cab originally featured the Highlander warrior logos, while the theme continued into the cab interior which was finished in a red tartan.
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A Hydrocon advert for the Highlander - note the Highlander logo

As rationing and shortages began to ease in the mid-1950s he switched to Thorneycroft, Albion and then Foden chassis, along with some 4x4 custom build units using commercial vehicle components. The cranes were mostly named rather than numbered, usually starting with an H such as the Hadrian, the Hamilton, Hampden, Handiman, Hebridean, Hibernian while the later telescopics such as the 15 tonne Talisman which was launched in the 1980s.

The company sadly never made it into the 1990s, closing in 1987 or early 1988.


In answer to Graeme Davison, a little late I know! The jib sections were bolted onto each other and the jib root was 24' in height so if you put all the sections on you had a 64' jib. You lifted them down by hand! I can't remember how much they weighed, but as I drove one when I was in my 20's - many years ago - it was part of the job. The outriggers were also totally manual, in that you had to pull them out by hand and wind them down by hand also.
Having said all that I did like them as you had a lot more "feel" than with a telescopic crane. I worked for a crane hire company and the only complaint from "one lift" customers was the rigging time to set up and break down compared to, say, a Coles 7 ton telescopic.

Jan 23, 2024

The main fabrication building of the Hydrocon factory in Coatbridge is now the Exhibition Hall of Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life

Oct 14, 2022

Crane lads
Is john going to drive it to shows

Jul 13, 2022

Graeme Davison
How did they do the routine lifting of the boom sections from the side of the crane body ? Doesn't look like it can self load / unload them ....

Jul 2, 2022

Kevin Morris
Hydrocon Highlander!
What a beautiful crane. Thank you Crowland Cranes for a brilliant restoration job. A wonderful birthday present too for John Sutch on his 70th birthday, happy birthday Sir.

Jul 1, 2022