VIDEO: JCB 531-70

By: Editor, Photography by: Editor

Not too long ago, materials handling specialist Stuart McLean decided to do what many people dream of — start his own business. Six years on, with 40 telehandlers and 15 mini excavators in his fleet, you could safely say his move from employee to company owner was a positive.

Multi-use telehandlers are popular on overseas construction sites and McLean's Christchurch-based equipment and hire company, Telelift, is finding that Kiwi constructors have quickly cottoned on; following in their offshore counterparts' footsteps.

My visit was in order to have a look over a JCB 531-70 telehandler. Telelift had recently secured the low-hour British-made machine (manufactured in 2012), before on-selling it to a company in Hastings. Luckily I timed my visit well and managed to get into the driver's seat before it was whisked away north.

Having just under 12 hours on the hour meter, I was a little apprehensive about making sure I didn't rub off any nice, new, yellow JCB paint on anything as I climbed into the cab of the seven-tonne machine — especially as it had been about three years since I sat behind the wheel of a telehandler.

The machine

The JCB 531-70 tips the weighbridge scales at just under 7000kg. The boom extends out in two stages and has a maximum vertical reach of seven metres, along with a reach of almost four metres in front of the machine. For manoeuvrability, there are three separate steering settings: two (front) wheel, articulated (style) and crab.

This model is best described as a basic machine, in that is doesn't contain any computerised gadgetry. It could also be said this model is suitable for regular front line use, but perhaps not entirely suited for super hard-running work 24/7, and is reflected in its affordable price of $129,000 + GST. This makes it an ideal type for construction sites, but perhaps not so suited for hard-out packhouse situations.

The cab

As one would expect, the cab contains lots of glass, which affords visibility around virtually the whole machine, including the roof. With all telehandlers, the biggest blindspot is caused by the boom, which can make the front right-hand side difficult to see at times. To alleviate this, JCB has placed large convex mirrors at strategic points around the machine.

Wheel loader drivers should feel fairly familiar in the seat of this telehandler, as the controls are very similar to those machines (right down to the type of controls) — with the only major difference wheel loader operators will notice is the extendable boom sitting off to the right-hand side of the cab.

For those used to modern single stick hydraulic controls, there may be a bit of adjustment to the 'old school' twin levers that operate the bucket/grab/forks, and maybe a small amount of confusion with the extra third lever for extending the boom, but when at work, everything is very straightforward and intuitive to use.

To ensure the machine doesn't up-end itself, the eye-level load sensor lights help the operator keep the machine stable at all times. A switch on the dash means that changing modes for three different steering setups is taken care of quickly and easily.

Engine and transmission

Being of English pedigree, the 531-70 has a JCB turbocharged engine that outputs 74.2kW (100hp) @ 2200rpm. Similar to some wheel loaders, the transmission has a four-speed powershift gearbox, that has four forward and four reverse powershift gears. These combine to produce a top forward speed of 33kph.

Performance and handling

As I've alluded to previously, the JCB 531-70 is a remarkably intuitive machine to operate. Once seated inside, it's time to scan around Telelift's storage yard to find something to move around. As the machine's quick coupler attachment is currently fitted with forks, I choose a nice one-tonne concrete block as my first target. Seeing as this is my first time on a telehandler for a number of years, I figure not much damage can be done if I stay out of the way.

The first task is to thread one of the forks through the concrete block's lifting handle. As the machine isn't exactly lined up, I figure this is a good time to try out the steering modes, and flick wheels into crab mode. It's a nice description, as the machine does just that and crabs its way into position. Once lined up, a click of the switch moves the wheels back to normal front wheel-steer alignment, a touch of forward movement and we're done.

Once again, thanks to my wheel loader operating experience, I'm right at home operating everything and the load sensor lights let me know what position is best for carrying the block. Like all machines, I would say that an experienced operator would have a feel for the machine's capabilities with ninety percent of the work, and the sensor lights would be there as a guide on the more difficult lifts.
I have a play around with the block for a while, testing out the lift sensor as I extend the boom out over other pieces of machinery and the yard boundary fence to get used to the machine. I also take a spin around the yard in different steering modes before tackling my last challenge.

Earlier I had spotted a 20-foot container tucked against the side of a building. With a lot of bits and pieces lying around, it reminds me of a construction site. I find a suitable load to lift, and hit four-wheel steer (which is much like articulation steering on a wheel loader), before threading the machine to the ideal point for lifting the load onto the container roof. Although, I'm nearly in position, I'm not quite. Time for the good ol' crab steering mode again and the machine neatly positions itself right alongside the tilt-slab wall of the building, while I try my best to keep the yellow paint off the building.

It's all too easy and the machine boom efficiently extends out to place the load on top of the container.

It's all over way too soon, as I park the JCB 531-70 up to wait delivery to its new owner. I'm quite proud of myself as, within a very short period, I became quite proficient on a type of machine I hadn't operated for some time, thanks to its similar operating style to a wheel loader.

I can see why they are very popular on overseas construction sites, and would say that there would be no shortage of operators available to jump into the driver's seat, which can be an employer's dilemma sometimes with specialised equipment.


As a machine, I found the JCB 531-70 well priced, versatile and easy to use. I'm sold.

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