Heart transplant gives telehandlers a lift

At £80m, JCB’s development of its own 4.4-litre engine is its largest ever single investment.

Not surprisingly, it is keen to spread that cost over as many machines and as quickly as possible.

Telehandlers are the latest to receive the heart transplant.

Out goes the Perkins and in comes the JCB444 to power the four new Loadalls.

And with this, the “Farm Special” moniker makes way for three new designations:

Agri – 100hp, 32kph and four-speed transmission; Agri Plus – 125hp, 32kph and four-speed transmission; and Agri Super – 125hp, 40kph and six-speed transmission.

The 531-70, our First Drive candidate, has a max lift capacity of 3.1t to 7m.

With the new engines, JCB has upped lift capacities by 100kg.

All the transmissions are new, built specifically to handle the new engine’s extra torque – said to be 21% higher than that of its predecessor.

Apart from a few other housekeeping jobs around the machines, they are very similar to the previous Loadall Farm Specials, equipped with identical boom and running gear.

But there are minor enhancements to the hydraulics.

Three steering modes remain, with crab, 2WS and 4WS all selected without having to manually realign the wheels.

We got our hands on one of the first JCB 531-70 Agri Super machines, which features 125hp JCB444 power and six-speed transmission.

Externally it doesn’t look much different from the previous Loadalls, apart from a new black “go-faster” grille on the base of the engine cover.

But lift this up and the difference becomes apparent.

For a start, the timing train is now on the “other” end of the engine, which is said to cut noise.

The JCB logo also features strongly among the components, from the filters to the turbo.

One of the big advantages of building your own engine is it fits “your” machines, and this is clearly the case here.

The installation is very neat, with the cooling rad-pack up front and the service items easily accessible, considerably better than before – particularly the fuel filter.

Another plus is that JCB makes only “off highway” machines, on which engine weight is less of an issue than in trucks – in fact on a loader, it’s actually an asset.

Better to put more metal into an engine than as unproductive ballast.

This is said to make the engine quieter.

Fire her up and the tone is distinctly different from the well-known Perkins.

Quieter, yes, and smoother too.

It’s the same in the cab, which is noticeably less noisy.

Getting going with the transmission is the same as before.

Twisting the left-hand grip offers three speeds, with the fourth step labelled “A” providing automatic shifting.

Move the lever forward and back to change direction – an instinctive operation.

Our Agri Super spec offers six speeds and three modes:

“Eco”, in which gears 4, 5 and 6 change automatically, shifting at about 1800rpm to conserve fuel.

“Power” adds gear 3 into the auto-shift mix, but lets the revs climb to 2100 before changing. Lastly, “Field” acts a bit like a manual box but isolates 6, and is designed for work that requires few gear changes.

Torque Lock, although available before, now has a wet clutch that effectively joins both sides of the torque converter in both 5th and 6th.

This provides direct drive and higher torque for roading and towing, and now locks at 18kph, compared with the previous 25kph.

JCB says the direct drive allows a 40k tele to keep up with a tractor on the road.

Interestingly, the machine is also now homologated as a “tractor” too.

Not, it says, because it has immediate plans to fit a linkage, but to reduce confusion with the authorities and help clarify its use with red diesel.

By pairing its own transmission to its own engine, JCB can exploit the best characteristics of both.

This is noticeable, with the machine providing quite pokey performance.

Control-wise, the single joystick is the same as before, but the boom extension and implement buttons are replaced with proportional rollers.

These work well, but we are less enamoured with the transmission “dump” button on the back.

Most operators will probably still be looking for something to stamp on and, for lack of an alternative, will simply use the brakes while revving for higher hydraulic output.

Overall little of the Loadall’s layout and operation has changed.

It is engine responsiveness that brings the biggest difference.

But how prepared will farmers be to act as guinea-pigs for a completely new engine?

We wait to find out.