Rockwell-Delta in South Africa

Modified on 2008/10/06 15:15 by Africarna — Categorized as: History

by Gerald Buttigieg


The seed for this booklet was planted in my curiosity many years ago. It all began with my late father including a 1964 Tarry’s Tool Catalogue inside a crate containing a wood work machine which he shipped to me from Australia.

I had always wondered why my father’s machine was branded a Rockwell Delta yet in the catalogue, an identical machine—in fact, most of the machines—were labelled as Tauco. It was only many years later that I found out that Tauco was the export arm of Rockwell Delta USA and that Rockwell Delta machines were exported under that name. I then discovered that Rockwell Delta actually had a manufacturing plant in Port Elizabeth, South Africa at some time and that these machines were also labelled as Tauco. However there seemed to be some disparity between the USA export Tauco and the South African Tauco. I could not find out much about this nor the circumstances thereof, so I eventually wrote to the Editor of the Eastern Province Herald, the newspaper that serves the Port Elizabeth area, asking for help from anyone who had any information on the Rockwell Delta / Tauco plant in Port Elizabeth. The responses to that letter made this booklet possible. My grateful thanks to all those who responded and gave me the leads.

For those interested in the background, I hope you find this story as interesting as I did compiling it.

Gerald Buttigieg (Afric-arn-a)

My First Association with Rockwell Delta Machinery

My first association with Rockwell Delta machinery came about indirectly through my late father. In 1963/64 he decided to set up a small wood working business in Schweizer Reneke, a small maize farming town situated in the North West Province of South Africa. To this end, in 1964, he purchased a Rockwell Delta Model 1164, 10 inch Tilting Table Saw and 6 inch Jointer combination from E.W. Tarry in Johannesburg. The saw, made in Pittsburgh, USA, came complete with motor, fence and mitre gauge but without the saw guard attachment which was an optional extra. The jointer, a Model 37-220 6 inch was made by Rockwell in Guelph, Canada. The combination cost in the region of Rand 440 at the time. (Rand is the South African currency denomination, internationally demarcated ZAR).

My father’s business venture in Schweizer Reneke did not last long at all and in 1965 he decided to emigrate on his own to Australia to join the rest of his brothers and sisters who had emigrated there from Egypt in the early 1950s. So in 1965 he boarded the m.v. Southern Cross in Durban en route to Sydney, Australia. In the hold of the ship, packed away in a crate, was his table saw and jointer combination.

Some seven years later, in 1972, one of my father’s younger sisters decided that she would like to see her eldest sister still alive and living in Schweizer Reneke whom she had not seen for close on 25 years and also to see her other nephews and nieces, including myself, whom she had last seen as babies. My aunt decided to travel to South Africa by ship. Arrangements were made that I meet her when the ship arrived in Durban harbour. Having never seen her, there was the usual air of unknowing but all this was dispelled as the family resemblance was immediate. Now unbeknown to me and I suppose as a surprise package from my father, my aunt informed me that in the hold of the ship was a “big heavy box” and that I should see as to how I could get it home as it was from my father. My aunt had been allocated a certain amount of hold space in the ship and “my box” was allowed to be transported as luggage in the hold.

Whilst resident in Durban, my father and I, had made acquaintances with quite a few Maltese families who had emigrated from Egypt to South Africa. Amongst them was one, Joe de Gabriele who worked for Thomas Cook, the shipping agents. Joe was a fellow Maltese and his duties with Thomas Cook were to meet people arriving by sea and to make arrangements for their transportation to hotels and to see to their luggage, passport control, etc. A type of commissar. Whether it was a portent of what was to come in my later “lucky” associations with Rockwell machines I do not know, but Joe de Gabriele was exactly the person I needed to meet that day as I stood at the Ocean Terminal meeting my aunt. When Joe came walking up to our small group, I greeted him with “Joe! you are exactly the man I want to see!” He asked why and I explained that in the hold of the ship was a heavy crate and I had no idea how to get it out, what procedure was required, paperwork involved, who to speak to and so on. Furthermore I needed the crate transported to Westville which was some 25 kms away. Joe asked whether the crate was part of my aunt’s luggage which we assumed it was and then he asked for my address and whether I had Rand 50 on me to “defray expenses” and to leave it to him. I duly handed over the money and about two days later, the crate was safely dropped off at my house in Westville. To this day I still do not know who or how the crate was delivered but it arrived whole, safe and sound. No paperwork, nothing!

When I opened the crate, inside, was the table saw and jointer combination. The jointer was not totally dismantled but my father had secured it well within the crate. The saw was completely dismantled as was the four footed stand. To reduce weight my father had not sent the motor but he had sent some of his hand tools including sash clamps, his Disston saws, hand drills, and other odds and ends. The original Rockwell operating manual and parts diagram, a Tarry’s 1964 tool catalogue and price list for their Rockwell machines were also in the crate. When I reassembled the saw it was complete bar one ball crank handle which operated the tilting mechanism. I would assume this had been lost somewhere along the way. Remarkably the saw had travelled from South Africa to Australia, been used there for 7 years and was now shipped back to me. It had suffered absolutely no damage at all. The only item marred was the model number / serial number label on the saw where some heavy part had scratched the aluminium label during one of its long voyages. The label was defaced making some of the numbers illegible. Included in the crate were two mystery items which at the time I could not identify. They were two aluminium bars formed into a J shape which I concluded were not part of either the saw nor the jointer and belonged to something else. Years later I identified them as being part of a mortising attachment, the J bar hold downs. Obviously the rest of it had not made it into the crate.

And so it came about that my father, not having need of the machine any longer decided that I should have it. It was a fortuitous choice that my aunt had decided to visit us here in South Africa and travel by sea as well, for I am sure, had that not happened, the machine would have remained forever in Australia.

My association with Rockwell Delta had begun.
The combination machine sent me by my father from Australia.

The combination machine sent me by my father from Australia.

A portion of the page of the 1964 Tarry’s Catalogue showing my father’s combination saw/jointer listed as a Tauco. It was this brand reference which spurred on my curiosity.

A portion of the page of the 1964 Tarry’s Catalogue showing my father’s combination saw/jointer listed as a Tauco. It was this brand reference which spurred on my curiosity.

Making Contact

It was some 35 years after acquiring the saw / jointer combination, that I eventually decided that if I was going to get the story of Rockwell Delta in South Africa, I would have to stop procrastinating and get on with it. I had heard from various sources that the plant in Port Elizabeth had closed down some time in the early 1970s, virtually at the same time as my father’s saw returned to South Africa. That was the time when sanctions were being imposed by many international governments including the United States. Rockwell (South Africa) being a wholly owned subsidiary was bound to suffer the same fate as numerous American companies closed down and stopped trading with South Africa because of its Apartheid policy. It came to mind that now was the time to get the story as many of those involved would probably be long retired and to bridge a 30 year gap would need a lot of luck and assistance from people I did not even know. After trying various avenues which proved fruitless, I decided to write to the Eastern Province Herald, a Port Elizabeth newspaper and to appeal for help. My letter to the Editor read as follows and appeared in the press for one day only on 12th June 2007:

The Editor Eastern Province Herald

Dear Sir, I am doing research and gathering facts about the Rockwell Delta Manufacturing Co. of the USA who at some time operated a plant in Port Elizabeth. Rockwell Delta manufactured a whole range of excellent quality wood work and metal work machines and these were distributed under the names Rockwell Delta, Rockwell International and Tauco.

From machine labels I have ascertained that a manufacturing plant was established in Port Elizabeth at some time and I am trying to ascertain when this was, when it was closed as well as any details concerning it and the extent of manufacturing that took place. I have tried the Port Elizabeth information website but had no success. It would appear that the plant was fully operational in the 1960s and then when the sanctions era started to come in, the machines were sold under the TAUCO label only. However I have no confirmation of this. Eventually the plant closed down and Rockwell Delta as such disappeared from the market when the company changed hands in the USA and eventually stopped production.

I am appealing to anyone who has any information on the Port Elizabeth plant, pictures, any old records and manufacturing lists , or anything pertaining to Rockwell if they could contact me at my postal address below or on email. If on email please put "Rockwell” in the subject line. Owners of Rockwell machines can also contact me as I am compiling a machine register here in South Africa.

Gerald Buttigieg.

There were 12 immediate email responses to that letter which appeared in the paper. One from London UK! It really served its purpose because within the replies was not only confirmation of the plant’s existence but more importantly references to the people I should contact who would have fuller knowledge of the story. Two names stood out as being paramount to contact and both had not responded. The one was Vic Thole and the other John Cubitt.

I was given a lead to Vic Thole by someone who went to school with one of his sons. I followed this up, contacted Vic’s son who in turn gave me the contact number of his father now living in Johannesburg. Sadly in the case of John Cubitt, I learnt that he had passed on but I was given his son’s name and contact number.

I duly contacted both Vic Thole and Jimmy Cubitt. I think they were both surprised that, after all these years a matter which had once been part of their lives and now in the distant past, had been resurrected. As expected, my bona fides were questioned and my reasons for digging up the past. However it came across that I was genuinely, merely trying to record a specific, rather short period in South African history involving an American firm which once upon a time manufactured some really good wood work machinery, an example of which I personally owned.

My attention was directed first to Vic Thole as I learnt that he was instrumental in setting up the Rockwell Delta plant in Port Elizabeth.

I contacted Vic and he was taken aback by my request for him to record his memories of establishing the Port Elizabeth plant, the whys and the wherefores. However he agreed to and was keen to assist. Not only was it evident in our initial telephone conversation that he had the background knowledge but he also had the names of various contacts who could add to the whole story. He and I shared a mutual interest and I believe the keenness I expressed to get the story, won him over. We decided to correspond regularly via email and without his help this booklet would never have seen the light of day. I am really indebted to Vic Thole.

Circumstances Leading up to the Establishment of a Rockwell plant in South Africa

Black and Decker, a well known electric hand tool manufacturer, formerly had been represented in South Africa since the late 1940s by a company called Hubert Davies & Co. but this changed when Black and Decker was incorporated in South Africa in the early 1950s. Hubert Davies continued to be the sole importers of the Black and Decker industrial portable machines whilst Black and Decker (SA) now stocked the spares and carried out the factory servicing. Black and Decker (SA) were now in a position to launch into the South African market, the Utility range of electric hand tools. These tools sold reasonably well but were not “double insulated”, a trend the industry was adopting. In anticipation of the new regulations concerning “double insulation”, Black and Decker bought out a plant in Italy which made a range of industrial portables and these were subsequently launched in South Africa under the Black and Decker name.

Vic Thole had trained as a telecommunications technician, qualified and then left the Dept. of Posts and Telegraphs to join Black and Decker in 1954 in Johannesburg. The Black and Decker premises were situated at 68 Juta Street, Braamfontein and the staff consisted of Mike Parkin (Managing Director), Harry Leach (Service Manager), Joan Yenson (Company Secretary) and Vic Thole (Repairman). In later years Vic Thole’s work description was changed to Service Engineer.

Black and Decker equipment advertised in 1961.

Black and Decker equipment advertised in 1961.

It seemed ironic that when I learnt that Vic had trained as a telecommunication technician, I asked him whether he had done his training at the Post Office Training College, Baragwanath situated in Johannesburg. To my amazement, he replied that he had done so up until 1953. I informed him that I had also undergone telecommunication training at the very same establishment but some eleven years later in 1964! It turned out that some of my lecturers were his contemporaries. (Ed).

Vic Thole recalls working under Harry Leach who was trained in the UK at the Harmondsworth factory. He was a hard taskmaster and Vic remembers the thoroughness of the repair process afforded machines brought in for repair. Every machine brought in was stripped to the last screw, each component examined and tested. All castings were buffed to make the repaired machines look virtually new again. Name plates were even changed. This regard to servicing detail resulted in increased sales and greatly assisted in the successful introduction of the Utility range.   In 1958, Vic Thole was promoted to Administration Manager and sent to Cape Town to establish the Black & Decker warehouse situated in Liberty House, Hertzog Boulevard, Foreshore Cape Town. Black and Decker were going ahead leaps and bounds. With this success behind them they introduced the DeWalt range of radial arm saws which became a big seller in South Africa.

It was in 1960, that in the United States, Rockwell Delta had taken over a firm called Porter-Cable who manufactured a range of electrical hand tools. Keen to expand sales of their small tool line, Rockwell Delta looked to overseas markets. One market they decided to exploit was South Africa. It was decided that a Rockwell plant would be established in South Africa to promote not only the normal Rockwell stationary machinery items but also to bring in the Porter-Cable tool range in opposition to Black and Decker. A decision to go ahead was taken and Port Elizabeth, a coastal harbour city, was chosen as the location of the plant. This was possibly influenced by the already established car manufacturing plants in the area as well as Port Elizabeth being relatively equidistant to the main centres Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. There was also a good road and rail link between these centres.

What was needed now was a person to head the start up operation.

Establishment of Rockwell South Africa (Pty) Ltd.

The person “head hunted” to start the Rockwell plant in Port Elizabeth South Africa was Vic Thole. It was in Cape Town in January 1961, that Greg Gearing of the firm, Rutherfords, introduced Vic Thole to Jacques Sternlicht, head of Rockwell International S.A. (Societe Anonyme) headquartered in Switzerland. Vic Thole was duly recruited to join Rockwell and had to move from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth to establish the business.

From one of the respondents to my letter in the Eastern Province Herald, involved with the construction of the Rockwell plant, I was informed that the original plant stood at 55 Kempston Road, Port Elizabeth. It stood opposite the General Motors car manufacturing plant directly opposite their Gate No. 2. The contractor involved in the construction was J.J. Ruddy and Sons. This firm no longer exists.

The company, Rockwell South Africa (Pty) Ltd., was incorporated in South Africa as a wholly owned subsidiary of the parent company Rockwell Manufacturing Company USA. The line of control from the USA was through the establishment of Rockwell International (S.A.), a limited liability company with headquarters centred in Geneva, Switzerland. Rockwell International (S.A.) was to be responsible for all activities in Europe, UK, Mexico, Brazil, India, Australia and South Africa. Rockwell International (S.A.) and its divisions would also be involved as facilitators for Rockwell’s other products such as valves, meters, DrivoTrainers (car and truck driving simulators), hydraulic buffers. Rockwell also owned the firm, Rockwell Ruberowen in Port Elizabeth which manufactured wheels for General Motors. South Africa was to focus on the introduction of Porter-Cable, Green Line, and Compactools and the warehousing of the slower moving Rockwell stationary machines. South Africa was eventually to become Rockwell’s largest foreign market.

In 1960, the year before South Africa opted to leave the British Commonwealth and declare itself a republic outside the Commonwealth, the country was experiencing a balance of payments problem. The then Minister of Finance, Dr. N. Diederichs, imposed import control to rectify the situation. This was followed in 1963 with the imposition of further controls, one of which was to compel importers to incorporate a certain percentage of local content in their products.

Thus by the time the Rockwell plant in South Africa was put into operation in 1964, the local content regulations had to be complied with. Measures to satisfy this requirement were implemented by making the machine accessories such as the open stands and the cabinets locally. The firm tasked with the manufacture of these was Castor Love and Sons. In addition, motors used to drive the machines were sourced from two local manufacturers. One was a Johannesburg firm called Femco whilst the other based in Pretoria, was Pasetti. Pulleys were sourced from a firm, AA Pulleys and Sarmcol, a long time manufacturer of rubber products based in Howick Natal, supplied the drive belts. Fibre glass pulley wheel covers for the bandsaw were also locally made.

Although Rockwell South Africa had a good relationship with Major Geech, the Director of Imports and Exports, he declared their efforts not good enough. Furthermore, Rockwell USA were not impressed by the local content legislation and they considered whether the need for Rockwell South Africa to manufacture machinery parts to comply with the South African Government rulings, was viable. The small quantities required by the South African market would never justify the high cost of tooling. Rockwell South Africa was therefore now in a tenuous position and closure by the American parent was a considered option although the plant had barely been given the chance to spread its wings. Vic Thole however was convinced that the fledging plant could be made viable and in typical South African fashion resorted to an old South African truism,“ ´n Boer maak ´n plan…a farmer makes a plan!”

Rockwell USA gave Vic Thole the authorization to appoint a store man to assist him in the warehouse. However Vic used his initiative and recruited a “special kind” of store man. He employed Ronnie Nel who worked as a patternmaker for Mangolds Engineering in Port Elizabeth. His first duty as a “store man” was to use the plant’s sales samples Rockwell machines and make patterns of the Model 37-110 4 inch standard jointer, Model 37-290 4 inch deluxe jointer and the Model 37-220 6 inch jointer. He also made patterns for the standard and deluxe raising blocks used in conjunction with the Model 37-600 4 inch jointer / 9 inch saw combination unit.

The first patterns for the 4 inch Standard Jointers were used by Mangolds Foundry to cast the components in meehanite, a malleable cast iron which was used for producing municipal manhole covers. Vic Thole recalls that at Mangolds Foundry they would often see warped manhole covers being straightened out with 4lb hammers! Subsequent castings were produced by LM Gateley in East London. They used fine grained cast iron.

To assist in the manufacture of major parts, Vic Thole “acquired” a scrap milling machine which was reconditioned in the plant to good working order. An area was demarcated in the warehouse and the production of Rockwell machines Made in South Africa was started in 1964. The badging applied to machines was a prominent Rockwell badge as well as a Rockwell South Africa nameplate showing machine catalogue number and a serial number. As far as can be recalled the numbering of product started with serial number 1001.

It was at this time that Al and Connie Rockwell and their two teenage sons were passing through South Africa, returning from a tiger shoot in India. Al Rockwell had heard of the facility the company had in South Africa and requested that he be taken to visit it. He was suitably impressed with Vic Thole’s endeavours and true to his promise, sent out two engineers from the USA to assess the situation.

Subsequently, Rockwell South Africa was given the go ahead to manufacture within the requirements of the ground rules laid down by the South African Government and the rest is history. The necessary machinery was purchased and the company was fortunate to hire adjacent premises for its manufacturing activity.

The Import Permit allocation problem was now resolved, but difficulty was experienced in getting the co-operation from the distributors to carry stocks of the machines and to use the accessories the plant supplied such as the motors, pulleys and belts. The biggest problem was probably the frustration of getting the distributors to increase sales. It was the intention originally to establish the warehouse to carry only the larger slow moving machines so that distributors could tender acceptable lead or delivery times. The distributors however regarded the warehouse as a buffer stock of the whole range of machines. The warehouse ended up financing their power tool activity. One ploy used by the distributors was to claim that spare parts were slow moving and they promptly “returned for credit” all their, mostly antique, spares and accessories from the Tauco, USA machines era.

There was not much support forthcoming either from distributors regarding the launch of Porter-Cable. The stock reply was that either they were committed to Black and Decker or Rockwell did not have service facilities in their operational area. In addition, the fact that Porter-Cable was not “double insulated” was a further drawback. “Cherry picking” was rife and such individual items as the Rockwell Porter Cable 505 orbital sander and the 500 4 inch belt sander would be stocked and successfully sold because the opposition had nothing to compare with those machines. Other items in the range would be ignored. Distributors insisted on territorial exclusivity and the appointment of further Rockwell distributors in their areas was not condoned. To overcome this, some agents were appointed as “Beaver Distributors”, the machines being Rockwells bearing the Beaver name.

When Rockwell took over the firm “SYDERIC” in Lyon France, a consignment of these fine industrial machine tools were sent to Rockwell South Africa to test the market. The distributors again failed to accept these and few were carried on the shelves and if so, typically on an “on consignment” basis only. Similarly Rockwell South Africa attempted to support Rockwell GmbH in Hamburg Germany by introducing their range of HBM3 Greenline Portable tools. Yet again no distributors were prepared to stick their necks out.

The USA Greenline range as well as Rockwell Compactools were introduced but also with not much support from the Delta distributors. The truth of the matter was that the distributors were not going the extra mile in effort to sell more product, it was the products basically selling themselves and people buying them!

However, volume sales as well as unit sales of the more popular Rockwell stationary machines increased well over the years but inventory levels were high mainly due to the amount of spare parts carried and slow moving stocks. In spite of the looming threat of imports of competitive stationary tools from the East, many of which where clones of Rockwell machines and the influx of “double insulated” hand tools of Japanese and European origin, the local management of Rockwell South Africa felt confident that their machines could hold their own and also grow their market share. It seemed the South African operation had and was proving its worth.

Then came the bombshell! Rockwell Manufacturing of America and North American Rockwell amalgamated in 1973 to form Rockwell International (USA). The new board of directors decided to spin off all foreign subsidiaries doing under $10 million annual sales. Rockwell South Africa was directed to close down operations within months of the order being given. Vic Thole having got the plant successfully operating now had to close it. The venture had lasted just less than 10 years. He was given two months to arrange for a reduced range of products which would be imported by a few selected distributors.

EW Tarry, Hardware Centre and the Wardkiss Group were appointed to handle imports. Two representatives from Rockwell’s Pittsburgh head office, Tony Ryan and Gordon Nygren were sent out to oversee the closure of the operation.

Arrangements were made to close the Port Elizabeth facility and all service and sales branches in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. Hardware Centre took over the Johannesburg and Cape Town premises and these were to open as Hardware Centres, the day after Rockwell closed. After some negotiation with Rockwell USA, it was decided that the Port Elizabeth manufacturing plant could be offered to one of the Rockwell South Africa employees as a going concern. There was a proviso however that the Rockwell / Delta name could not be used and the machines would have to be marketed under a different label.
The Rockwell SA staff at the Kempston Road entrance Port Elizabeth. Back Row: Jan Smit, Bennie van Heerden, Ray Francis, Dennis Surgeson (Branch Manager Transvaal). Middle: Ronnie Nel, Doug Scott , Ernie Hoffman, Vic Thole (Branch Manager). Front: Unknown, Unknown, Diane Singer, Ellen Rankin, Alan Evenden.

The Rockwell SA staff at the Kempston Road entrance Port Elizabeth. Back Row: Jan Smit, Bennie van Heerden, Ray Francis, Dennis Surgeson (Branch Manager Transvaal).
Middle: Ronnie Nel, Doug Scott , Ernie Hoffman, Vic Thole (Branch Manager).
Front: Unknown, Unknown, Diane Singer, Ellen Rankin, Alan Evenden.

Vic Thole remembers that in closing the Port Elizabeth facility he had to cut ties with some of the best craftsmen he had managed to gather around him. These included Erwin Lehmann, Fanie Unterhorst, and Doug Scott, Sales Manager (Port Elizabeth) all ex Black & Decker staff. Ernie Hoffman ex E.W. Tarry was an enthusiastic Sales Manager (Natal) and demonstrator second to none. Hennie Smit an innovative tool and die maker who was instrumental in initiating the plant’s “shoe string” manufacturing section. Jan Smit, Hennie’s brother, who could turn drill press columns to tolerances closer than the USA products. Drill press heads were imported whole from the States with bases, tables and columns added as “local content.” Vic Thole recalls that Jan Smit fabricated and built a centreless grinder using two Delta 6 inch Belt Sanders. “ We were proud of our drill press columns.”

Hennie Smit had perfected a procedure whereby to prevent chatter marks when milling jointer or table surfaces, he used wedges of wet wood between the holding jigs and the castings. This tip was given to John Osberg, the legendary manager of the Rockwell plant in Tupelo Mississippi. Then there was Ronnie Nel, the “store man” cum patternmaker. Bennie van Heerden was the all round repairman. On the admin and advertising side there were indispensables, Derek Runciman and Alan Evenden. Accounts were handled by Ray Francis, whilst the bookkeeper was Ellen Rankin lured away from the audit firm, Peat Marwick & Mitchell and Dianne Singer, Vic Thole’s secretary. Last but not least were Wincot and Freddie the plant’s two stalwart packers / forklift drivers / cleaners. These were truly the backroom boys and girls behind the scenes.

“The most memorable day in our history”, Vic Thole recalls “occurred on Sunday September 8, 1968, when the whole staff were at the warehouse taking stock. A four tier cloudburst descended on the city and by 10 o’clock the water rushing down Kempston Road reached a height of 10 feet flooding all the warehouse stocks and offices. We took refuge on top of the toilet and kitchen block. We spent a number of frightening hours there waiting for the waters to subside.”

The months that followed were a nightmare as everyone tried their best to salvage as much of the stock as they could. A strange phenomenon occurred. All the machined surfaces of the tools which were covered in mud did not rust even though some were only retrieved weeks later. “One consolation, however, was that the stock write off plus the insurance pay out reduced our high inventory levels!”
Labels used on machines during the Rockwell South Africa period. This on a 6 inch jointer Model 37-220 Serial RSA 1205.

Labels used on machines during the Rockwell South Africa period. This on a 6 inch jointer Model 37-220 Serial RSA 1205.

The Rockwell plant in Port Elizabeth closed in 1973, ending the direct link between Rockwell USA and South Africa.

The Tauco Manufacturing Era

In 1968, John Cubitt had been taken on by Vic Thole as works manager to run the manufacturing side of the Rockwell plant in Port Elizabeth. At that time the plant was manufacturing the 10 inch tilting table saw (Model 1160), the 9 inch and 10 inch tilting arbor saw, the 4 inch and 6 inch jointers. There was also the portable hand tool section, Porter-Cable, covering belt sanders, orbital sanders, hand drills and routers. These were imported items. When the order came to close the South African operation, Vic Thole with the permission of the USA Board offered the manufacturing side to John Cubitt as a going concern. What was included was all production machines, existing machine stock and the drawings. The use of the Rockwell / Delta name was prohibited as directed by the USA company.

John Cubitt recalled that many years ago the Tauco brand had been used on Delta machines fully imported into South Africa from the United States. The old Tauco name had since virtually disappeared from the South African scene altogether. He was convinced that in taking over the plant he would have to use a name associated with Rockwell Delta if his takeover was to be successful. He had looked into the use of the name TAUCO and made representations to Rockwell’s American board. They agreed that the name could be used. Thus the name Tauco reappeared on the South African woodwork machine scene. The badging differed completely from the original USA red and silver and now was more stylised and had reference to South African manufacture.
Tauco label attached to a scroll saw exported wholly from the USA.

Tauco label attached to a scroll saw exported wholly from the USA.

This scroll saw as with others in the range were imported directly from the United States by independent firms. This would have been the period prior to 1964 when Rockwell South Africa came into existence. Hence the reference to TAUCO in the E.W. Tarry’s catalogue.
Tauco Manufacturing label used by John Cubitt

Tauco Manufacturing label used by John Cubitt

On 1st April 1973, ownership of the Rockwell plant in Port Elizabeth passed on to John Cubitt. John Cubitt started producing machines under the name of Tauco Manufacturing.

Under the new name and management, production of some “Rockwell” machines continued in a new guise. Adhering in the main to the same designs and model numbers, but using locally cast components, the business carried on profitably. So well so that in the mid 70s larger premises had to be sought and John Cubitt moved from the original Kempston Road to the old Mobbs Shoe Factory building situated in Sydenham Port Elizabeth. At the larger premises the machine range was increased to include the following Tauco machines: a lathe, a 14 inch bandsaw, a 13 inch thicknesser and a 9 inch table saw. In 1977 John’s son Jimmy joined his father in the Tauco Company. He was to remain with the firm till 1981.
I have been fortunate enough to find 1978/79/80 adverts in local woodworking magazines showing some Tauco Manufacturing products. The jointers and tilting arbor saws are close copies of Rockwell machines. The 330mm thicknesser (planer) is a new design whilst the Tauco bandsaw is quoted as being a Model 28-380. The Springbok emblem on the right was part of a “Buy South African” campaign of the time.

I have been fortunate enough to find 1978/79/80 adverts in local woodworking magazines showing some Tauco Manufacturing products.
The jointers and tilting arbor saws are close copies of Rockwell machines.
The 330mm thicknesser (planer) is a new design whilst the Tauco bandsaw is quoted as being a Model 28-380.
The Springbok emblem on the right was part of a “Buy South African” campaign of the time.

Another circa 1979 advert.

Another circa 1979 advert.

Another circa 1979 advert.

Another circa 1979 advert.

In the earlier days of the Tauco (USA) and Rockwell Manufacturing era and followed by that of Rockwell (South Africa) and Tauco Manufacturing, sales were mainly handled by nationwide distributors. Some of the larger ones were EW Tarry (later Tarry’s), Hardware Centre, Peel Street Hardware, Avis Trading, Werner Brothers, JMJ Sales and Wardkiss. Of these Hardware Centre became the largest distributor once the Rockwell operation closed down and imported machines for many years becoming Rockwell’s single largest customer. Hardware Centre extended their activities in South Africa to five branches and became the largest supplier of wood crafting products. They are still in the market today.

However a dark cloud started looming on the horizon in the shape of cheaper imports from the East. Many of the imports were inferior clones of the originals but they were making an impact. As sales dropped, John Cubitt found that he had to tender directly, especially in the lucrative Education Department market which were big buyers for their schools. Woodwork and metalwork at the time was a school Matriculation subject option. There were also the numerous Government Trade Schools. This market was profitable in that machines were sold to these institutions complete with stands, motors and all accessories. However this action of John Cubitt antagonised most dealers. It was the start of difficult times.

Notwithstanding the problems, John Cubitt carried on with his “development programme” and new machinery was attempted. This included a wet stone grinder to resharpen lathe tools, a spindle moulder and a lathe copying attachment. The spindle moulder was a still born project getting as far as 6 sets of machined castings only. The lathe copy attachment project was completed but very few sales made.

With the decline in business and the general disposition created by sanctions and the disappearance of many leading brand items, Far East imports began flooding in. These were in the main, Taiwanese products. Bear in mind, Taiwan was busy establishing itself as a nation having broken away from mainland China after World War Two.
Above is an example of a Taiwanese Elephant Brand 14 inch bandsaw with parts identical to the original Rockwell Delta version.

Above is an example of a Taiwanese Elephant Brand 14 inch bandsaw with parts identical to the original Rockwell Delta version.

It is interesting to note that some of the Taiwanese product were exact copies of Rockwell machines to the extent that certain components such as covers for the 14 inch bandsaws were identical. They even cribbed the Rockwell flared leg stand with minor variations. However whether intentional or to protect themselves from law suits, all castings were void of any part numbers which was a virtual given on any genuine Rockwell casting.

As occurs in business, when hard times start appearing the viability of the concern comes into the reckoning. Struggling companies are vulnerable to takeovers. Thus the firm Elgin Gateley of East London started making overtures to buy out John Cubitt and Tauco Manufacturing. They had been showing an interest for quite a few years. Elgin Gateley was part of Elgin, Brown and Hamer, which was a big iron and steel manufacturing company mainly in the ship building industry based in Durban. They were part of the Murray Roberts group, a large conglomerate holding company.

In 1981, John Cubitt saw the writing on the wall. A recent strike in his plant, occurring just after a wage increase had been implemented, made the decision easier. He also realised that he could not compete with the Taiwanese imports which were coming in at 50% of the cost he was producing at. Hardware Centre attempted to assist John Cubitt by negotiating a deal to distribute all his output. However sporadic supply and falling quality doomed this. In October 1981 John Cubitt sold Tauco Manufacturing (Pty) Ltd. to Elgin. John stayed with Tauco Manufacturing for a short time, his son Jimmy leaving the firm. The Port Elizabeth plant remained for about a year, then Elgin decided to move it to East London where Elgin Gateley had a foundry. The operation moved but was short lived for by March 1984, Elgin closed down the whole operation. All production stopped and all machines in stock were sold off at half price.

Ironically on hearing of Elgin’s closure of Tauco Manufacturing, John and Jimmy Cubitt had thoughts of buying back what remained of their one time business. But this was not to be. An Indian owned company, Mahen Karsons had bought all the castings, tooling and the remains of Tauco Manufacturing for virtually nothing.

Mahen Karsons owned AM Engineering and Dolphin Engineering in East London, and presumably had ideas for the manufacture of Tauco products. However this venture was short lived and lasted about 8 months. Apparently it was found when new casting moulds had to be acquired, they were prohibitive in price and the business was again sold. Whether anything was actually produced in this short period is unknown but it is highly unlikely.

Mahen Karsons sold the business to Dinky Manufacturing of Berlin, a small town some 50 kms from East London. The new owner was Leon Fourie. Leon owned the company from April 1984 to approximately August 1987/1988 and the extent of manufacture is again unknown. All that has been recalled of this last period is the story of a thicknesser (planer) cutter block which was shipped to the Berlin (South Africa) plant from a client in South West Africa (now Namibia). Somewhere in the postal sorting office, the parcel was misdirected to Berlin (Germany) and was received by someone who duly sent it back with the parcel inscribed in very large red letters ZUID AFRIKA! It duly arrived undamaged in the original packing many months later.

This was the last attempt to try and carry on a lost cause.

The influx of East Asian imports carried on unabated. However with the situation as it was and with no woodwork machines as such, locally manufactured, certain imports gained a modicum of respectability. Brand names such as Martlett and Jet started appearing and were being carried by well known distributors. Likewise European makes also entered the market with Italian industrial panel saws becoming popular.

To all intents and purposes, the original USA Tauco, Rockwell Delta, Rockwell International eras were all consigned to history and the machines to the second hand market. The relatively short, and varied life of Tauco Manufacturing and its antecedent, Rockwell South Africa (Pty) Ltd. had finally ended, once and for all.

Post Script: The American Scene

As a matter of interest, I am including short notes as to the events that occurred in the USA concerning Rockwell Delta. This covers the period coinciding with the South African saga.

1960 Rockwell Manufacturing buys out Porter-Cable. Porter- Cable name lapses.

1973 Rockwell Manufacturing amalgamates with North American Rockwell to form Rockwell International.

1981 Rockwell sells off its portable tool division to Pentair with Pentair renaming this division, Porter-Cable again.

1984 Rockwell sells off the machine tool division to Pentair. Pentair renames this Delta International Machinery Corporation.

1985 Delta International Machinery Corporation introduces into the USA imported machinery lines, lightweight in comparison to the original products. These notes courtesy of Keith Bohn (USA).

Author's Notes

I am indebted to those who answered my call for help for without their input, the story or part of it really, could not have been told. As one tackles such a vague subject as this, it is inevitable that the full story will never be told. It is a given, that unless history is recorded as it is happening, time tends to diminish it.

When I decided to tackle the project, it was with a bit of trepidation because I was attempting to record a relatively short period that occurred over 30 years ago. I am pleased though that I have been able to get some of the early period details but sadly the history of the last years is a bit thin. The ability just does not exist of walking into a reference library and looking up the history simply because it does not exist. I therefore have been limited to those I have been able to contact and gleaned information from and not for want of trying, as some do not respond and that cannot be helped.

It would have been nice to know how much production was actually achieved during the various periods of ownership. In addition the various types of machines attempted and actually manufactured by the different owners down the line once Rockwell had sold it business off. To date I have not been able to ascertain what type of badging or identification was applied to machines when manufacture, if any was undertaken by Elgin, Mahen Karsons and Dinky Manufacturing. I have seen “Tauco Manufacturing” machines mainly the table saws and jointers.

I cannot claim that this is the complete history. Perhaps at a later time, these notes may well have to be rewritten as more facts and figures come to light.

Gerald Buttigieg
Byrne, kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa.
August 2007.