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ConExpo 1981 — Everything’s Truly Bigger in Texas

A look back at the excitement from ConExpo '81.

Wed September 11, 2013 - National Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

This ConExpo article was published in Construction Equipment Guide (CEG) right after ConExpo 1981 concluded in January. This and other ConExpo articles to follow will be part of a continuing series that take a look back at ConExpos past through the reporting of CEG. We hope you enjoy these retros as much as we did searching for them deep in our archives.

The words big, bigger, biggest and jumbo were commonplace in Houston, Texas, during ConExpo ’81 at the Astrodome Complex between Jan. 25 and 30.

Big applied to the city of Houston, its expressways, the Astrodome, the Astrodome area, the equipment that was on display, from towering Grove hydraulic cranes to 19 yard hydraulic shovels to monster 1,000 hp bulldozers, to the super boxes in the upper reaches of the Astrodome itself. Another big was the crowd. Estimates ranged as high as 200,000, well exceeding the guestimates by the CIMA people.

One of the things that make ConExpo ’81 the greatest show on earth is the diversity and breadth of the exhibitors. Nearly every conceivable type of equipment and service a contractor may want to use was represented at ConExpo.

There were also several surprises. Probably the biggest surprise was the foreign invasion of a new wave of Japanese and European competitors moving in to stake out a position in the already crowded North American marketplace. The newcomers, including such giants as Komatsu, Hitachi, and I.B.H. Holding, demonstrated their ability to build extensive product lines; they are certainly to be considered a serious threat by U.S. manufacturers.

New technology, new lines and new ideas abounded at ConExpo in January. Some equipment was bigger, more powerful and, at the same time, more fuel efficient than previous models. Other pieces of equipment were more compact, versatile and maneuverable than before. And in some cases, manufacturers added new technology to old standards giving them new viability and preventing obsolescence.

For those not interested in construction equipment, ConExpo ’81 provided a wide variety of other activities. The daring could ride a gondola lifted by a giant FMC crane to an observation post a couple hundred feet off the ground. Case set up a little theater and let people operate live equipment. Other manufacturers had working models of their equipment, which the public could control. Even history buffs could find some of the antique machines, which were revolutionary in their time, interesting. The antiques provided some insight into how much construction equipment has changed the way we live.

Not all the equipment in ConExpo ’81 was brand new. Blaw-Knox went the other way and displayed a restored 1930 paver, the first automatic asphalt paving machine in history. It was equipped with rollers for compacting the asphalt as it was laying it.

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