BCS vs. Grillo comparison

In June of 2016, BCS America put a blog entry on their website comparing the BCS brand walk-behind tractors to the competing Grillo brand. This was apparently BCS’s response to the growing popularity of the Grillo brand walk-behind tractors in North America. Naturally, since the comparison on BCS America’s website is from BCS’s perspective, their blog entry presents BCS as a superior product, and fails to mention any possible advantage that Grillo products might have when compared to BCS.

What we are going to do here is present a more accurate and “balanced version” of BCS’s entry, based on our experience as the largest walk-behind tractor sales & service center in North America (we have sold BCS since 1977, and Grillo since 2004)… and then YOU can be the judge of what brand tractor would fit your needs best. Here goes:

MAIN POINTS:

  1. Grillo and BCS walk-behind tractors are very similar in basic design, and share some history.
  2. BCS and Grillo have different designs for their PTO-engagement systems and different levels of owner-serviceability.
  3. Grillo and BCS differ in their clutch designs and level of owner-serviceability.
  4. Grillo and BCS have slightly different transmission designs.
  5. Grillo and BCS’s handlebar systems have different “strong” and “weak” points in terms of durability & usability.
  6. Grillo and BCS have different levels of dealer support and market penetration.

1. History

BCS was founded in 1942 in Italy, and started out by offering walk-behind motorized sickle-bar mowers (no other implements; this was a single-purpose machine). Grillo was founded in Italy in 1953; the Grillo company began their business with only rear-PTO machines that would run various soil-working implements and a few stationary implements. It was a technology-sharing partnership between Grillo and BCS from 1967 through 1982 that resulted in both brands offering multi-directional, multi-purpose walk-behind tractors capable of operating a wide variety of implements.

By purchasing two of their competitors in the 1990’s, BCS has become Europe’s largest walk-behind tractor manufacturer (They currently produce 3 brands of walk-behind tractors [BCS, Ferrari and Pasquali] on the same assembly line). Out of the 30 or so European-made walk-behind tractor brands BCS has to compete with in the European market, a few other Italian brands have found their way into North America over the years: SEP (sold off to another company), Goldoni (went bankrupt in 2015), and starting in 2004, Grillo. Grillo is a solid, second-generation, family-owned company. While BCS and Grillo share more similarities than differences, following is a list of the “biggest” potential differences:

2. PTO Engagement System Design

In the days when BCS and Grillo shared engineering ideas, the PTO systems on both tractors were virtually identical…so close, in fact, that parts from older BCS machines can be interchanged with some current Grillo parts. In 1995, BCS decided to change their PTO system, introducing a tapered-three-jaw PTOcoupling design instead of the splined coupling they had used in the past. This solved two issues for BCS: One, the larger surface areas they had designed into the new system gave them an increased load-carrying capacity for larger-HP engines, and Two, it differentiated their PTO from Grillo’s, so users could no longer swap any implements between the two brands (Italians don’t believe in “standardized” PTO couplings!). BCS’s “old” PTO system had the moving parts of the PTO engagement (a sliding coupler) in an enclosed, grease-packed recess at the PTO attach-point of the tractor. Basic maintenance was to put some grease in the PTO area once a year if needed. Grillo’s current system is unchanged from this. With BCS’s “new” system, the PTO engagement parts were moved into the actual oil-bath of the tractor transmission. Each system has potential advantages and disadvantages:

The “new” PTO system from BCS is certainly stronger than their old one (which they needed, because they started offering larger engines), but it is also much more complicated to repair due the PTO mechanism now being housed inside the transmission rather than externally-accessed. Parts cost on the current BCS system is also far higher, in the event of a non-warrantable failure. Grillo’s PTO system on their smaller tractors is exactly the same as BCS’s “old” system…this system was proven on the older BCS machines, and continues to be reliable and easy and inexpensive to service for tractors 11hp and smaller. Grillo uses a larger, stronger PTO shaft and 3-jaw coupling design on their larger tractor models (G110 & G131)…however, this system is still external to the transmission for ease of service, and replacement parts cost is low.

BCS’s new PTO design means that their PTO engagement system is now permanently lubricated by the gear oil in the transmission (no once-a-year greasing required), and also covered by their consumer-use “lifetime transmission warranty”, since this warranty covers all parts of the transmission that “run in gear oil”… But ONLY if a failure occurs that is due to ‘defects in materials or workmanship’; this warranty does NOT cover abuse / improper use, which we find to be the major reasons that PTO engagement systems fail. Also, BCS’s “lifetime transmission warranty” only covers units used in consumer use, NOT farm/income-producing use…that is only a 5-year warranty.

SUMMARY: Grillo’s PTO system is easy and inexpensive to repair, and still quite durable. BCS currently has a more durable system, but if/when it fails, it’s a 3-to-4 hour job to fix that requires a BCS-made special tool; on a Grillo its 20 - 30 minutes with very simple tools. Also, PTO parts cost for the Grillo is about one-third of what it is on a BCS.

3. Clutch Type

Effective in 2011, the European Union (EU) revised their safety standards for walk-behind tractors that could accept tillage implements that were sold within the EU (this standard does NOT apply in North America, although equipment produced to this standard still meets North American safety laws). The revised law required applicable walk-behind tractors to: A. Have a MAXIMUM speed of no more than 8 km/h (about 5 mph), which meant blocking out the “transport” speed that most walk-behind tractors had; and B. Have an Operator Presence Control system (OPC, also known as a “dead-man” control) that, if the operator let go of the handlebars, would immediately disengage power between the engine and the transmission, stopping all motion. It was easy enough to design a simple blocking mechanism to prevent the “transport” gear from being used, but the OPC issue was a bit more challenging, as most brands used a simple switch that shut off the engine when the handles were released…and this would NOT satisfy the new EU requirement. So, some re-engineering was in order…

What almost all of the walk-behind tractor manufacturers in Italy did to meet this standard was simply produce an “inverted” version of their standard manual clutch that had served them well for years. However, BCS decided to solve this issue by taking a gamble with “higher technology”…and they invested over 2 million dollars to come up with a “hybrid” hydro-mechanical clutching system, which they branded “PowerSafe”. According to BCS, it is “the most durable” clutch design on the walk-behind tractor market…(time will tell, it has only been on the North American market since 2012). What we DO know is that it IS the most sophisticated clutch design in a walk-behind tractor, and is the most complicated as a result.

This clutch has a built-in hydraulic micro-pump that generates hydraulic pressure to push the clutch plates together and transfer power from the engine to the tractor. Releasing the “safety” lever OR squeezing the clutch lever on the handlebars simply opens a valve that “dumps” hydraulic pressure, allowing springs to open the clutch plates and viola, the engine power is disconnected from the tractor and everything stops (stops pretty darn quickly, actually, because there is a “brake” mechanism built into the design of the PowerSafe clutch, that stops the motion of the tractor almost instantly, like you slammed on a brake). The clutch plates are in an oil bath, so the potential for overheating the clutch is lower (since the circulating oil takes heat away from the clutch)…the potential down-side to this being that the heat from the PowerSafe clutch now raises the temperature of the entire transmission, since the oil the clutch runs in is cycled through the tranny. Also, the transmission gears and bearings, which were originally designed to run in 80W90 gear oil, now have to operate in hydraulic/transmission oil, which is a much thinner oil. We do not know at this early stage whether these factors will pose durability problems with the gears and bearings… One thing we do know for sure is that the PowerSafe clutch from BCS is NOT owner-serviceable for internal repairs, and the failures we have experienced in the field so far have required that the tractors be shipped back to us for repair. (In BCS America’s Blog entry, it is interesting to note that when they describe “failures so far” on the PowerSafe systems, they do not mention the PowerSafe failures OUR customers experienced, which averaged over $500 each in repair cost–luckily under warranty, so our customers did not have to pay!)

In terms of safety, it can be argued that the PowerSafe is the “safest” of the safety systems on walk-behind tractors, since it has this integral braking system mentioned above. This is particularly nice on hills, kind of like an automatic “emergency brake” whenever you clutch the machine (only when the tractor is in gear, though). However, all the “safety” systems on Grillo machines (and the BCS models without the PowerSafe clutch) still comply with North American safety laws with no problem.

Operationally, the PowerSafe clutch has a different “feel” to it than a standard clutch, in that the power engagement/disengagement to the tractor is very sudden…you cannot “slip” or “feather” the PowerSafe clutch AT ALL, and this can make for a bit more challenging operation in some applications. Additionally, the PowerSafe system requires changing of the transmission oil AND oil filter more regularly (30 hours for initial break-in, and then every 100 hours after that)…and you cannot get the oil filter anywhere but a BCS dealer, at $14 or so apiece. While this is a minor expense, it is nevertheless an extra expense that this system requires. (On tractors with standard type clutches, there is no oil filter, and the 80w90 gear oil in the tractor transmission just gets changed at 30 hours for break-in, and then every couple years thereafter…Oil changes can be even less often if synthetic gear oil is used.)

Grillo, like all other Italian walk-behind tractor manufacturers, decided to comply with the EU clutch / safety system standards by using an “inverted” version of their standard manual “conical” clutch. In Grillo’s case, they had already developed a system like this years before as an “optional” clutch type, so they just made it “standard equipment” for EU sales. This design was introduced to the North American market on their model G110, and Grillo calls it their “Active” clutch. With this system, a separate Operator Presence (safety) Control is not needed, because the Clutch handle serves the same purpose…when the clutch handle (located on top of the handlebar) is pushed down, pressure is applied to push the clutch plates together and transfer power from the engine to the machine. When the clutch lever is released, a small internal spring inside the clutch separates the clutch plates and the engine power is immediately disconnected from the tractor and implement. This system is designed to accommodate some clutch cable stretch and clutch plate wear with a tension spring in the cable system, but it is up to the operator to adjust the cable tension properly if needed over time (a 1-minute procedure, usually performed once or twice per year). The Active Clutch system is also the easiest-to-service clutch system on the market, designed to be owner-serviceable and requiring only about 20 minutes to replace a worn clutch plate, and at a very reasonable parts cost.

One definite advantage to this system is ease of use: With its “single-lever” interface, the Grillo Active Clutch system is amazingly easy to use, and we find that people with smaller hands prefer this system to any other clutch system ever offered an a walk-behind tractor. (The PowerSafe is still a 2-lever system, in which the clutch lever and the safety lever have to be operated with the same hand…and this can require a bit of a stretch for folks with small hands)

To satisfy market demand, BCS still offers many tractors [models 710, 718, 722, 732, 852, 853] with manual conical clutches for non-European-Union countries…some people still want a clutch they can remove themselves (while the BCS conical clutch is not fully owner-serviceable like Grillo’s, at least it is easily owner-removable and replaceable, and these clutches can also be sent here to Earth Tools for rebuilding), and some customers really like the “transport” speed that these models offer, if they are pulling a utility trailer! The BCS conical clutch has more lining surface area than the Grillo clutches, so the service life will be longer…however, replacement parts cost is also much higher on the BCS clutches, so dollars-per-hour-of-use will probably come out close to the same. Like all dry-clutch systems, the clutch operating temperature when high-HP-requirement implements are used for long periods of time is somewhat higher than the temperature of a wet-clutch…but, at least the heating is restricted to the clutch; it is not raising the temperature of the whole transmission.

SUMMARY: BCS’s PowerSafe clutch has the potential to be a great clutch system, but we are unwilling to push it to all customers as “the best”, because it is still relatively new to the market, and different customers have different value systems of what they consider “best” (owner-serviceability factors, etc.). BCS’s conical clutches have been on the market for over 25 years, are well-proven and can be owner-accessed for service. The Grillo clutches are 100% owner-serviceable, have a lower replacement-parts cost, but may need service at more frequent intervals.

4. Transmission design

One of the reasons the Grillo machines are significantly less expensive than the BCS models of the same size/capability is because Grillo has elected to stick with a slightly “older-fashioned” transmission design. This results in the advantage of a easier-to-service tranny design that requires no special tools or procedures if it needs to be worked on… but this simpler design can be a disadvantage in that with a Grillo tractor, the PTO direction actually reverses when the tractor is put into reverse. This is not an issue with any soil-working implement, as the tractor has a safety lockout mechanism that prevents engagement of the PTO drive when the tractor is in reverse anyway…the implements you may notice an issue with are rotary mowers, hay-rakes and the hay-baler; they will simply not operate while the tractor is in reverse. (If you engage reverse while mowing, the mower is protected from damage by a one-way ratchet inside the mower gearbox.) To some folks, this is not an issue, because they are either A. Not using a the above-mentioned implements, or B. Have a property layout that doesn’t require much reversing while using these implements. However, if brush-mowing , lawn-mowing, or hay-baling is high on the list of what you want to do with your walk-behind tractor, AND you have a lot of forward-reverse maneuvering to do in tight spots, the BCS may be a better choice for the sake of operator convenience.

5. Handlebar Ergonomics

We have been BCS dealers since 1977, and we have seen a LOT of handlebar design changes from BCS over that time…some for the better, some more like “what were they thinking??” We must say, BCS’s current handlebar design on most models (all but the 710) is their best yet overall…however, it’s amusing to see that some of BCS’s best handlebar features are simply copies of what Grillo has had for over 30 years, and it took BCS until 2004 to figure them out. The Grillo model G110 has comparable-length handlebars to the same size BCS machines (749/852/853); the smaller Grillo units currently have slightly shorter handles than their BCS counterparts, but they will be getting longer handlebars in mid-2017. Overall handlebar ergonomics (angles, number of height adjustments, control design & placement, etc.) is slightly more comfortable on the BCS (and frankly, this is as it should be…BCS IS a more expensive machine!).

A “convenience” difference is the method the two different brands use to hold the gearshift & PTO control rods to the handlebar column; this comes into play when the rods have to be dismounted from the column in order to rotate the handlebars around to accommodate front-mount or rear-mount implements. BCS’s control rods are supported by the central handlebar column by plastic snap-clips. The rods are popped out of the clips, the handlebars rotated around, and the rods popped back into the clips within seconds, which seems great when you’re in a hurry. The Grillo system has steel supports holding the rods in place to the handlebar column; therefore rotating the handlebars requires removing a quick-pin (R-key, hair-pin, whatever) at the base of each control rod, sliding the base of the rods from their sockets, rotating the handlebars while letting the handlebars support the “loose” rods, and then re-inserting the rods and re-installing the quick-pins. The REAL-WORLD pros and cons of the two systems are that the BCS system is faster when rotating the handles around, but the plastic clips are notorious for letting the rods “pop out” when you DON’T want them to (for example, when shifting gears), and, if you are unlucky, the rod may fall onto the wheel, which, if rotating, can bend the rod pretty quickly. The Grillo system takes a few more seconds to rotate the handles, but the rods never fall out of place, and there are no parts (plastic clips) that need periodic replacement. As the saying goes, it’s “6 of one, half-a-dozen of the other”…

6. Market penetration and Dealer Support

Imported since about 1975, BCS claims 600 or so dealers in North America…however, we know that over 50% of these so-called dealers stock NO BCS products, and over 30% have not sold a BCS in 2 years! If BCS had as strong a dealer network as they claim, we at Earth Tools would not get so many calls from BCS owners frustrated with their local dealers because: A. Their local dealer knows little or nothing about the products they are supposed to represent, B. Their local dealer stocks no parts, and C. Their local dealer does not make walk-behind tractors a “priority” in their business, because their attention is spread over many product lines. (Don’t get me wrong, there ARE certainly some good BCS dealers out there, but they unfortunately seem to be the exceptions, rather than the rule…)

Purchasing your tractor and getting service from a local dealer is a potential advantage for BCS buyers, IF the local dealer actually knows & stocks their products and will back up the sale with good service and parts. Local economies are best, IF you can get the service you need, and a local dealer is willing to “earn” your business by having products and parts in stock, being knowledgeable about the products, and providing high-quality service work.

Grillo has been imported into North America since 2004 under their own name (some were imported as private-labeled BCS machines in the 70s and 80s when BCS and Grillo were working together), and they have a growing number of knowledgeable servicing dealers. In areas where there are no Grillo dealers yet, Earth Tools will ship direct to the customer. While we may not be “right down the road” in the event of a repair being needed, the customer will enjoy the fact that the Grillo machines are made to be much more “owner-serviceable”, and they can rely on Earth Tools’ legendary customer service for parts & consultation as needed…and, since they are both excellent machines, whether you decide to purchase a BCS or a Grillo, we of course extend the same top-notch customer support for BCS AND Grillo machines purchased from us.