Every time Don Pemberton fires up the Super Witch, people stop what they are doing and pay attention.
"I'm the operator, the only operator," says Pemberton, 55, who for years has sat behind the wheel of the super-powered trenching machine, which regularly makes the rounds at construction trade shows. "You have to have ear protection—this thing is pretty loud."
Often dubbed a "showstopper" or "male magnet," the chromed-up Super Witch has survived five generations and countless rebuilds, making it one of the longest-running attractions at ICUEE, a biennial utility-equipment show. The next ICUEE show is on Oct. 4-6 in Louisville, Ky.
The Super Witch was created more than 30 years ago as a rogue marketing project. It first blew into ICUEE in 1979, after a small group of employees at The Charles Machine Works Inc., Perry, Okla., secretly decided to soup up one of the company's Ditch Witch-brand tractors.
In late 1978, in preparation for the show, the group got to work on the garage project. A prototype Model 6510 frame served as the chassis, while a 1969 Chevelle Super Sport donated the engine, a 396-cu-in. "big block" Chevy V-8.
Factory legend has it that the donor car, wearing Texas plates and reading 110,000 on the odometer, was a stolen vehicle. The company bought it "as is," with no title, from a local farmer for $100, employees say. According to Pemberton, the car actually was purchased from a local salvage yard.
Management eventually blessed the project, and suppliers pitched in to help overhaul the Witch. A local shop fabricated the chrome exhaust headers, while a hydraulics company made pumps to run the hydrostatic drive. The pumps powered the rear wheels, while a Turbo Hydra-Matic 400 automatic transmission—the same equipment in the Chevelle—drove the rear trenching tool.
"We didn't put a lot of money or time into it," says Pemberton, who is the factory's fleet manager, among other duties. "We just dolled it up a little bit and took off."
The Super Witch has been through several updates since then, but the basic setup has stayed the same. However, it has gained power over the years.