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The Little Press That Could

The SM 52 spelled the end of the GTO, but these
little gems still impact the printing world


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By:  Nick Howard  |  Date: May 2015  |  Contact the Author

Undoubtedly the most outstanding small-format press ever made was the Heidelberg GTO. Many printers grew their businesses with a GTO. To appreciate the impact of this little marvel, we need to go back through time, 42 years in fact, to 1972. This was the year that Heidelberg, at the Drupa Fair in Germany, formally presented the GTO 46. Originally only offered as a single colour in a sheet size of 32 x 46 cm (12 5/8 x 18 inches), you could also buy a modified “TO” version with sheet size of 26 x 32 cm (10 x 12 5/8 inches).

From the mid-1950s, the small sheetfed offset press market was a largely an afterthought for major machinery suppliers. Such presses tended to be less robust and none could register hairline, leaving smaller print shops without a way to penetrate more lucrative, higher quality work done on bigger presses.

The Addressograph Multigraph was a very popular press, as was the Davidson, ATF Chief 15 (known in Canada as the Gestetner Gestelith), and AB Dick. In America, Miehle marketed the larger AB Dick 380 under its marquee and Harris built a 14 x 20-inch model LUH. Neither was very exciting. Over time, small offset presses settled into the niche of Quick Printing, while being very good at stationery and envelope printing.

KOVO of Czechoslovakia manufactured the Romayor, a clone of the British Rotaprint. In Japan, earlier attempts by companies like Fuji (Shinohara) and Hamada were less successful. Hamada, however, was an early exporter to North America. In Canada, Toronto Type Foundry was probably the first Hamada importer and rebranded the press as TORLITH. Canadian Linotype later controlled the agency and called it the LINOLITH.

Reviews were not kind to Japanese builders in the 1960s and the American Multilith and then AB Dick machines dominated the Instant Print market. Duplicators, as these light-duty machines were called, developed their own mini-industry, with tools like PMT and electrostatic plates.

Webendorfer-Wills company in 1935 put out an interesting little press in the 14 x 20-inch size and called it the Little Chief. It was a major break from, for example, a Multilith or a Davidson, and was built like a much bigger press. This press could register albeit with tumbler grippers and a push guide. The industry paid attention and after ATF bought Webendorfer-Wills Co. in 1938, Chief 20s made their way across North America.

Someone did pay attention to small-format workhorses and it was Heidelberg. With the 1962 launch of Heidelberg’s first offset press, the KOR, the company’s management board likely agreed that Schnellpresse needed to accept the fact that offset printing was going to win the war over letterpress. The long-time head of Heidelberg, Herbert Sternberg, is noted as not favouring offset and was likely pressured by younger, more progressive managers.

The KOR was possibly a way to appease Sternberg as it was really a K letterpress with bed removed and modified for offset. The KOR’s success spawned other sheet sizes, but it was also a heavy piece of machinery and probably more costly than designing from scratch. Heidelberg did go back to the drawing board in the 1960s and introduced its GTO at drupa 1972. No one had seen such a press before! The side frames were cast in one piece from lightweight aluminum alloy. Every shaft, as well as the main cylinders, ran in precise bearings – unheard of technology in the duplicator field.

Heidelberg GTO - The Little Press That Could

Everything the little ATF Chief could have been was found in this little GTO gem. With the thought of replacing the T Platen for applications like numbering, Heidelberg fashioned a device (referred to as PLUS) for a numbering box or even a flexo plate to number or add an additional colour.

By Drupa 1977, a 2-colour GTO with convertible perfector was released by Heidelberg. In 1979, the sheet size was expanded to 36 x 52 cm, which was welcome news and a major impetus for GTO domination. Eventually, the GTO was expanded to 4- then 5-colour models. At Drupa 1986, the well-known ALCOLOR continuous dampening system was offered as an option along with Heidelberg’s range of CPC consoles.

In September 1993, Heidelberg introduced the GTO-DI (Direct Imaging) press. Teaming up with US innovator, Presstek, Heidelberg built-in the Spark then PEARL laser heads. But, the early days of Direct Imaging left many customers disillusioned with poor print quality. Undaunted, Heidelberg stuck with the GTO offset press and its platform was expanded in sheet size in 1980 to become the M-Offset. By 1974, Heidelberg had brought out the Speedmaster 72, a 52 x 72 cm press. Similarities with the GTO were evident. The perfecting device was almost identical.

Why was the GTO such a terrific press? First, it was over-built compared with duplicators of the day. Even using a push side guide did not prevent printing 4-colour in hairline register. America in the 1960s was heading toward the creation of what we now call the Rustbelt. Unions and environmental laws slowly ate away at America’s industrial strengths. Foundries and allied industries were either reducing in size, raising prices or closing. Germany took on a clear advantage, particularly with the Deutsche Marks exchange rate, just as the Yen was increasing imports from Japan.

Almost impossible to wear out, with no serious competition and so incredibly easy to run, the GTO was the press behind many of today’s most successful printers. Even forgers loved the press. Reports suggest as many as 106,000 units were sold. My estimation (based on tracking serial numbers) suggests that Heidelberg made that many and almost 75,000 were complete machines not just printing units!

The Evolution of The Little Press That Could:

Heidelberg GTO - The Little Press That Could - News & Views published by Howard Group of Companies

1977- early 1980s: The GTO line was available in single, 2- and 4-colour presses, as well as the expanded sheet size of 14" x 20" (46 x 52 cm) - GTO 52.

Mid 1980's - 1990's: The GTO 52 line continued to evolve, adding 5-colour presses to the stable, offering more press options such as Alcolor, stream feeder, and CPC console, including CPTronic. By this time, GTO 46 was slowly relegated to just a single-colour format.

1990's: The GTO 52 line continued to be popular. Heidelberg introduced GTO 52-DI in the fall of 1993 which was not received well due to poor print quality.

2000's: In the new millenium, marketed as Printmaster GTO, the little press that could saw strong competition from SM 52 and the emerging digital revolution. In 2014, the production of the GTO line came to an end after 42 successful years.

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