Apparatus, Features, News, Pumpers

Fire Apparatus of an Earlier Era

By Ron Heal

If you are a regular reader of Fire Apparatus and Emergency Equipment, you will recognize that I prepare the monthly “Apparatus Showcase” and “Recent Orders” departments. Although I enjoy bringing news of orders and deliveries to our readers, my greater passion for fire apparatus is found in the apparatus from earlier times—the vintage or even antique variety of fire trucks, engines, and other specialty pieces of fire apparatus.

A good first question is: what constitutes a vintage fire truck? In most car circles, a vehicle that is 20 years old is considered antique. That said, we probably know of a few late 1980s cars or trucks that might still be running down the road. The same is true for fire apparatus. Some readers would consider any piece of fire equipment from the 1970s or 1980s as being ready to be considered an antique. The other side of that picture is that there are many struggling fire departments that would very much appreciate a rig from the late 1980s that has had proper maintenance—and it might be an upgrade for their department!

My personal interest in fire apparatus goes back a long way. Growing up in the southern Ontario city of Sarnia, I have very vivid memories of the local department responding with pumpers and a city service ladder unit that were all from the 1920s. They were all LaFrance units. How exciting to see the arrival of two 700-series LaFrance pumpers, and shortly after, a Pirsch custom open cab aerial. When you think about it, the early LaFrance units probably represented the first motorized fire apparatus in service in the city. Their service life was extended by World War II.

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to visit in Sarnia, keeping eye on whatever happened to some of that fire apparatus from the late 1940s. The good news is that Sarnia firefighters are very close to completing a frame-off restoration of a 1923 LaFrance pumper—a unit that never left the department. The Pirsch custom aerial was sold to a retired Sarnia firefighter and he maintains the rig for area parades.

Many of our readers that are in the fire service may be fortunate enough to have a vintage rig that is still owned by the fire department. Some may be kept in parade-ready condition, while others may be getting a little long in the tooth and need some degree of restoration. The difficult economy means there are very few dollars that can help fund a restoration. That often means that a department has to look at raising funds or obtaining in kind services to get a historic piece ready to show off to the community. Restoration costs can range from a few thousand dollars to more than $50,000.00.

From the very early days of motorized fire apparatus, the fire apparatus industry has been a leader of innovation, design, manufacture, and dependability of equipment needed to fight fire. When you look back to the Ahrens-Fox piston pumpers from the 1920s and 1930s, those machines were awe-inspiring for their time. It is because of the quality and the workmanship, plus being stored inside, that continues to make those rigs a challenge for departments and collectors alike.

Although the Ahrens-Fox is considered the “Cadillac” of early motorized fire apparatus, there are many other manufacturers that provided very distinct apparatus that continue to be of interest for restoration folks all across the country.

Through this online feature, we would like to hear from you about different vintage fire apparatus from your department. We would like to know if the apparatus is in operable condition and how the rigs are used by the department. We are also interested in what various collectors have done with apparatus they have obtained over a period of time. The spotlight will be on you as you share the story of your rig. Perhaps you have only started a project that could last for years. Let us know what is started and what your plans are. We also hope to share pictures. You can contact me at [email protected].

1927 Reo-Boyer Restoration
One example of a restoration project comes right from my backyard. A good friend and restorer, Dennis Deppert, is currently working on his third fire vehicle. Although Dennis is not on a fire department, he has become an active member in our down-state Illinois SPAAMFAA chapter. Our group is HOIFEC. SPAAMFAA stands for the Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America. That organization is over 50 years old. The Heart of Illinois Fire Apparatus and Collectors (HOIFEC) group is a modest 27 years old. Five years ago Dennis heard of a rig stored in Henry, Illinois. It turns out the rig is a 1927 Reo-Boyer combination chemical-pumper that served the Washburn (IL) Community Fire District.

The rig had been stored for many years in a boxcar. The owner said the rig would run, but needed some work. Most restorers know that “some work” means a frame-off restoration if you are going to do things right. Dennis got at it and rebuilt the mechanicals first, including new brakes and tires, new wiring harness, and rebuilding most components that make up the chassis.

Once the mechanicals were in good order, it was time to get started on the body and bright work. Several pieces were taken over to Quincy, Illinois, for replating. Hundreds of hours have been spent on the body work. Dennis has considered every detail as he has moved to having a bright red fire engine that will be far more complete than when it first went into service with Washburn. The fire chief at Washburn has been interested in the restoration of its vintage combination chemical-pumper, and certainly would like to show the rig off to the citizens of Washburn.

There are still a few things to wrap up on the rig. Ladders are the last of the big things. It is a race against the changing seasons in Illinois. All too soon it will be time to put our toys away until spring. Perhaps that is when Washburn will see a brief return of a piece of that department’s history. How much time and money does Dennis have in the project? He has not sat down and put a pencil to that yet, but you can guess that such a restoration is not cheap. It will be interesting to see what the future of this beautifully restored fire engine will be. Stay tuned for a few years.

I had the opportunity to stop in and see and photograph the progress that Dennis has made on this rig. It has been a challenge, and Dennis tells me it is his last full restoration. If that is the case, he has left the best for last. We hope to get him to help on an even larger restoration project in our area. After several decades of being stored in a shed, the Wheel O’ Time Museum has started to move forward on the restoration of a 1936 Ahrens-Fox piston pumper that served in Peoria, Illinois. A building that will house the project is nearing completion at the museum, and before the snow flies, we hope to see the ‘Fox make the first move of a lengthy and involved restoration. That will be another feature for another time.

RON HEAL compiles the “Apparatus Showcase” and “Recent Orders” departments monthly in Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment. For several year,s he was the warranty administrator for Global Emergency Products, the Pierce dealer for Illinois. He has owned two pieces of vintage apparatus. A 1947 American LaFrance 700-series pumper is his pride and joy. Recently he parted with a 1931 International-Boyer pumper that will be a part of a Navistar truck collection coming to Melrose Park, IL, in 2013.  He has been a long-time member of SPAAMFAA, and heads up HOIFEC, the down-state Illinois chapter. These groups have a focus on the history and preservation of vintage fire apparatus that is both fire department and privately owned.