The Loss of an Icon

By Chris Mc Loone

It was August 1993 when I was voted into active membership at Weldon Fire Company in Glenside, Pennsylvania.

Our apparatus fleet at the time consisted of two twin engines and a heavy rescue truck. We were in the process of turning over the township’s air unit to a new owner and taking delivery in 1994 of a Saulsbury air unit on a Chevrolet chassis, which is still in service today.

The rescue was a 1989 Spartan/Saulsbury walk-through that seated 14. The engines were twin 1981 American LaFrances (ALFs) built on Century chassis. They featured 1,250-gpm pumps and 750-gallon water tanks. They were identical in almost every way except the first out engine (referred to as 302 back then) had a top-mounted monitor and the second out engine (referred to as 303) added a front intake but had no top-mounted monitor.

I look back on those engines fondly. They are the trucks I remember running up to the corner to see after the whistle blew when I was a kid. It was a dream come true to ride these trucks when I joined the fire company. I even got to drive them a few times when I began my company’s driver training program. Unfortunately I never got qualified on them because they were put up for sale when we replaced them, and training on them was suspended until we received our next twin engines, which ended up being twin 1997 Spartan/Saulsbury engines.

From my youth through my first years as a firefighter, those trucks were big parts of my life. I wish Weldon could have held onto one of them to preserve as an antique. At the time I joined, we were the only company within the township with ALFs. You always knew when a Weldon engine was en route or on scene.

A big part of knowing we were responding was the sound the engines made. To this day, I associate the Detroit Diesels on those trucks with what a fire truck is supposed to sound like. I mentioned that sound in an online article I wrote reporting on American LaFrance’s recent closing and I received an email from Chief Chris Bors of the McKinley Fire Company in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. He relayed the following regarding that sound:

“From the mid 1960s until the early 1990s, Detroit Diesel was the premier supplier of diesel engines for fire apparatus. The design was unique in that it was a two-cycle engine, as opposed to the four-cycle design that all diesel engines, including Detroit, use today.

“The Detroit Diesel two-cycle used a supercharger to introduce air into the cylinders though a series of openings, or intake ports, in the cylinder wall. When the piston was at the bottom of its travel, this pressurized air forced exhaust gases out of the cylinder through open exhaust valves in the cylinder head and provided a fresh air charge for the next combustion cycle. As the piston traveled up, the intake ports were sealed off by the piston rings, and the air charge became quickly compressed and heated-the same process that causes SCBA cylinders to heat when being filled. When the piston approached the top of its travel, a charge of fuel was injected and rapidly detonated when combined with the superheated air in the cylinder. The rapidly burning fuel forced the piston down, uncovering the intake ports and repeating the process.

“The primary difference of the two-cycle Detroit Diesel design was that the pistons fired at the top of every stroke as opposed to the four-cycle, in which the pistons fire on every other stroke. This allowed for a fast revving, relatively lightweight engine that was fuel-efficient and generated a wonderful sound. Unfortunately, it also generated a lot of pollution. As EPA regulations for diesel engines got more strict in the mid 1990s, the cleaner burning four cycle became the design of choice for all diesel engine manufacturers.”

Come to think of it, I do remember the sooty exhaust from those trucks when we left the firehouse.

Regarding all this, I was saddened to hear of ALF’s closing at the end of January. I tend to be sentimental about these sorts of things. The ALF brand is well known and easily identifiable-particularly when many think about apparatus.

There are other reasons to be disappointed, of course. When a company like this closes, it means that we have lost a choice when it comes to apparatus manufacturers. Also, it means one less competitor for other manufacturers. The nice thing about competition is it keeps everyone on their toes, driving innovation and providing more options for the marketplace.

ALF’s troubles through the years are well documented. The company has been down and out before, only to rise again. Although I’m doubtful, I remain hopeful that the company will find a way out of this and fire apparatus will roll off its lines again. If that can’t happen, I hope at least the brand will survive in some shape or form. The brand is iconic for those of us who came up with these great trucks.

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