Okie Allen is a veteran firefighter and assistant chief of Township Fire Department, Inc., in Eau Claire, WI. He is also a member of the Chippewa Valley Chapter of SPAAMFAA. That’s short for Society for the Preservation & Appreciation of Antique Motorized Fire Apparatus in America (www.spaamfaa.org)—the name of the international club for fire truck buffs.
Preserving a fire truck may involve rebuilding its engine. This could mean added business for creative engine builders, but it might also cause the rebuilder to ask questions such as:
• How big is the vintage fire truck restoration niche?
• What special things do I need to know about old fire truck engines?
• Where can parts for such engines be obtained?
• How do I generate business from this market niche?
How Big Is The Fire Truck Engine Rebuilding Niche?
SPAAMFAA was organized in Syracuse, NY in 1958 and today has 3,000-plus members and more than 50 chapters. Owning a fire truck is not a membership requirement. Many SPAAMFAA members simply appreciate historical fire trucks. There are SPAAMFA members who own dozens of old fire trucks and there are dozens of fire truck owners who don’t belong to SPAAMFAA.
“The Chippewa Valley Chapter (www.squeeky-wheel.org) is a newer SPAAMFAA chapter,” Allen said. “We’re in our fifth year and have about 35 family members, and out of that we have 22 or more vehicles.” He thought that members of his club are now rebuilding about five trucks. If we apply the same ratios to SPAAMFAA’s overall membership, there might be 428 fire trucks under restoration right now. Many of them are going to need an engine rebuild.
It’s common knowledge fire trucks don’t travel many miles. Dennis A. Mehan is the owner of Old Macks (www.oldmacks.com) the world’s largest antique Mack truck and fire engine trading and services company. “I’ve sold lots of older fire trucks and never saw one with more than 50,000 miles,” he said. “The engines are usually serviceable and rarely need rebuilding.”
Yet, some older trucks need engine work because the power plants spent hours running large pumps and equipment, rather than racking up road miles. As Okie Allen pointed out, “Older fire truck engines were governed to lower top speeds to keep the RPM’s down for pumping.” Heat and vibration took its toll on fire truck engines. Hot exhaust could even melt water-holding tanks.
“Older fire trucks went with the largest engine possible to run the pump and equipment,” Allen said. This fact of history has an effect on the size of the engine rebuilding market today, because many very early fire truck engines would probably have to be repaired by a few specialized shops scattered around the country, rather than local engine rebuilders. That brings us to question two.
What’s Special about Old Fire Truck Engines?
Some older fire truck engines are very special and others are not. “Seagrave and American LaFrance made its own engines into the 1940s and 1950s,” said fire truck restoration artist Kenneth F. Soderbeck. Ken owns Hand in Hand Restoration ([email protected]) in Jackson, MI. “Seagrave, in competition with American LaFrance, used two different V12s,” Soderbeck said. “The bigger one was its own and the smaller one was based on the V12 used in the Pierce-Arrow passenger cars made in Buffalo, NY.”
Dennis Meehan, who worked for Mack for two decades and was involved with Macks for 50 years, added that Mack also made its own engines from 1900 until 1963. According to Meehan, the Mack AB was the company’s first production unit, but it was the AC built from 1916 to 1939 that made the company famous. Mack made 4,800 of these for use in World War I as well as commercial units. Because the unimproved roads of the day led to stones ruining radiators, Mack put the radiator in the AC behind the truck’s 377-cid four-cylinder gas engine. This allowed for the pinched-hood “Bulldog” look that gave these truck’s the nickname and bulldog emblem.
“Macks of the teens and 1920s were masterpieces with their big engines, wood spoke wheels, brass parts and chain-drive systems,” Meehan stressed. “Baltimore ordered a Mack configured as a fire truck and other cities took note and soon heavy-duty Macks were fighting fires everywhere.”
According to Meehan, a restored Mack AC Buldog could fetch as much as $100,000 and restoring an AC engine, which cost about $700 new, could cost as much as $17,000 today. “Rebuilding an AC engine wouldn’t be easy (because parts are scarce),” Mehann noted. “But, with today’s technology we can make anything.”
Meehan said Mack fire truck engines differed from those used in commercial trucks largely because of heating issues involved with running pumps. “Trucks were made so the sides of the hoods came off or had 10 little vents and the engines had additional cooling systems,” he said. “The old gas engines were made to run forever. I’ve heard stories of trucks working a lumberyard fire in New York City that ran for 10 days without being turned off.”
Ken Soderbeck explained that while these big fire truck manufacturers were still making their own engines, “Smaller companies used available engines and chassis.” During the 1930s, many small towns in rural areas throughout the United States started buying their first motorized fire trucks. These were often conversions of used trucks that were refurnbished by small fire truck makers.
As automobile engine technology improved, more and more companies entered the fire truck trade. Automakers such as Chevrolet, Ford, Studebaker, Dodge and Packard started supplying both car and truck chassis – and engines – for fire apparatus.
The overhead valve V8 became the rage of the automotive industry after World War II and naturally found its way into fire trucks. Compared to an American LaFrance V12 with 215 horsepower, the biggest postwar V8s offered well over 300 hp. In fact, the legendary Chrysler HEMI was a popular choice for Dodge fire trucks. Okie Allen owns a 454-powered 1984 Chevy 4 x 4 mini pumper with a 400 gallons-per-minute (gpm) Waterous two-stage pump-and-roll system and an under-the-hood Generac generator that cranks out 4,000 amps.
When big-block V8s that could run a pump and lots of equipment arrived, the older V12s became outmodeled in fire service. The big makers of custom-built fire trucks saw sales drop. At the same time, things got more competitive for smaller makers. In his 1976 book American Fire Engines Since 1900 (Crestline) Walter P. McCall listed 240 builders of fire trucks. But, according to Dennis Meehan, only three or four majors survive today. “Companies merged and merged again,” Meehan said. “The end result is that it’s difficult to find parts.” That brings up question three.
Where Can You Find Parts?
“I would say it’s not easy to find parts for the trucks that I collect,” admitted Keith Franz. “But parts are available for certain models if they’re not too old.” Franz has a 1910 Knox on which Ken Soderbeck did a complete restoration. It has an original, Knox six-cylinder, overhead valve engine built by the Knox Motor Company that is very rare. Fortunately, the engine was in good shape and only needed rings and gaskets. “But, it depends on the engine,” Franz admitted. “A specialist like Ken Soderbeck can probably find or make any part, but if you went to a local shop with something really far out, they probably couldn’t do it.”
According to Dennis Meehan, “Zero parts” are available for old Macks. “There’s not enough of a market for fire truck parts to support a big aftermarket,” Meehan observed. “So it’s very difficult to find parts.” Meehan said that the shrinking number of companies left also contributes to the scarcity of parts.
“Seagrave and American LaFrance used their own engines in the old days and parts for them are getting hard to find,” Ken Soderbeck said. “We have an annual fire truck swap meet that’s held in Jackson, MI, on the last weekend in April. It’s sponsored by the Great Lakes Chapter of SPAAMFAA (www.gliafaa.org) and it is one of the largest in the world. There’s also a place called the V12 Shop that rebuilds ALF engines and sells ALF and other parts.”
The V12 Shop (www.Thev12shop.com) is located in Garland, TX and specializes in fixing ALF Model “E,” “F,” “G,” and “J” V12 engines. It provides parts, sales and service, as well as the restoration of antique fire apparatus.
The V12 Shop’s primary focus began with American LaFrance V12 engines and American LaFrance 700 and 800 Series fire apparatus, but it now offers complete restoration services for all makes and models of engines and fire apparatus. In addition to engine building, it is one of the only “one stop shops” to supply rare fire truck engine parts that are no longer available over-the-counter.
As the fire apparatus industry began moving away from custom-built units and more rigs with standard or slightly modified truck engines were made, parts became a bit easier to find. In most cases, restorers are not going to run into difficulty getting engine rebuilding parts for older Ford, Chevy and Dodge engines. Studebaker parts and components for older Internationals may take a little more searching, but they are definitely out there. Veteran collectors like Keith Franz say these are the trucks younger collectors are restoring today. Which brings up the final question.
Can Your Shop Generate Fire Truck Engine Rebuilding Business?
While most firefighters are not SPAAMFAA members, many SPAAMFAA members are past or present firefighters. So, you might find some customer leads as close as the nearest firehouse. This is particularly true if the fire department in your town has a restored truck that participates in holiday parades and community activities.
Joining SPAAMFAA and advertising in the club publication Engine! Engine! is another way to attract fire truck engine rebuilding business. SPAAMFAA provides a membership roster listing everyone who belongs to the club. SPAAMFAA also has a “Resources” button on its website that lists shops that repair or restore fire trucks.
The American Truck Historical Society (www.aths.org) based in Kansas City, MO, is the nation’s largest organization dedicated to the collecting and preservation of the history of trucks. ATHS has more than 20,000 members and publishes Wheels of Time magazine that is loaded with advertising. A second truck collectors’ organization is the Antique Truck Club of America (www.antiquetruckclubofamerica.org), which has several thousand members.
Some of these companies and shops may have rebuilt fire truck engines themselves, while others may be interested in shops they can outsource work to. This industry has thrived on diversity and creative attention to new (or old) markets that may help you fan the flames of success. n