1921 LaFrance Fire Engine
(reprinted from WNYF magazine, second issue 1977)
The howling winter wind hurled giant snow flakes against the bedroom window panes as I glanced over the antique car ads in the Sunday New York Times on December morning in 1969. During many of numerous pleasant evening I spent as a regular Friday night visitor to the old Hook and Ladder Co. 4 in Manhattan, Ceaser Sandy Sansevero (Exec. Asst. to Fire Comm., then a Lieutenant in Ladder 4) and I had discussed the idea of restoring an old model A Ford. There were no listings in the paper for model As but there was a small listing for an old fire engine for sale up in Ellevenville, New York. Sandy and I had never considered restoring and old fire engine, but almost as if under a spell the phone began to ring and the voice on the other end was Sandys. He had seen the same ad and asked if I was still serious about a joint effort at restoring. We kidded each other about this being a crazy notion, but agreed to take the ride up to Ellenville just for the fun of it. A phone call to the number listed in the gave me very little information except that the rig was an American La France pumper and that it could be seen as soon as the snow cleared enough for us to get up there.
My Dad, Vin Cerullo, Sr. greeted the incredible idea of restoring an old pumper with great enthusiasm. He immediately became a part of the three man team that at his point had considered only taking a ride in the country to look at an old fire engine; nothing more. The ride up to Ellenville was filled with jokes and wild kidding about the ultimate buff who buys himself a fire engine of his own. None of us, especially our wives, gave any serious thought to the prospect of our actually buying this fire engine.
When we arrived, the snow was too deep for our children our wives to get near the old rig which stood forlorn, half covered in snow at the side of a dilapidated barn. It was just Sandy, Vin, and myself who got a close-up look.
The start of a long trip home. Invincible Hose Co. 1 is readied for the journey from its rusting place in Ellenville, N.Y. to Brooklyn where it will receive tender lovin care and restoration
THE DEAL IS MADE
I raised the rust covered hood and saw where squirrels had built a nest between the separate cylinder walls. Each of the giant six cylinders had two spark plugs, and there was an Eiseman combination magneto and coil ignition system. Brass priming cups topped each of the cylinders. Sandy was drawn to the pump and immediately declared that this was a 700 GPM rotary gear pump He said the gauges looked good and he thought they might still work. Vin was on his knees in the snow looking at the giant chains for the chain drive and announced that the old rig had mechanical brakes on the rear wheels. I gave the crank handle a pull to try to see if the engine was free. It was Sandy who called attention to the fact that all the wheels were wooden artillery wheels with solid rubber tires. In spite of the bitter cold, we devoured everything we could see on this old and battered warrior.
With our examination complete, the three of us entered into some serious planning. Never once did we even so much as ask ourselves, Should we buy this rig? It seemed as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and it just became a matter of how much we were willing to spend to get it.
Before going back to discuss the purchase price with the owner, Mr. Petingel, we agreed on specific roles that each of us would play. I was cast as the one who desperately wanted the rig, to make it clear to the seller that we were serious about the deal. Sandy portrayed the interested, but not passionately involved, partner. And Vin played the part of the hard-nosed businessman who only cared about the dollars and who just wouldnt permit us to budge one inch on our offer. The drama went on for hours, and included three very dramatic exits by both Sandy and Vin while I clung to my chair pleading with them and the seller to be reasonable. We were two thousand dollars apart on the figure, when Petingel said he could get more for scrap; then suddenly decided he would rather see the rig restored than broken up anyway. He was annoyed that he didnt get his price, but I hate to think how annoyed he would have been had he known that we had all agreed to pay whatever he asked to get the rig. I shall never forget the dead silence that came over our laughing wives in the back seat of the car when we got in and announced that we had just purchased the old fire engine that they had caught a glimpse of in the junk yard.
Back home. After a careful examination, the magnitude of the job becomes a realization. Restoration seemed like an insurmountable task when this photo was taken during the first week of repairs.
THE FIRST PROBLEM
Now that we owned it, we had to get it back home. That proved to be a major task. The risk involved in towing the rig behind a wrecker was just too great. The solid rubber tires and the unknown condition of the wheel bearings made transportation of the old pumper by flatbed truck the only feasible method. We tried, unsuccessfully, to locate a flatbed truck large enough to accommodate our rig, when two friends, Harvey and Harold Pincus, of the Model Towing Co., came to our rescue. They persuaded a firm that builds special tiltbed trucks to loan them one for a demonstration. There is some doubt that the manufacturer of the tiltbed truck knew that our idea of a demonstration included driving the truck up to Ellenville and loading on a 13,000 lb. antique fire engine.
On Sunday morning, January 10, 1970, we set out at the crack of dawn to retrieve our treasure. Harold, Harvey, and myself in the cab of the tiltbed, with Vin, Sandy, and our wives in cars behind. A gypsy caravan if ever there was one.
The first feelings of doubt about this whole adventure surfaced when we arrived at the Ellenville Scrap Iron and Metal co. yard, and I saw the look on the faces of Harvey and Harold. When we proudly led them to our rig Harold muttered something about us all being crazy, while Harvey just shook his head in utter astonishment at our finally having crossed the thin line into insanity. After a few tense moments, when it seemed as if the load was just too much for the tiltbed, we were ready for the long ride home.
It seems that there is some rule on the New York Thruway that prohibits the transportation of disabled vehicles by ay other than an authorized tow truck. At the first toll booth, the toll taker asked if the fire engine was in running condition; which, obviously, it was not. We said it was, and the man asked us to start it. Without a moments hesitation Harold swung open the truck door and jumped up to crank the handle under the radiator on the pumper. OK, Ill start her up to show you, he said as I envisioned a battalion of State Troopers hauling us and our fire engine off to court. Harold got as far as one pull of the crank handle when the toll taker laughed and said OK fellas, good luck with it.
All along the road home, passing cars blew their horns, police ad fire trucks rang their sirens, and pedestrians shouted, What is it? Exhausted, but thrilled, we reached Brooklyn by nightfall and unloaded our prize into a corner of our shop.
OUR FIRST RUN
Bright and early Monday morning, Vin and I began a careful examination of every inch of he old rig to help us decide just how we would go about the job of restoring this monster. We looked for serial numbers that might help us identify the exact year but all evidence of serial numbers had been ground away. We decided that our immediate goal was to get the engine running, and find out how the clutch and transmission were before going into further restoration. We flushed out the blackest crankcase oil I have ever seen, and refilled the engine with five gallons of heavy motor oil. The next step was to fill the radiator with water and then start her up. I started pouring water into the radiator, and almost immediately heard the sound of water pouring out of the tail pipe. Under normal circumstances this could mean only one thinga cracked block, and the end of the restoration before it had begun. For a few moments, as I broke the bad news to Vin, we both looked as if the world had suddenly come to a halt. Then as I have seen him do a hundred times in seemingly impossible situations, Vin reached for a fill of tobacco, stuffed his pipe, and as the smoke curled up past his twinkling eyes said, If the block is cracked, well stitch it like we used to do during the war when you couldnt get a new block The blood began to make its way back up from my feet and I tried again to fill up the radiator. This time I climbed up on a ladder to pour the water into the filler neck which is nearly six feet above the ground. From my new vantage point I could see that within the neck of the radiator cap there was another pipe, nearly as large as the filler neck. All the water I had thought I was pouring into the radiator was actually flowing out through this pipe directly into the exhaust pipe. This pumper, like many other pumpers, is set up so that during a pumping operation the water from the pumps can be directed into the engine cooling system to utilize the cold hydrant water for cooling the engine. A lucky break, but only the first of many to come. The fuel tank was clogged solid with a greenish mud, and the carburetor had to be cleaned out before we could get any gas to the cylinders. We rigged up a five gallon can behind the seat as a clean supply of gravity fed gasoline to the up-draft carburetor. By this time neighbors, firemen and mechanics were dropping by to see what we were up to. The word was spreading fast. One old mechanic brought us a box of AC spark plugs that were just right for our rig. He said that he had had them in his shop for thirty years. I cleaned up the points, and as a small crowd looked on I climbed up behind the wheel and turned on the ignition switch. Vin held the choke while my brother held a fire extinguisher. I hit the starter switch, fully confident that even after ten years without running, shed start.
The starter drive caught hold on the flywheel and the first turn was slow and labored. The second turn was faster, and by the third revolution I felt a spit, then a pop, and then a loud bang from the exhaust. Then all at once the engine was running, and the heart warming roar that is unique to the big American LaFrance engines filled the air. Sitting there with the broken steering wheel in my hands and the engine roaring I looked down at Vin and smiled broadly. We both knew that what we were doing was right, and that we had cleared the highest hurdle; the rig was running and singing sweet music. I jumped down and called Ladder 4 to tell Sandy the good news. He could hardly hear me with the sound of the engine roaring over the phone, but he was as thrilled as we were to know the engine was OK.
Vin dug up an old steering wheel and we put it in place that afternoon, so that by seven p.m., when Sandy got home from the firehouse, we were ready for our first run. Picture this broken down, faded and rusted old fire engine, with a plumbers nightmare hanging n the back where the hoses should have been, roaring down the street with three beaming neophytes sitting up on the crumbling front seat. It was an awful mess, but no one could have been more thrilled or more proud than each of us on that night.
Working from this original factory photo, the restoration was planned.
IDENTIFIED AS OLD 246
Once we were sure that everything was in sound mechanical shape we began the parts removal process known as bagging. Every piece as removed, marked, and stored away in bags and boxes.
The folks at American LaFrance thought our rig might be from a small town in Virginia, but the markings on the side of the hose bed and on some of the pump fittings said, Woodburne Correctional Institution. This accounted for the New York State Division of Parole crest painted on the side. A trip up to Woodburne Correctional Institution got us nowhere because the guards wouldnt even let us in the gate, much less talk to anyone about their old fire engine. A brainstorm led us to the local fire house in Woodburne, N.Y. where, typically, the firemen were eager to help us. They remembered the name and address of an old fireman who had worked at the prison, and had taken care of the rig. Alden W. Miller, Jr. had picked up the rig at the F.D.N.Y Fire School in Long Island City in 1938, and had driven it up to Woodburne himself. He spoke with great pride of conquered fires, and the amount of time he had spent with our rig.
Mr. Miller was sure our rig was originally a New York Fire Department pumper, and that encouraged us to peel off another layer of paint.
As the paint remover ate its way through the layer of faded red paint there emerged in large gold leaf letters, F.D.N.Y. 246. It only lased for a few seconds until the remover ate through the gold leaf, but it was there. This was, in fact, a New York Fire Department rig, and it had been assigned to Engine 246 in Brooklyn, just a few minutes from our shop. Sandy was especially thrilled at this news, and on his next day off he headed out for the F.D.N.Y. library, with Chief Clarence Meek, to search for the historical background of our rig. The information Sandy and Chief Meek found made it possible for the American LaFrance Co. to send us a picture taken the day the engine was completed back in 1917.
Some weeks later the N.Y. Daily News ran a little article about what we were doing and mentioned the fact that this was the first motorized apparatus used after the horses left Engine 246. Soon after the article appeared, an annoyed telephone caller asked me if I were the person who claimed I had the original rig from 246. I said I was, and invited him over to the shop to take a look for himself. Retired Fireman Billy Walsh arrived within an hour; a big man with a big cane and a stern look on his face. I had the feeling that if he didnt believe my story he had every intention of beating me over the head with his cane. He slowly looked over the rig then climbed up behind the wheel. He sat for a moment and then, through a broad smile announced that this was indeed old 246. Free of the fear I had of being beaten, I spoke to Billy for hours about the rig. He told me about the freezing cold night when the wind whipped across his face and numbed his fingers until he couldnt release his grip on the steering wheel He said it pumped like the devil but couldnt stop worth a damn. Fireman Walsh filled us in on the names and personalities of the men who served with him on this pumper, and with his stories there came a new excitement and life to the whole project. For Sandy it became a symbol of the tradition he, and men before him in the fire service, have dedicated their lives to uphold. For Vin and I, it became something more than just and old truck to repair. It became the ultimate challenge of our skill, to restore to life this relic of the days of wooden hydrants and iron men.
REFURBISHINGA DIFICULT JOB
The rig had been cannibalized over the years and there were dozens of parts to find like headlamps, fenders, fittings, brackets, hand rails, and running boards. We also needed a leather worker for the seat, a restorer to do the steering wheel, and chrome plater. I wrote hundreds of letters. We advertised week after week in every antique car parts publication I could find, and followed up even the hint of a part we could use. Sandy spent every free moment going though old brass shops and talking old firemen and buffs into giving us parts we needed. I watched him convince a mechanic in the shops to give up a tool box he had been using for nearly thirty years because it was the same as the original battery box used on our pumper. Vin drove thousands of miles to junk yards in the most remote parts of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and was chased by and equal number of watch dogs. One German shepherd in a Liberty N.Y. junk yard nearly got him. He vowed after that never to go into a junk yard without and a big stick. We bought headlamps from a man in Ohio, a motor meter from a man in Texas, and we found a steering wheel restorer in California to apply fresh wood to the steering wheel. Vin, Jr. found a leather shop in Manhattan that was able to duplicate the original leather and design for the front seat. A pipe bending firm in Gravesend Bay came up with just the right die to bend the brass tubing for the odd sized hand rails.
We built a new steel frame for the hose bed, and Sandy made a new ash wood floor for the hose bed according to the original specifications.
After hours and hours of grinding away years of rust, the chassis rails were ready for a coat of primer. Every week and broken rivet had to be replaced. We reinforced the chassis in areas where rust and time had weakened it. New mounts for the pump were made to replace the old ones that had cracked from years of heavy vibration. We went over the naked chassis inch by inch, priming as soon as we could to avoid the start of any new rust on the raw metal. The brakes were overhauled, the bearings checked, and the heavy chain drive chains were boiled in tallow and grease the way it was done years ago. The massive bronze pump was removed, overhauled, and then repainted. Slowly the emaciated frame and some of the equipment that, by the end of the next year, would transform it once again into a proud F.D.N.Y. pumper, began to take on the dignity of a coat of red paint. The months rolled on and weekend after weekend the three of us toiled, breathing red primer dust and spitting up red paint fumes. Even today there are tee-shirts still showing some of those red paint stains.
Our most critical problem at this point was the deck pipe. We knew the original had been removed and left at the Woodburne prison, but officials there would not let us have it. From American Lafrance we determined that what we were looking for was a Morse Invincible Deck Pipe, Model 1000. But where, after 55 years, do you begin to find such a thing. There seemed little chance that we would find it until, one day, Sandy and I paid a visit to an old warehouse. We were told that this warehouse might have what we were looking for. Hours of searching in a dark and dingy cellar led us to nothing but despair, until we turned to leave. There, just inside the doorway, was a dirty bit of plumbing that looked something like what we wanted. Some pipes and brackets had to be removed before we found the name plate which read: Morse Invincible Deck Pipe, Model 1000.
TROPHY LADEN & INVINCIBLE
By this time we were nearly completed with the restoration, and WPIX-TV came to the shop to make a film about what we were doing for a TV show. The day the film was made we made sure Billy Walsh rode the back step, just as he had done so many years before. In June, we were ready for our first competition. We loaded the rig, which by now sported its original design of gold leaf trim and a full set of hoses and tools, and headed for Valhalla and the Fairchester Hose Haulers annual Fire Engine muster. Our first show was a major triumph. We won three trophies and the congratulations of hundreds of fellow fire engine lovers.
In the years since we have completed most of the restoration, we have spent many wonderful hours riding in parades, helping to raise money for charities, and have even taken a volunteer fireman to his wedding. Everyone, including children, old-timers, firemen, and buffs, seem to get a special kick out of seeing old 246 in action. There is an extra special something in it for Sandy, Vin, and myself every time we crank her up and take her out for a run. This old rig is a very special part of the heritage of the New York Fire Department, especially since her contemporaries have long since laid down an died. She has refused to give up, she is invincible. Like the department from which she came, and the men who manned her, she is the best. She is INVINCIBLE HOSE CO. NO. 1!