In 1936 the Seagrave Corporation, building some of Americas finest fire engines in Columbus, Ohio, added a so-called Safety Sedan to its year-old line of Sweetheart series trucks, whose nickname was derived from their sleekly-raked, valentine-shaped grilles. Officially designated the Model JW-440T, this fully-enclosed, van-style pumper marked a real advance from earlier apparatus where the firefighters usually rode outside on the running boards, braving the elements – an especially unpleasant ordeal if one was returning from a fire soaking wet – and, all too often, enduring injury or death if a pothole, trolley track or accident threw them off the vehicle.
The City of Detroit, where Frederic Scott Seagrave founded his firm in 1881 before moving south to a bigger plant facilities a decade later, placed a total of four Safety Sedans into service during the models first year on the market. The wisdom of this purchase was confirmed within a month, when the unit assigned to Engine Company No. 1 was accidentally broadsided by High Pressure Hose Company 1s 1922 Ahrens-Fox J-13 as both rigs rushed to a fire. While the nearly-new truck rolled over, its sturdy wooden roof protected the crew from harm, while four men riding on the older, open Ahrens-Fox were seriously hurt (that engine, nevertheless, remained on the roster until 1972, serving most of its fifty-year tenure as a fireboat tender). Under the circumstances, its really no surprise that the Detroit Fire Department ultimately purchased 67 of the 91 Seagrave Safety Sedans – further strengthened by the addition of an all-steel body in 1938 – constructed through 1967.
Given the models central role in departmental history, it is also no surprise that the Detroit Firemens Fund Association, Organized March 16, 1866 For The Relief of Disabled Firefighters, would try to secure one as the basis for a full-time, classic style hearse for transporting fallen comrades. When a firefighter dies in the line of duty, they are traditionally carried to their final resting place on a piece of fire apparatus, explains Edward S. Veda, President of the Detroit Firemens Fund. Due to budget and logistic issues, however, this custom is in danger of disappearing. To handle a line-of-duty funeral, you usually have to take an active rig out of service. In a small town, that essentially shuts the fire department down, and its also an issue in bigger cities if the firefighter being honored lived far away from where he served. On top of this, contemporary fire trucks are so tall, on average, that loading a casket can be difficult and awkward-looking. A Seagrave Safety Sedan is ideal for use as a hearse, because its fully-enclosed, low-to-the-ground, and the pallbearers can ride inside, Veda adds. It loans itself to formality.
The search for a suitable example began in earnest in March, 2001, not long after Detroit firefighter Steve Olander died in the line of duty and the modern engine used for his funeral proved inappropriately large. We had our work cut out for us, Ladder 28 Sargeant Arnie Nowicki recalls in his capacity as the Detroit Firemens Fund Trustee coordinating the project. The Safety Sedan is a hot model among fire apparatus collectors, and even though it was built for more than thirty years theres less than ten of them left. Fortunately, local members of the Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus were all-too-happy to assist with inquiries, reaching out to fellow hobbyists and fire departments across the country and placing numerous wanted notices on the Internet and in the SPAAMFA magazine Enjine, Enjine! Our big break, Nowicki continues, came when I went to a fire buff meeting in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where I met a man from Frankenmuth named Mike Adams, who had a 1936 Safety Sedan that was damaged by a tornado. Volunteering his own rig as a parts car for the project, Adams provided Nowicki with a phone number directing him to an essentially similar 1937 model owned by Jimmie Dobson, a 75-year-old trucking company owner in Bay City, Michigan whose 105-unit fire apparatus collection is one of the largest in the world. Once we did more research, Nowicki adds, we really knew we would be getting something ideal for funeral work, because 1936 and 1937 were the only years that Detroit Fire Department trucks had black roofs. Its also ironic that the escutcheons, or collar medallions, worn by the Citys FEOs (Fire Engine Operators) happen to depict a 1936-7 Seagrave Safety Sedan.
Originally purchased for $13,000 and placed into service on July 1st, 1937, the Seagrave Dobson donated to the Detroit Firemens Fund Association in March, 2004 had spent most of its life with Engine Company 13 in the Boston-Edison district, an area of Detroit where many auto barons lived as it was situated halfway between the Ford Motor Companys home in Dearborn and the Dodge Main plant in Hamtramck. Designating it an X-rig or extra apparatus after removing it front-line service on July 20th, 1967, the Department sold the truck at auction on October 13th, 1972, with the high bid of $503.21 tendered by Dr. Frank Parsells of the William Lyon Phelps Foundation Museum in upstate Huron City. It is reputed that the truck was purchased to provide fire protection for a nearby island, though this would have proved unworkable as the vehicle, while capable of pumping a thousand gallons-per-minute, carried no water of its own, so off it went to Jimmie Dobson in exchange for $3,500 on October 28th, 1982.
Left outside and exposed to the elements in Bay City for nearly twenty years, the Seagrave will need lots of work before its ready for funeral service, but Nowicki reports that nearly $70,000 has been raised towards the restoration and there are a lot of people who want to help. Box 42, a Detroit area fire buff association, will be doing a lot of the grunt work like clean-up, disassembly and parts hunting. Their current president, a Chatham, Ontario resident named Doug Arbour, will be taking care of the special hearse fitments. Tri-Country Auto, located on Eight Mile Road in Warren, Michigan, is donating custom paintwork. Ken Soderbeck of Hand-in-Hand Restoration in Jackson, Michigan, known nationwide for his work restoring antique fire trucks and a horse-drawn fire wagon that was used for the funerals of firefighters killed in the September 11th terrorist attacks, will work on the body construction, golf leafing and lettering. Matt Lee, a transmission manual writer for Ford who also written several Seagrave restoration guides, will be making sure that the tools, fire extinguishers and ladders fitted to the body are proper to the original year of manufacture, and students in the custom car program at Washtenaw Community College in Ypsilanti will also be assisting us. Celebrity enthusiasts have also been eager to offer their support, Nowicki notes: After someone let him know about the project, Jay Leno sent tickets to The Tonight Show to use as fundraisers. Lindsay Hunter of the Detroit Pistons, who owns a company called Custom Car Concepts in Sterling Heights, Michigan, is donating interior work and a public address system, so no one will have to raise their voice at the gravesite service.
One of the projects biggest benefactors is DaimlerChrysler, which donated $25,000 of its own, raised another $13,000 through a fill the boot campaign at its 2005 Detroit auto show media hospitality suite (situated, appropriately, in a 1929 firehouse across the street from Cobo Hall) and sent body men from its American LaFrance subsidiary in Casper, Wyoming to help with the restoration (Seagrave, acquired by the Four Wheel Drive Corporation of Clintonville, Wisconsin in 1963 and still in business today, was not equipped to do the work anymore). DaimlerChryslers Freightliner truck affiliate has also provided, at cost, a brand new MT-45 walk-in van chassis featuring a 4.3 litre Mercedes-Benz turbo-diesel engine making 170 hp and 420 foot-pounds of torque, an Alison 1000P automatic transmission, Bosch four-wheel hydraulic disc brakes and a 14,800-pound Gross Vehicle Weight Rating. Nowicki explains that this modern platform is being used because many of the original mechanical parts are no longer available and we wanted the truck to be governed for a top speed of 70 mph, so it is capable of handling highways at the posted limit. The original V-12 engine (a 900 cubic-inch block based on Pierce-Arrow designs that Seagrave kept in production, with improvements, for nearly three decades) was governed for 45 mph, but you could see that speed only if you stood on the gas pedal and had a miles running start. Since the original wood frame would swell, shrink and damage the finished vehicles paintwork, a new body structure will also be fabricated out of stainless steel and aluminum.
Most of the restoration will take place at R&R Fire Truck Repair, an American-LaFrance service and parts center located 20 minutes west of Detroit in Northville, Michigan. Company V.P. Rick Rosselle, who has also served as a Northville Township firefighter for 28 years, estimates that probably 20 to 30 people, maybe more, will be working on it. As we have to focus on active service rigs during business hours, most of the work will probably take place on evenings and weekends, and the project will hopefully be finished by the fall depending on how many setbacks we have. The bodys pretty rough, but theres a lot of talent involved, so I think it will go pretty well – between the guys we got here and the guys that Arnies gotten together, well get it together. Once the job is completed, the Detroit Firemens Fund will offer use of the Seagrave Safety Sedan free-of-charge upon request to any fire department in the state of Michigan (and likely a little beyond) that experiences a line-of-duty death; while the exterior will have permanent Detroit Fire Department lettering, magnetic signs or adhesive letters (produced overnight, if necessary) will be used to tailor the rig to the community where it will be used for funeral services. While you hope that no one dies in the line of duty, Roselle adds, the family will at least know that someone cares if it happens. This is something that needed to be done, and something that shows the true colors of fire service – that were all one big family.
Two major aspects of the restoration where donors are still being sought include the refurbishment of the instrument panel gauges (which will retain their original faces) and the fitment of a GPS system that will make it easier for the trucks operators to make the traditional ride past the fire station where the deceased served. Donations to the Fallen Firefighters Memorial Rig Project can be made to Detroit Firemen’s Fund Association, Fire Department Headquarters, 250 West Larned Street, Suite 202, Detroit, Michigan 48826-9990. As the Fund is 501C-3 charitable organization, all donations are tax deductible. Further information is available by calling (877) 961-2988 toll free or (313) 961-2988 local, or by logging onto www.detroitfiremensfund.com.