An Inside Look at Restoring Vintage Fire Apparatus

Nothing turns a head faster than a pristine old fire truck, but taking it from a heap of metal to parade beauty queen takes planning, cash and hard work

This feature is part of our new Fire Chief Digital Edition, a quarterly supplement to that brings a sharpened focus to some of the most challenging topics facing fire chiefs and fire service leaders everywhere. To read all of the articles included in the Summer 2016 issue, click here.

By Robert Avsec

Every day it seems we hear about the traditions and culture of the fire service, and usually what we hear is in the context of making changes to both. Change, for the right reasons, is good. There is, however, one thing about the fire service that’s not bound to change anytime soon, and that’s the love between firefighters and their fire trucks.

One of the largest organizations dedicated to safeguarding the proud history of firefighting apparatus is the Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America (SPAAMFAA). Through its 60 member chapters in 31 states, SPAAMFAA provides education to both the public and its membership in the preservation, restoration and proper and safe operation of firefighting apparatus, equipment and memorabilia of the past.

The Hall of Flame Fire Museum and the National Firefighting Hall of Heroes in Phoenix has almost an acre of fire history exhibits, with over 90 fully restored pieces of fire apparatus on display, dating from 1725 to 1969. Most of the exhibits are American, but the Hall also has pieces from England, France, Austria, Germany and Japan.

Texans like to say that “everything is bigger in Texas,” and the Texas Fire Museum (TFM) measures up. In addition to over 60 antique fire vehicles that showcase a century of fire service history, the museum displays over 500 examples of vintage firefighting equipment and tools. They also operate the world’s largest collection of warning signals, including rotating beacons, flashing lights and sirens. But it is more than just a museum, as it is also one of the few working museums in the nation with comprehensive capabilities to maintain, repair and restore historic fire apparatus. The museum occupies the former Dallas Fire Department Maintenance Facility in west Dallas. Together, the TFM comprises a 125,708 square foot complex of exhibition halls, offices and shops.

The really cool thing is that organizations like SPAAMFAA and the Texas Fire Museum welcome your membership regardless of whether you own a piece of historic fire apparatus. TFM in particular relies heavily on volunteers, as it needs docents, speakers, editors, writers, photographers, artists, history buffs, enthusiasts, web gurus and administrators. Docents are volunteers who’ve completed training to provide educational outreach programs in the community and guided tours of the museum. Volunteer members of the TFM also provide all the facility maintenance for the 75-year-old museum under the guidance of a facility director. Maintenance volunteers work on building systems, keep the brass fittings polished and shining and take care of all the duties required to keep the museum in tip-top shape.

How one collector got his start 

Tom Herman is a retired member of the Richmond, Virginia, Fire Department who was bitten by the restoration bug in 1974.

“I was watching the Fireman’s Muster Competition on ABC’s ‘Wide World of Sports,’ and it really got my attention,” Herman said. Later, Herman found himself at a Ford dealership waiting for his car to be fixed when he picked up a copy of a magazine, Ford Times, in which the cover story was about the New York State Fireman’s Musters.

“My wife and I went to a muster that next summer in Syracuse, New York, and that’s where I first talked to anyone about buying a fire truck and fixing it up,” he said. Today, Herman owns 20 pieces of antique fire apparatus that he’s restored. He keeps them safe and secure in his 10,000-square-foot barn that he’s twice added on to in western Chesterfield County, Virginia — about 18 miles west of Petersburg — and he says this hobby is less costly than you might think — at least the initial purchase.

“People don’t realize how inexpensive it is to buy these old fire trucks. I purchased my first piece for $250 at auction,” he said. “There are way more trucks available for purchase and restoration than there are people to buy them. About 90 percent of old fire apparatus is going to wind up in the salvage yard, not in somebody’s garage or barn.”

I asked Herman what advice he had for someone who’s interested in buying and restoring an old piece of fire apparatus.

“I highly recommend joining the national organization SPAAMFA, as well as their regional chapter if there is one,” Herman said. “That’s where you’re going to meet people and find information to help you locate apparatus and make smart buying decisions. Collecting fire apparatus is just like collecting cars — there are good people, and there are not-so-good people who will take advantage of a rookie buyer.”

Here’s a question-and-answer session I had with Herman about restoring fire apparatus:

Fire Chief: What is a restoration?

Tom Herman: First let’s get a clear understanding of the word “restore,” as the word seems to be thrown around pretty loosely. Restore means to totally disassemble the vehicle right down to the frame rails with every single part being inspected and put back into new condition. When all is reassembled, the vehicle will appear and operate exactly as it was when originally placed on the firehouse floor, ready to respond to calls. This is the part most people just do not understand.

So if a vehicle is not restored, what is it? 

Repainting a vehicle is not a restoration. I see fire trucks all the time that are advertised as fully restored and they are no more restored than the man in the moon. When I ask if it will pump, they look startled and say that does not matter because it looks pretty. They painted it the wrong color, the gold leaf is not gold leaf — it’s gold paint or some kind of sticker, all the equipment is missing, etc. When I ask about photos of the engine rebuild, there are none, because “it seemed to be running OK, so we didn’t do anything with the engine.”

The intent (of a restoration) is to represent a time period in history to show the public how it was back in the day. Technical correctness is very important to accomplish this mission.

FC: What’s a ballpark cost to restore an antique? 

Ballpark cost to restore can range from $100,000 to $250,000; there are many, many variables. What is the age of the vehicle? What is the condition of the vehicle? How complete is the vehicle? Will you have to acquire a second matching vehicle for parts, etc. Nickel or chrome plating alone for a 1920s vintage rig such as an American La France is easily $20,000 to $30,000.

How does the cost and time to completion change when looking at doing it in house versus hiring a professional company?

A professional restoration business typically charges $40 up to $75 per hour. A vehicle restoration done right can easily be 2,000 to 3,000 hours or more.

That’s a lot of cash. What kind of fundraising options to pay for the restoration have you seen or heard of in your travels?

Fundraising for antique fire apparatus is all over the board. I know of one department where an elderly woman paid for the entire restoration because it was the truck her husband had ridden on for many years. Another department publicized a fund drive for the restoration on local television news channels and newspapers and a local business stepped up out of the blue and donated the entire cost. There is a possibility of some grant funds being available, especially if the vehicle will be used in the department’s fire prevention programs.

What do insurance costs look like for one of these beauties?

Insurance can be acquired through insurance companies that specialize in antique vehicle insurance at a reasonable cost. Agreed-value policies are available that set the amount of coverage to be paid in the event of total loss. Insurance on a vehicle valued at $55,000 will cost about $200 per year. Most departments add the antique to their existing vehicle policy, but that usually costs more than dealing with an antique insurance provider strictly for the restored piece of apparatus. It pays to shop around.

Assuming the department has some in-house talent, what are some things it makes more sense to hire someone to do, for example, painting, transmission work, body work, etc.?

The one thing that cannot typically be done in house is plating work (nickel or chrome). Everything else may possibly be done in house, depending on talents that are available. If not in house, maybe there is a business that can provide some of the needed service locally and even donate the work. Body work, metal fabrication, upholstery, wiring and gold leaf are some examples.

Once the truck is done, what advice do you have for keeping it pristine?

Before taking on restoring a fire truck, thought must be given to where it will be kept when done. Once the truck is done, keeping it in the working bays of the station is not normally a good idea. However, if that is the only place available, it should at least be roped off to prevent bumps or scrapes.

I’m familiar with one department that keeps their 1929 Seagraves in a fire station bay inside of a clear plastic inflatable bubble made for just that purpose. They love it because school groups of children can see the truck, and it eliminates the question, “Can I sit on it?” It also eliminates hands and dust coming in contact with it. The fan that inflates the bubble keeps air moving around it so there is never a moisture problem affecting metal parts. The bubble unzips, lays flat and they can drive the rig right out of the bay for use and then just back it right back in, zip it up and turn the fan on.

I’ve seen other departments that have an enclosed trailer that not only provides garage space but the vehicle is ready to travel to various events at any time. The advantage to a trailer is the vehicle is under lock and key and access can be better controlled.

How does it differ if the vehicle is not meant to be driven and just displayed?

If, unfortunately, the vehicle is not intended to be driven and only put on static display for a long time (years), it should be jacked up and placed on jack stands. The entire fuel system should be totally purged, the cooling system totally drained, the engine completely filled with oil, and the battery removed. A tag should be attached to the steering wheel noting what was done so that years down the road, if they should decide to run it again, they will know what was done and to not attempt to start without draining the excess oil from the engine, refilling the cooling system, etc. 

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy.

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