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So you want to restore a fire truck

A perfectly restored fire truck is the envy of many a fire departments, here's what you need to know to take an old rig from rust bucket to beauty queen


Every day it seems we hear about the traditions and culture of the fire service; usually what we hear is making changes to both. Change, for the right reasons, is good and I've been known to be a change agent a time or two. 

There is, however, one thing about the fire service that's not bound to change any time soon, and that's the love firefighters have for their fire trucks.

Tom Herman is one man keeping that tradition alive. He is a retired member of the Richmond (Va.) Fire Department who was bitten by the restoration bug in 1974.

Herman was at a Ford dealership waiting on his car to be fixed when he picked up a copy of a magazine, "Ford Times." On 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," said Herman.

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, twice-added-on-to barn on his property about 20 miles west of Petersburg, Va.

"People don't realize how inexpensive it is to buy these old fire trucks, he said. "I purchased my first piece for $250 at auction. 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."

So maybe there are more out there who want to save these treasures of a fire service long gone who are hesitant to jump into the great unknown if apparatus restoration. I asked Herman what advice he had for someone interested in buying and restoring old fire apparatus.

Here's that conversation.

FR1: What's the first step?

Herman: I highly recommend joining the national organization (Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America) as well as their regional chapter if there is one (there are currently 55 regional chapters). 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.

What is a restoration?

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. 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.

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 LaFrance is easily $20,000 to 30,000.

What are some things it makes more sense to hire someone?

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

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 may even donate the work. Body work, metal fabrication, upholstery, wiring, gold leaf are some examples.

That's a lot of cash. What kind of fundraising options have you seen 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.

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 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 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 not attempt to start without draining the excess oil from the engine, refilling the cooling system, etc.

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