There is an old expression that states the difference between a man and a boy is the price of his toys. In the case of Danville resident Jim Ratliff and his son, Kevin, one could also include the size of the toys.
Jim and Kevin are only the second owners of this 1947 American LaFrance fire engine. The first was the village of Algonac, Mich.. The village, located 45 miles northeast of Detroit, was 1.4 square miles, with an estimated population of about 2,000 in 1946.
"The village was very proud to buy this fire engine right after the war. American LaFrance built their fire engines in Elmira, N.Y. and they were the Rolls Royce of fire engines," Jim Ratliff said.
American LaFrance dates back to 1832 with horse- and man-drawn fire apparatus. It has gone through different owners over the years including Freightliner-Daimler, and an investment firm. A new firm was formed in 2007, but had to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2008. Later that year they emerged as an independent company headquartered in Charleston, S.C. and are again producing high quality fire engines and trucks.
Algonac paid $10,025 for their engine in 1946 which would be about $124,200 today. "The town only had $3,600 to purchase it," Ratliff said, "so American La France said they would finance it for three years at 6 percent." The plan worked out well, as the fire engine served the village as its lead fire engine from 1947 through 1980 and as the backup unit until
In 1985 the all-volunteer fire fighters of Algonac decided to completely refurbish their beloved fire engine. "They took every nut and bolt off, rebuilt it at the fire house including repainting it," Ratliff stated. "It's hard to believe that a vehicle that spent 65 years in Michigan would not have any rust, but this is the case here."
Ratliff explained this is a fire engine, not a fire truck. A fire engine is one unit while a fire truck is a two-unit vehicle, as in a hook and ladder truck. This 1947 model was the first year of this state-of-the-art engine. It has the cab of the vehicle forward of the engine, a safer design allowing the driver of the fire engine to see intersections and other hazards sooner.
This American LaFrance is powered by a V12 engine producing 192 HP, about the same HP as a four-cylinder Honda Accord. Reliability is key in fire engines so the American LaFrance-built engine has two distributors, two generators, and two spark plugs per cylinder. The engine is connected to a four-speed manual transmission that requires the driver to double clutch when changing gears.
"I haven't quite mastered the double clutching yet," Ratliff confessed.
A surprising feature is the vehicle has two odometers, one is for the miles driven, which in this case is only 19,743 in its 65-year life, and a second odometer which records engine miles, the time the engine runs to provide power for pumping water. That odometer is approximately double the mileage one.
Ratliff bought this fire engine, sight unseen, from a fire engine broker. He doesn't want to reveal his purchase price, but let's say that if one bought classic vehicles by the pound, this 16,000 pound beauty was a bargain. It was then shipped out to Danville on a low bed transport.
"When it arrived," he said, "it started right up. We have invested an additional $3,000 in spark plugs, wiring, and miscellaneous materials. We promised the fire chief of the village of Algonac that we would leave the fire engine as original as possible, which was important to him and the other volunteers."
The engine is 25 feet long, 8 ½ feet tall and 8 feet wide. It came with the full complement of equipment including 16 air or oxygen bottles, 600 feet of brand new hose, a 45-foot extension ladder, and a 14-foot roof ladder.
Ratliff pointed out some of the features. "It has the original red lights and siren plus the fire extinguishers that came with the vehicle in 1947. There is literally nothing missing from when it was new and everything still works."
The vehicle can hold 300 gallons of water plus it has the capacity of sucking up water from outside sources, like a river or lake. It can pump up to 750 gallons of water through three different hoses at the same time, all powered by the American LaFrance V12 engine.
The cab seats four fire fighters, the two up front are the driver/engineer and usually the captain rides shotgun. Seated behind them and facing backwards are seats for two more fire fighters. The back has a platform bumper designed to hold up to five more individuals who stand and apparently hang on for dear life.
Ratliff got interested in fire engines as a kid. "I was a volunteer in high school in Boulder Creek in the Santa Cruz Mountains and I just always kind of liked the stuff."
Both father and son are reserves with the San Ramon Valley fire district.
"Would you like to take a ride?" Ratliff asked. He drove me through downtown Danville in the early evening. He would toot his very loud air horn and we waved to the folks along Hartz Avenue. Most smiled and pointed. It was great.
While on the drive, Ratliff told me anyone with a Class C driver's license, that's everyone, can legally drive a fire engine like this one.
Hmmm. That got me thinking. Where could I park a fire engine?
Have an interesting vehicle? Contact David Krumboltz at MOBopoly@yahoo.com