By Jack Harrison
Bellevue, Kentucky, a river town located across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, was incorporated March 15, 1870, with a population of 400 residents. Bellevue is land- and river-locked, with Newport, Kentucky, to its west; Dayton, Kentucky, to its east; and Fort Thomas, Kentucky, to the south.
Bellevue had austere beginnings, but it grew quickly from the prosperity of the river region. With the town in need of fire protection, the Peerless Fire Co. was created with 30 or so volunteers. It used the city’s first piece of firefighting equipment—a hand-drawn “hose and reel”—and was housed near Center Street and Lafayette Avenue.
As time went on, Bellevue’s three fire companies—Peerless, Summit, and Centers—organized into the Bellevue Volunteer Fire Dept. On May 15, 1873, the city council bought the first piece of horse-drawn fire equipment from Babcock Fire Extinguisher Co. for $640, horse not included.
From Horseless Horse-Drawn to Horseless Fox
In 1918, after many years of fighting fires with horse-drawn fire equipment, it was time for an upgrade. In the spring of 1918, Bellevue printed a legal notice in a local newspaper seeking bids for a motorized piece of fire equipment. The request called for “one motor-driven, combination fire truck and necessary equipment.” The rig was “to have not less than a 4-cylinder motor with an A.L.A.M. rating of approximately 54 to 55hp, body to have capacity to carry 1,200 feet of 2-1/2-inch standard fire hose.” (See sidebar for more on the A.L.A.M.)
This might sound like a typical bidding process for a large piece of equipment, but research indicates that Cincinnati-based Ahrens-Fox was predestined to win the bid process. At a city council meeting, a motion had been made and passed earlier to allow a representative, most likely Ahrens-Fox cofounder John Ahrens, to demonstrate its pumper on Saturday, Jan. 17, 1918 (before the beginning of the bid process). The town of Bellevue had probably decided to buy an Ahrens-Fox and wrote the bid process toward that goal. Nearly a month later, on Feb. 14, 1918, Mayor J.L. Winters and the city council adopted an ordinance allowing the city to sell bonds for the purchase of a fire truck for the sum of $7,000. That amount is equivalent to $122,000 in today’s spending power. Then, in March, the city printed the legal notice to seek bids for a fire truck with specifications that seemed to match curiously well with an Ahrens-Fox, right down to the A.L.A.M. horsepower range.
American LaFrance submitted a comparable bid, but it was $500 higher and fell a few points short of the required horsepower rating. Citing cost, performance, and “stability in the contract,” Bellevue selected Ahrens-Fox to craft its first motorized piece of fire apparatus. On Nov. 2, 1918, Ahrens-Fox shipped this one-of-a-kind K-34 combination pumper (registration no. 690) across the river to Bellevue. A week and a half later, the K-34 was in service as Engine No. 2 in the Garfield building, sharing quarters with the post office. The Fox would go on to provide Bellevue 22 years of faithful duty.
To someone not familiar with Ahrens-Fox nomenclature, the designation of models seems haphazard. The company created a system of identifying models but would depart from that to designate a model that did not quite fit. From 1915 to 1926, Ahrens-Fox built “K” models, which were powered by Ahrens-Fox 4-cylinder engines. While the later “RK” models also had 4-cylinder engines, the “MK” models did not. The number designations were more uniform. The last digit in the name—a 2, 3, or 4—identified the equipment the pumper carried. The Bellevue K-34 pumper had a pump, a hose bed to carry 1,250 feet of 2-1/2-inch standard hose, and a 60-gallon booster tank; therefore, it was designated “4.” The K-34 also had a 200-foot hose reel at the rear bumper. The “3” refers to the customized, rotary-gear pump.
Mystery No. 1
The most distinguishing characteristic of Ahrens-Fox apparatus manufactured from 1915 to 1952 is the large, polished, nickel-plated pressure dome. The prominent dome was an air chamber designed to smooth out rapid changes in the pressure of the piston pump, which would have been transmitted through the hose to the hapless nozzle man.
Our featured Ahrens-Fox K-34 pumper is unique in that it had neither the dome nor a piston pump. Instead, the K-34 was built with a 500gpm, rotary-gear, 2-speed pump mounted ahead of the truck’s grille. The theory is that Bellevue wanted an Ahrens-Fox but could not afford the piston pump. Later models also used rotary-gear pumps, but they were mounted amidships—usually behind the driver’s seat—not displayed out front like plumbing art. Records on the front-mounted rotary gear pump are scarce. It is not known for sure who manufactured the pump. Another Ahrens-Fox, a K-11, had a front-mounted rotary-gear pump manufactured by the Northern Fire Apparatus Co. (later Northern Pump Co.), but it had little resemblance to the K-34 pump. The contenders for the manufacturer of the K-34 pump are: White, Stutz, and Northern. According to John Sytsma’s book, Ahrens-Fox Album, Ahrens-Fox did manufacture a rotary gear pump in 1926. Also, Charles P. Fox received a patent for a booster/rotary pump design. (The patent was not applied for until 1932.) The June 28, 1918, Ahrens-Fox build sheet indicates the company ordered a “special rotary pump” from somewhere, as well as special packing from Garlock Packing Co. during construction. The only identifying information that has been found is a possible pump serial number (34385) on an Ahrens-Fox parts order form.
Aside from the unusual and mysterious pump, our featured Engine No. 2 was a standard “K” model. As specified by Bellevue’s bid notice, it had a 4-cylinder engine—the Ahrens-Fox-built T-head engine (no. 281) with a 5-7/8-inch bore and a 7-inch stroke. The engine developed 80 brake horsepower and met the A.L.A.M. spec almost perfectly with a rating of 55.22hp. The truck could reach a top speed of 30 mph and had a wheelbase of 156 inches.
The engine was brought to life with a Delco System comprising a motor-generator bolted to the crankcase and a flywheel that was engaged by pressing a floor-mounted foot pedal. Once the engine started, the Delco System switched to act as a generator to recharge the battery and provide power for the headlights, warning lights, taillight, dash lights, and siren.
Engine power was transferred to the 3-speed Ahrens-Fox transmission by a “cone-type” clutch. The K-34’s original wooden wheels were artillery type “of sound, seasoned stock” made by the Hoopes Bros. & Darlington of West Chester, Pennsylvania. The hubs were Timken’s popular tapered roller bearing design. The tires were specified to be Firestone, Goodyear, or another standard type and were made of spine-jarring solid rubber. The front wheels were 36×4-inchers, while the rears wore dual 36×3-1/2-inch tires.
Bell, searchlight, and tools were all consistent with a K-model Ahrens-Fox, but with one glaring alteration that reminds us of the Bellevue rig’s uniqueness. The standard “K” had the more powerful piston pump, which could pump 750 gallons per minute. The K-34 had a smaller pump, which could pump only 500 gallons per minute. The pump had limitations on how much water it could draft (suck in) and what distance it could be from the open water source. Remember, this was 1918 and there was not a fire hydrant every 500 feet. Often the pumper was responsible for finding a pond or stream to supply water for firefighting operations. Since the K-34 pump was less powerful, the two sections of hard suction had to be shorter and smaller in diameter so the pump could lift the column of water.
On a traditional K-model, the hard suction hoses are 10 feet long and 4-1/2 inches in diameter; however, on our featured rig the hard suction hoses are 9 feet long and 4 inches in diameter.
Mystery No. 2
It is assumed the K-34 performed valiantly during its service life, as any Ahrens-Fox did. Records suggest the K-34 might have been involved in a crash. The documentation for this lies in an inventory sheet dated Jan. 27, 1927, that was compiled by an Ahrens-Fox employee. The sheet seems to inventory items damaged or repaired on the rig. For instance, it records replacement of one headlight, one taillight, one city council plaque, one bell, etc. Some of those parts were absent from the rig when it left service. There is also a notation explaining that the hand-crank for the engine could not be remounted on the running board, but instead had to be carried in the pumper. Analyzing photographs, it seems that the tool box on the driver’s side was pushed back, eliminating the space for the hand crank.
Additional alterations to the K-34 were made. The spoke wheels and solid tires were replaced with steel spoke wheels and pneumatic tires. The bar that runs in front of the radiator and connects the headlights was added. The two 9-foot hard suction hoses were removed and replaced with a rather odd-looking, 30-foot and 3-inch “squirrel tail.” A squirrel tail is a long section of hard suction that is draped along the side of the pumper. Many times it is connected to the steamer/inlet supply fitting on the pump. It allowed for quick deployment of the suction hose into an open water source. It is called a squirrel tail because that’s what it looks like. Often squirrels wrap their tails around themselves in a fashion similar to the way Ahrens-Fox draped its squirrel tails. The final indignity the K-34 suffered was the removal of its name, “J.L. Winters,” in favor of “B. F. D.” The true reason for these changes is not known.
Restoration No. 1
After 22 years of service, the 1918 Ahrens-Fox K-34 was traded back to Ahrens-Fox on a 1940 Model EC centrifugal pump. Ahrens-Fox then sold the ex-Bellevue pumper to Worthville, Kentucky. Fifteen years later, in 1965, Worthville sold the K-34 to Walton, Kentucky, where it was reportedly used mainly as a backup piece of equipment. In 1985, Walton needed money to buy a new rig. After several attempts to sell the 1918 Ahrens-Fox, it sold on June 15, 1985, to John “Chip” Lytle III for $8000.
Sixty-seven years of use and abuse had taken their toll on the old pumper. The body, especially the fenders, had suffered damage. The pumper had been repainted at least once, which covered the beautiful gold leaf. Lytle stated that the pump and gold leaf eagle on the pressure cylinder had received a “back woods chrome job” using silver paint and a brush. The starter motor did not work, and the rig had to be pulled and the clutch popped to get it running. The bell, extinguishers, tools, hoses, ladders, lanterns, and an ignition key were missing. Everything needed something.
Lytle set about disassembling the pumper and had everything sandblasted. The T-head engine was rebuilt and repainted. With the help of Mike and Tom Schrand, the body was repaired, including removal of the hardware that held the squirrel tail supply hose in place. The rig was repainted just the way it had been when Bellevue took delivery, minus a few details. At the time of Lytle’s restoration, there were no original photos available showing “J.L. Winters” on the hood. Lytle hired Ken Soderbeck to gold leaf the rig.
Restoration No. 2
The theft of a commercial heating and cooling system caused the K-34 to change hands yet again. Lytle owned a building from which two furnaces and two air conditioners were stolen. Lytle’s friend Mark Radtke owned a commercial heating and air conditioning company, so the two came to an agreement. Radtke would replace the HVAC units in exchange for the K-34.
Radtke agrees that Lytle had restored the K-34 to about 80 percent of its original condition; however, the last 20 percent of a restoration can cost the most and take the greatest amount of time. Radtke embarked on a 3-year restoration that would cost in the tens of thousands of dollars and would finally return the K-34 to its full glory. The rig that Radtke got in the deal looked great, but as Radtke reminded us, “The devil is in the details.”
The radiator was functionally a sieve, requiring a new Fiat-style core. The radiator housing was replaced with German silver, which, we should explain, contains no actual silver. German silver is an alloy of copper, nickel, and tin that mimics a silver finish. It is hard and corrosion resistant. Brassworks in California completed that job at a cost of more than $9,000.
To replace the long-lost ladders, Radtke borrowed examples from an Ahrens-Fox in the Greater Cincinnati Fire Museum and had Okeana Hardwoods manufacture exact copies (including all the hardware) for $2,600. The mysterious pump was rebuilt and placed back in service. Radtke had to have new hard suction and chemical hose made at a cost of $1,500. The K-34 was missing a hubcap, so the design was reverse-engineered, and two new hubcaps were machined (might as well have a spare) for $1,400. Radtke expressed frustration at the effort that went into getting a replacement searchlight and having new parts remanufactured. New canvas mud splashes cost $1,000. Radtke also had to have many pieces recast, including a new city council plate, brackets, fittings, and a strainer that had disappeared over the years. The giant list also includes a plating bill of nearly $15,000. The devil is in the details.
Radtke does not see the Ahrens-Fox K-34 as his rig. Like many collectors, he realizes that he is the merely the caretaker until he passes it on to the next caretaker. While it has been in his care, he has shared this unique gem with the community. Radtke travels long distances to fire musters and pumps with it whenever he can. He is only too happy to give rides and wake up the neighborhood with the siren and bell as he speeds down the road. He has delivered brides to the altar and carried happy couples away from their nuptials. On a more somber note, the K-34 has even taken firefighters on their last run to the grave. While we may always ponder many things about the solitary K-34, we will never question the pride associated with all Ahrens-Fox fire apparatus.
Vintage Fire Truck & Equipment magazine would like to thank owner Mark Radtke for tolerating three different photo shoots. Thanks for research help goes to Mary Scott, city clerk and treasurer of Bellevue, Kentucky, who researched and looked through the old city ordinances to answer endless questions; and Chip Lytle, the first collector and savior of the K-34.