by Jack Harrison

If there were such a thing as “frequent-freighter” miles for cargo, this New Zealand fire engine would be able to claim quite a few of them. The engine has logged enough unpowered miles to travel the 24,901-mile length of the equator… and then some!

Many people think New Zealand is part ofAustralia—its larger, more populous neighbor—but inhabitants will tell you that nothing could be farther from the truth. New Zealand is made up of many islands, with North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) and South Island (Te Waipounamu) accounting for most of the population. They lie on the rim of the South Pacific, 900 miles southeast of Australia, which is across the Tasman Sea. New Zealand is roughly the size of Ohio and has more miles of beaches than the United States’ Pacific Coast. By contrast, the country also features jagged arêtes and snows that produce many glaciers. These extremes of geology and climate have been locations for movies such as Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and Avatar.

Chief Jim Martin is retired from the Carmel (Indiana) Fire Dept. and now cares for the vintage fire equipment at the Carmel Fire Buffs museum.

Our featured 1922 Dennis engine was originally placed in service by the town of Masterton, which is situated on the North Island in the Wellington District. Masterton gets its name from Joseph Masters, who helped settle the Wairarapa region in 1854. As the town began to prosper from agriculture, organized fire suppression was needed. Masterton acquired an 1887 Shand-Mason and Co. single-cylinder steam fire engine, which the town named the “Jubilee” in honor of Queen Victoria’s 50th-year Golden Jubilee celebration. The Jubilee served in frontline service until 1925 when it was demoted to reserve status and called to pump out the occasional floodwater. The steamer was eventually retired in 1934.

The invention of reliable motorized fire apparatus and the continued prosperity of Masterton conspired to end the horse-drawn, Jubilee-style steam engine. In 1922 the New Zealand Express Co. acted as the buying agent for the Masterton Fire Board and purchased a 1922 Dennis Type N Turbine fire engine. The New Zealand Express Co. Ltd. is a freight company founded in Dunedin and still in business today. It has been responsible for shipping and acting as the agent for purchasing vehicles in New Zealand since 1867.

The Fire Brigades Act of 1906 established a system of fire boards in towns with populations of 2,000 or more. New Zealand went from groups of competing volunteer brigades to a more regimented and centralized system with established districts. The act also provided for funding the individual fire brigades from government and insurance sources. This is when folksy, local names for equipment such as Jubilee became names such as “Masterton Fire Board” engine.

From Bicycles to Fire Engines

It was a natural choice to have the freight company act as the purchasing agent since it, too, used several dependable Dennis trucks in the course of its duties. From its first fire engine, built in 1908, to its final in 2007, Dennis was known for innovation. Dennis Bros. Ltd. was founded by John and Raymond Dennis, who began making bicycles under the “Speed King” name in 1895. John Dennis started making bikes in his spare time while working for an iron manufacturer. He sold them for a profit and eventually went into business with his brother, Raymond. Their business, Universal Athletic Stores, was opened on Guilford High Street in Guilford, England, in 1895.

Unlike American fire engines, these carried dozens of rolls of hose that were deployed from the hose locker.

The brothers continued to improve and modify their bikes—adding a third (and eventually a fourth) wheel and motor in 1898. In 1901, the Dennises built their first “proper” car. While the Dennis brothers’ automobiles were successful, the market for them was small. Relatively few people could afford cars at that time, so the company began pursuing commercial truck sales. By 1905, its highly successful “15cwt” truck design outpaced cars sales and, in 1913, Dennis ceased making its automobiles. (The term “15cwt” refers to a British unit of measure called the “hundredweight” or “centum weight”—cwt, for short. A hundredweight is equivalent to about 112 pounds, so 15 cwt = 1,680 pounds. The term is often used in the way we in the U.S. refer to truck payload capacities.)

Dennis continued to expand its product line into other commercial vehicles and in 1908 built its first fire engine, which was designated the “Type N.” The Dennis brothers’ first engine went to the Bradford Fire Brigade in West Yorkshire, England. It had a 4-cylinder, 45hp engine manufactured by White and Poppe Ltd. It had a rear-mounted Gwynne turbine, centrifugal, 250gpm pump and solid rubber tires. It cost 900 British pounds and set the standard for English fire engines.

A view at the rear of the Dennis shows its wide stance and the in-line Tamini pump.

World War I gave Dennis Brothers Ltd. another boost. In 1913, the brothers sold 7,000 three-ton trucks to the British government. One reason for the success of Dennis trucks (or “lorries” to be proper) was the worm-drive rear axle, which they refined on their motorized bicycle designs. The worm-geared differential was an improvement over the common chain-drive since it was quieter, fully enclosed, self-lubricating in its own bath of gear oil, and had fewer moving parts than the endless links of a chain on many vehicles of the day.

Dennis originally supplied its engines with turbine pumps from Gwynne of London; however, Masterton’s pump was a new addition to the Dennis line. In 1921 the Dennis brothers began buying pumps from Italian designer Mario Tamini. His innovative turbine pumps were lighter and had improved performance over Gwynne pumps. The Tamini pumps also had means to prime the pump when it was dry. Older pumps required a water tank to be mounted above the pump to allow gravity to fill the pump with water.

According to the manufacturer’s spec sheet, the Masterton Fire Board engine had a No. 2 Tamini pump, which could deliver between 375 to 425 gallons per minute of water flow. While a brass operator’s placard on our featured Dennis shows a pressure of 800 gpm was possible, Tamini’s documentation shows that the pump was rated for much lower outputs. The reason for this discrepancy may be that Dennis was using a standard placard for all sizes of pumps. Power was delivered to the pump by a pto shaft, which ran from the motor at the front, through the hose locker behind the cockpit, to the Tamini pump at the rear.

According to the manufacturer, this pump could deliver between 375 and 425 gallons of water per minute.

In addition to the main pump, the 1922 Dennis had an auxiliary pump, which drafted from a 30-gallon booster tank and was pre-piped to the orange booster line on top of the engine. This was used for small fires or to hold a larger fire at bay until a supply could be established and the main pump brought online.

During its tenure, the Masterton Dennis dealt with calls consistent with a rural environment as well as an urban environment. In the hot, drier months of January and February—remember, this is the Southern Hemisphere—brush fires are a problem in parts of New Zealand, while flooding is a problem in the cold, rainy months of June, July, and August. There are several accounts of Masterton fire equipment being tasked with pumping out floodwaters. According to Gareth Winter, Wairarapa’s district archivist, the Dennis fought several large structure fires in the city of Masterton. One of the largest occurred in the early morning hours of Sept. 1, 1944. The Evening Post reported that the drapery firm of Hugo and Shearer on Queen Street was completely destroyed by fire at 5 a.m. Reports say that the building was completely engulfed when the fire brigade arrived.

The Dennis was also on duty in 1942 when two earthquakes, striking just five weeks apart, rocked the Wairarapa region. On June 24, a 7.2 magnitude quake hit, followed by nearly 200 aftershocks. On Aug. 1, a 6.8 magnitude quake shook most of New Zealand.

The 1922 Dennis persevered through fires, floods, earthquakes, and even World War II but could not overcome time and obsolescence. In 1955, this faithful engine was replaced by a 1955 Bedford MD fire engine manufactured by Vauxhall Motors (General Motors’ United Kingdom arm since 1925).

The Journey

While the 1922 Dennis certainly had a worthy firefighting career, the real story of this vintage rig is its journey around the world. The Dennis order form shows that the engine was shipped with a 30-foot telescopic ladder, three 10-foot sections of hard suction hose, a brass strainer, and portable New Zealand fire hydrants. Once Dennis order no. 4393 was complete and chassis 4463 was outfitted with the necessary kit, it made the nearly two-month sea voyage (13,300 nautical miles) through the Suez Canal from Dennis Bros. Ltd. in Guilford, England, to New Zealand. According to Gareth Winter, the Dennis served in several reserve roles with the fire brigade and was eventually sold in the 1950s to the Thomas Borthwick and Sons meat processing plant, south of Masterton.

These plates are affixed to the sides of the cylinder heads and show the pride in workmanship from 1922.

Chris Slater then purchased the British fire engine and displayed it in a large New Zealand vintage car rally in the early-1980s. During the show, a gentleman named Edwards H. Metcalf approached Slater with an interest in the engine. He purchased the Dennis and had it shipped to California. During its three-week, 5,800-nautical-mile journey, the Dennis shared a shipping container with some unusual items. According to Slater’s widow, Anne Slater, she and her husband had purchased processed sheep hides and other wool products and were instructed to pack them with the engine.

In 1987, the 65-year-old Dennis was sold to Scott Jones, currently of Carmel, Indiana. Along with other innovations, Jones is credited with inventing voicemail. Jones acquired the engine from Owls Head Transportation Museum in Owls Head, Maine, putting another 3,174 miles on its shipping log. He enjoyed the Dennis for 15 years and often drove it around his neighborhood when he lived in Prides Crossing, Massachusetts. Jones said that he nearly broke his arm a couple of times while crank starting it. To mitigate the danger to his appendages, Jones installed a starter motor. In 2004, when Jones moved to Carmel, Indiana, he donated the Dennis to the Carmel Fire Buffs and Fire Dept. Museum, which put another 1,124 miles of shipping distance on the British-built rig.

In total, the 1922 Dennis fire engine has been shipped approximately 26,279 miles. The pins in its map show Guilford, England; Masterton, New Zealand; North Hollywood, California; Owls Head, Maine; Prides Crossing (a historic section of Beverly, Massachusetts); and Carmel, Indiana.

 “The Fire Engine is on Fire!”

That is probably what Chief Jim Martin said (or yelled), as he extinguished the Dennis’ flames. Chief Martin is a retired assistant fire chief from the City of Carmel as well as a member of and the main force behind the Carmel Fire Buffs and Fire Dept. Museum. In 1989, Martin, along with 18 other Carmel firefighters, chipped in and purchased a 1953 Seagrave from Valparaiso, Indiana. The Carmel Fire Buffs have grown a collection that comprises many historical firefighting pieces. The collection currently resides in a retired Carmel firehouse in the town’s beautiful art district. Carmel’s historic downtown is the location of the annual Artomobilia, a car show that fills the streets with wheeled beauties beyond the imagination. An unrelated sightseeing trip to Artomobilia is how Vintage Fire Truck & Equipment magazine happen to become acquainted with the 1922 Dennis fire engine.

Unlike American fire engines, these carried dozens of rolls of hose that were deployed from the hose locker.

Martin recounted that, about 10 years ago, he was trying to start the Dennis in the fire museum and was having trouble getting it to turn over. The Dennis’ White and Poppe engine has an unusual feature. On the top of each cylinder there is a petcock. This can be opened to pour in a thimble-sized amount of gasoline to prime the cylinders. After trying several tries, the engine backfired and ignited gas and oil that had accumulated under the hood. The fire spread underneath the engine and to the right fender. As he attempted to extinguish the fire, Martin thought, “I’m a fire chief in a fire station, and I have just caught a fire engine on fire. This is not supposed to happen. This is like a doctor getting sick.”

Martin was able to douse the flames, but not before they ruined the paint on the elegant right front fender.

Martin had the truck repainted and striped with gold leaf as if nothing had ever happened. At some point in the engine’s past, the hood (sorry… we should probably say “bonnet”) was painted red. Dennis engines typically had unpainted bonnets because it improved heat transfer. The red enamels of the day also discolored from the high heat. The bonnets were treated with a boiling caustic cyanide solution. Today, while parts cannot be treated with those same hazardous chemicals, the look can be mimicked with a coat of Chrysler Sapphire Blue metallic paint.

Along with new paint, the fire buffs installed a new radiator and electric fan behind the original aluminum Dennis radiator. The original radiator has been subjected to thousands of heating and cooling cycles in 93 years. It has developed many unseen holes and stress cracks. One day, Martin hopes to properly fix the original radiator, if that is even possible.

A Ford Model T trembler coil has replaced the original unit in the Dennis. According to Martin, the coil, which provides a constant stream of sparks to the cylinders when starting, is switched on for the crank start process. The coil is contained in the wooden box mounted on the dash (or “scuttle”). When activated, the coil produces a humming sound as it supplies spark to the cylinders. When the engine ignites, the magnetos are switched on and the coil is turned off. Before the starter motor was installed, the trembler would have provided a small measure of safety when trying to hand-crank the engine.

Vintage Fire Truck & Equipment magazine would like to thank the Carmel Fire Buffs for preserving such a great piece of firefighting history. We would especially like to thank Chief Jim Martin for answering questions and for the trouble he went through for the photo shoot. VFT&E owes thanks to Gareth Winter, district archivist of the Wairarapa Archive in Masterton, New Zealand. His knowledge and sense of humor were invaluable.

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