By James Lingg, Photos by George Kirkham
George Kirkham owns Southland International Truck Ltd., which is in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. The company sells and services large medium- and severe-duty trucks with a specialty in Navistar International Corp. products. It is obvious to any who knows Kirkham that he likes his job, but his passion is oldinternationaltrucks.ca, the successful web-based company he started. On this site is everything from A to Z to assist with IH truck restoration projects. The site is also a way for Kirkham to share his massive collection of IH trucks with fans, including our featured 1975 IH Pierce Mustang mini-pumper.
International Harvester was strictly a tractor and agriculture company when founded in 1902 by J.P. Morgan, a titan in the world of United States finance and investing. Morgan smartly merged McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. and Deering Harvester Co., along with the much smaller Milwaukee Harvesting Machine Co., Plano Mfg. Co. and Warder, Bushnell, and Glasser Co. to form the International Harvester Co.
IH started building trucks in 1907, excelling in a very tough marketplace that had many established competitors and seemingly more joining every day. Horses were still the preferred method of getting engines and trucks to the fires in the big cities, and would be for another decade, but chief officers were already seeing the value in motorized vehicles and making the switch from horse-drawn buggies to vehicles. Coal, straw, hay, and feed still needed to be hauled to the firehouses, and horses were expensive to own and maintain. Soon IH trucks were hauling the departments’ necessities to the houses.
For decades, IH enjoyed a strong, competitive product line. Names like Farmall and Cub Cadet were known by everyone, and manufacturers needing a truck chassis did not need to look further than IH. IH would be a top contender for tractors and trucks for years, but like all good things, this market dominance came to an end. While sales remained strong, economic factors and the struggle between labor and management were taking their toll on the company. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the company was strained to the breaking point. A protracted strike by company workers sealed the doom of IH. Tenneco and subsidiary J.I. Case Co. bought the agriculture side of the business. The world-famous IH symbol and the name “International Harvester” were included in the sale.
International trucks and engines were not part of the sale, and in 1986, IH trucks were rebranded “Navistar International.” Today, Navistar International is a worldwide company that builds trucks, buses, and probably most famously, the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) military vehicle.
Evolution of the Mini-Pumper
Walter McCall, the godfather of photographing and documenting American fire truck history, wrote in his must-have book American Fire Engines since 1900 under the section for model year 1971, “A new type of pumper was beginning to find favor with urban fire departments. The small ‘Attack Pumper’ could thread its way through congested streets and extinguish small fires, saving wear and tear on heavier, more specialized apparatus.” Pictured above the caption was Philadelphia Fire Dept.’s Tactical 3—a 1971 IH, 4-wheel-drive chassis with a Ward LaFrance body.
The mini-pumper concept was simply this: a low-cost, easily maintained, fuel-efficient, quick-attack pumper that could function in multiple theaters. The configuration varied a little, but the concept usually involved a water pump turned by a pto, a booster tank that carried 200 gallons of water, a booster reel, and several attack lines. The plan was that the mini would arrive at the scene of a fire and begin a fire attack. There was more than enough water for a room and contents, and if not, it could hold action until its big brother could arrive. The mini-pumper would work well, too, as a brush-wildland piece or an auto extrication-rescue truck.
One book published in January 1982 under the name Consumer Guide Classic Car Series—The Complete Book of Fire Engines gave an account of the majors in firetruck manufacturing at that time. The text included the story of Buffalo, New York, and the winter of 1977. Buffalo already had 13 feet of snow on the ground when a blizzard hit on Jan. 28, paralyzing the city and its emergency services. Pierce Mfg. sent six of its brand new mini-pumpers by train to the beleaguered city, where they ran rescues through streets made narrow by story-high drifts and stranded cars.
Pierce Mfg. was born in 1913 in a former church building in Appleton, Wisconsin. Called “Auto Body Works by Humphrey & Dudley Pierce,” the company was founded by father Humphrey Pierce and son Dudley. The ponderous name was mercifully shortened in 1917 to Auto Body Works. In 1939, the Pierces built their first fire truck—a pumper on a Ford chassis—and seven years later built an Auto Body Works pumper on a proprietary chassis. By 1950, Auto Body Works was calling its line of fire apparatus “Pierce,” and by 1960 the company had stopped the line of truck van and beverage bodies and rebranded itself “Pierce Auto Body Works, Inc.” That same year, Pierce built a mini-pumper. Another name change occurred in 1968, at which point the company was called simply “Pierce Mfg.” Pierce became a subsidiary of Oshkosh Truck Corp. in 1996.
In George Kirkham’s vast collection (62 and counting) of IH trucks, four of them have fought fires. In 2009, he acquired his first mini-pumper from a private owner—a 1975 IH, Model 200 with Pierce bodywork. Mind you, IH was ending production of its vaunted light-duty truck line. This little beauty was born in the IH plant in Chicago, Illinois, on April 28, 1975. Light-duty production ended on May 5, 1975. Appropriately mourning the end, this truck was painted black with black interior and was the 17th truck constructed for an order of 30 going to a IH dealer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. From there it went to Appleton, Wisconsin. In June 1976, Pierce built and delivered the pumper to the New Berlin Fire Dept. in Wisconsin.
The truck was delivered with an IH-built 392ci V-8, which helped speed it to the fire. Feeding gasoline to this thirsty beast is a 4-barrel carburetor that receives its supply from one of two fuel tanks. A 4-speed manual Spicer transmission helps get this 4-wheel-drive classic down the road. Power steering is great for daily driving, but driving off-road with a steel body, 250 gallons of water in a steel water tank, a 300gpm Waterous pump, and all the firefighting equipment makes power steering a must-have. Of course, all that mass must also stop too, so the IH truck’s power brakes are kind of nice. While driving off-road, engaging the 4-wheel drive requires stopping and manually locking the front hubs. The 2-speed transfer case directs necessary power to the front wheels. When Kirkham acquired the mini, it retained the original warning lights and siren. A Code 3 lightbar with sealed beam lights was added. The original Federal Director electronic siren remains, and everything is powered by a 145-amp alternator.
Pierce painted the little truck white over red. Kirkham said a little elbow grease made the original paint look as good as when it rolled out of Pierce’s factory. While cleaning up the paint, Kirkham changed the lettering to “KFD,” which stands for Kirkham Fire Dept. Some repairs were made to the vinyl bench seat, and some wiring was also repaired. A fire truck restoration just would not be complete without a little wiring work.
Kirkham and his daughters Shelby and Pam enjoy showing the truck. When it is not housed in the spacious 22,500-square foot facility with the rest of the IH collection, it is either being driven or trucked to shows.
“I’ve always been more interested in the International trucks than the bodies, but fire trucks are fun,” Kirkham said. “I’ve spent 38 years selling International trucks and 31 years as the dealer in Lethbridge. I don’t care about too many things other than International trucks.”
That says it all!