By Walt McCall, Photos by Jack Harrison
Every time I see Francis Glenn’s gorgeous 1950 Bickle-Seagrave pumper at a fire engine show or muster, it is like meeting up with an old high school buddy. As a teenage fire buff living in Windsor, Ontario (just across the river from Detroit), I often chased Engine 3 to fires on my bicycle—the spillover from the truck’s booster tank an infallible indicator of which corner it had just turned.
Sixty-six years after it was delivered, this classic Seagrave, with its rakishly angled waterfall grille; long, tapered hood; and wide, canopy-style cab, looks as good (no, better!) than it did the day it rolled out of the Bickle-Seagrave Ltd. plant in Woodstock, Ontario. Now, let’s go back to the beginning.
As the 1940s came to a close, the Windsor Fire Dept.’s pumpers were urgently in need of replacement. With the exception of an American-LaFrance 700 delivered in 1948, most of the city’s front-line pumpers were wide-open, chain-driven relics purchased in the 1920s. In 1949, Fire Chief Hedley G. Coates and his senior officers drew up an apparatus replacement program that mandated the purchase of one new pumper each year over the next three years. City Hall concurred, and the first such order was immediately placed with Bickle-Seagrave.
Seagrave’s Canadian cousin was formed in 1936. Under the arrangement, the Seagrave Corp. of Columbus, Ohio, granted Bickle Fire Engines Ltd. of Woodstock the rights to build and sell Seagrave motor fire apparatus in Canada. This arrangement worked well for nearly 20 years, until Bickle-Seagrave filed for bankruptcy in late 1955.
And so it was that a handsome new Bickle-Seagrave Model JB-12 triple-combination pumper, bearing Seagrave factory serial number F-510, was delivered to the Windsor Fire Dept. shops on May 16, 1950, at a contract price of $22,990. So acute was the need for new apparatus that the factory-fresh pumper was placed into service at the WFD’s headquarters fire station on Pitt St. E. just three days later. Lettered “Engine No. 3” on its cab doors, the 1950 Seagrave replaced a 1922 American-LaFrance pumper that Bickle-Seagrave took in on trade for an allowance of $500 toward the new truck.
The new pumper was powered by Seagrave’s largest and most powerful engine, the 900ci Model “J” V-12, which was linked to a 1,050 Imperial gallons per minute (Igpm) pump. (With Canada’s ties to the United Kingdom, Imperial gallons were used until the 1970s, when Canada converted to the metric system. 1,050 Igpm is equivalent to 1,250 United States gallons per minute.) A 150-gallon booster tank fed a booster hose reel mounted under the rear step. Three or four firefighters rode on a full-width, rear-facing bench seat under the rear roof canopy. Entry to the crew seat was through a narrow aisle between the two hose beds. A big Sterling 30 Sirenlite siren was mounted on the cab roof above the wide V-type windshield, and a standard Seagrave 12-inch bell was mounted on the right-hand cowl.
Engine 3 covered the city’s downtown business district out of Station 1 until late in 1952, when another new Bickle-Seagrave 1,050Igpm pumper—one of the new siren-in-the-nose 70th Anniversary Series style—was delivered. The two-year-old Bickle-Seagrave was then reassigned to Station 2 on Walker Road on the city’s near-east side. With WFD radio call sign Car 44, Engine No. 3 responded from that same hall for 21 years—the longest continuous assignment for any single apparatus in Windsor Fire Dept. history. The fires it responded to included the Palace Lanes bowling alley fire in 1954 and the Metropolitan Store explosion in 1960, in which 10 people died and more than 100 were injured.
The years of urban fire service took their toll, though. In 1967, Engine 3 was thoroughly overhauled and repainted a dark shade of red. When it was returned to service a few months later, all of its fancy original gold striping and trim were gone, replaced by sign-painter lettering and the city’s new municipal seal.
Fast-forward another decade. The gracefully aging Engine 3 entered the twilight phase of its long service career in 1977 with the delivery of four lime-yellow Pierreville/Ford C-series pumpers, which in one fell swoop replaced all three of the department’s canopy cab Bickle-Seagrave pumpers. After 27 years of sterling front-line service, the 1950 Seagrave became a spare, filling in for other pumpers that were in the shop for maintenance or repairs. When its big “J” V-12 engine developed problems in the late 1970s, old Engine 3 went into storage in an empty bay in its former home, Station 2.
In the early 1980s, the 1950 Bickle-Seagrave was officially retired and sold to a group of Sandwich West Township volunteer firefighters who planned to restore it for use as a parade rig. As enthusiastic and well-intentioned as they were, they were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task, and the pumper was sold again—this time to volunteer firefighter Mike Ouellette, who had it hauled out to his farm near Belle River, Ontario. Its third owner eventually gave up on this ambitious project and sold #F-510 to vintage fire apparatus buff and collector David J. Wheeler, of Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1993.
Wheeler, fortunately, could see beyond the stripped-down pumper’s gray primer and rough condition. What followed, starting in 1994, was a stunning, frame-up restoration. No expense or detail was spared. The big engine was hoisted out of the chassis and totally rebuilt. Wheeler’s unwavering objective was a perfect restoration of the pumper to its original appearance. He painstakingly examined the photos I had of this rig, magnifying them to capture every original detail, from placement of equipment on the running boards to width and style of lettering and striping. He even had reproductions of the Bickle-Seagrave decals on the cab doors made, after photographing one at a Canadian muster. During this major restoration project, Wheeler was assisted by respected Seagrave expert and author Matthew Lee of Plymouth, Michigan. Famed fire apparatus restorer Ken Soderbeck of Jackson, Michigan, did the authentic striping and lettering.
When born-again Engine 3 emerged from Wheeler’s shop in spring 2001, it looked even better than it had the day it was delivered to Windsor four decades earlier. Entirely appropriately, the spectacularly restored 1950 Bickle-Seagrave made its debut at an antique fire apparatus muster in Woodstock in June 2001. After the muster, Wheeler drove the shiny, red pumper to downtown Woodstock, where it was photographed in front of the former Bickle-Seagrave plant where it was built. Time stood still…
For fourth owner Wheeler, the restored pumper’s crowning achievement was its triumphant return to Windsor on July 1 of the same year, where it joined the Windsor Fire and Rescue Service contingent in the big Canada Day parade—the Canadian equivalent to the Fourth of July. After the parade (at the insistence of this article’s author, who rode in the officer’s seat) Wheeler drove Engine 3 back to the fire station where it had spent most of its career. To the astonishment of Station 2’s on-duty crew, he backed old F-510 back into its old stall.
Who says you can’t go home again?
Dave Wheeler’s prized 1950 Bickle-Seagrave was a consistent crowd-pleaser and prize-winner at antique fire apparatus shows and musters in the United States and Canada, including the 2003 SPAAMFAA National in Indianapolis. It was there that a dream came true for me, when I got to actually drive old Engine 3 at this event—way better than chasing it on my bike! Engine 3 was also a popular participant at the annual Great Lakes Chapter muster in Frankenmuth, Michigan, and the annual Labor Day weekend muster in St. Thomas, Ontario.
Three years ago, Wheeler sold the 1950 Bickle-Seagrave to Canadian Seagrave collector Francis Glenn, of Blenheim, Ontario. Wheeler knew his pride-and-joy was going to an appreciative new home, where it now shares floor space with three other classic waterfall-grille Seagraves—a 1951 Detroit Fire Dept. sedan pumper; an open-cab 1947 model from Atlantic, Iowa; and a recently acquired 1942 canopy cab pumper originally delivered to Newmarket, New Hampshire.
Bickle-Seagrave Ltd. built only five of these impressive wide-cab, high-capacity pumpers in 1949 and 1950: an open-cab pumper for Montreal, Quebec; a canopy-cab pumper for Hamilton, Ontario; and a pumper with three-man closed cab for St. Boniface, Manitoba, in 1949; an open-cab pumper for Hamilton, Ontario; and the Windsor pumper in 1950.
Two years ago there was a unique reunion of Bickle-Seagraves at the Chatham (Ontario) Firefest Muster, not far from Glenn’s home. Three canopy-cab Bickle-Seagrave pumpers were displayed side by side—examples of all three models in this series: an ex-Chatham Fire Dept. 1951 Model 80-E, originally powered by Seagrave’s (anemic) Pierce-Arrow-based, straight-8 engine, but later converted to a V-12; the St. Thomas Fire Dept.’s 1951 Model 66-EB, which was originally powered by Seagrave’s “small” V-12, also based on the Pierce-Arrow V-12; and the ex-Windsor Model 12-JB, powered by the “big” Seagrave-designed and -built V-12 introduced in 1935.
Glenn cautiously refrains from naming his personal favorite in his fantastic collection of nearly a dozen Seagraves, which range in age from 1915 to 1975, but the ex-Windsor 1950 Bickle-Seagrave—the only Canadian-built example in his fine collection—is clearly at or near the top of his list.
Walt McCall has written many books about fire apparatus history and spent 25 years as editor of the Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America (SPAAMFAA) magazine.