The Chevy from Susanville: Dave Koetje’s 1931 Chevrolet 1-1/2-ton Fire Truck

I have been interested in trucks since I was a child. My interest in restoring an old truck became a reality in 1999, when I purchased a 1930 Chevrolet stake bed truck. I worked on that truck off and on for 13 years and was ready for another project. In 2010, I was put in contact with Bob Deaton, of Susanville, California, who had a 1931 Chevrolet 1½-ton fire truck he wanted to sell.

Susanville’s own Fruit Growers Supply Co. purchased the Chevy fire truck brand new in 1931. The fire truck pulled a hose cart and would laid out hose on the property in the event of a fire. The truck had a 134-inch wheelbase and a 50hp, 194ci 6-cylinder engine. When the property was sold to Sierra Pacific Industries in 1964, the truck continued to be used. It earned its retirement, after 60 years of service, in 1991.

Bob Deaton, a former Sierra Pacific Industries employee, purchased the truck in 1991 and lovingly restored it. My wife Lynn and I purchased the truck from him in 2010 and brought it home to Happy Valley, Oregon. The fire truck was in excellent condition, so we only touched up paint, replaced the ladder, and wired the backlights. As far as we can tell, we are the fourth owners of the old Chevy.

The fire truck is often an attraction in parades. Parents love to take pictures of their children in the truck. Last fall, the fire truck led the parade in the 75th anniversary reenactment of the dedication of Bonneville Dam. Various officials from Oregon and Washington—and an actor portraying Franklin D. Roosevelt—rode over the dam in 1930s vehicles. The official photographers and journalists for the event rode in the fire truck. My wife and I certainly are enjoying this old truck and take it out any chance we have for others to see and enjoy it as well.

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Flxible Rescue: Brian Blewett’s ambulance started life as a Buick.

The purpose-built ambulance is a relatively recent development in the history of emergency medical services. Up until the 1970s, many communities depended on the local funeral home to transport the sick and injured to acute medical treatment. Few cities were fortunate enough to have a dedicated medical transport vehicle, which could deliver treatment, as well as, transport a patient.

From the 1930s into the 1960s, ambulances were typically specialized bodies mounted on luxury motorcar chassis. There were a half-dozen manufacturers of these specialty vehicles, including bus manufacturer Flxible, of Loudonville, Ohio.

The Flxible Side Car Co. was established in 1913 to build sidecars that attached to motorcycles with a “flexible” knee-action mechanism invented by company founder Hugo Young. Cheap, mass-produced cars lowered demand for motorcycles and sidecars in the 1920s, causing Flxible to concentrate on larger vehicles. The firm expanded into building motorbuses and professional cars (ambulances and hearses) on modified car chassis. Flxible’s criteria for a chassis included a strong frame, a powerful engine, and an affordable price; Buick filled the bill. Other chassis could be used at a customer’s request, but the majority of Flxible buses and professional cars came from Buick.

Flxible built professional cars by extending the base vehicle’s frame and adding a raised roof, as well as large side doors and a rear door. Through 1938, the body was composed of a steel skin covering a wooden framework. The front sheetmetal to just behind the front doors was provided by the chassis manufacturer. Flxible added horizontal sections of steel to the doors and cowl, and below the hood to lift the front of the body to match the raised rear section.

In 1938, Flxible built 373 professional cars—254 of those on Buick chassis. Ambulances were typically built on Buick model 40 chassis, while some dedicated hearses were built on the Model 60, with that car’s more opulent interior trim. Ambulances and hearses were typically the same basic vehicle, but outfitted with different equipment. Flxible also made popular combination vehicles that could be used as hearses or ambulances with just a little work. These cars could be converted by exchanging the removable siren and attendant’s jump seat of the ambulance for the casket brace and rollers of the hearse.

The 1938 Buick Flxible ambulance featured here is owned by Brian Blewett of Avon Park, Florida. Blewett found it in a barn in central Florida, part of a collection of ambulances.

“When I saw it, I said, ‘I have to have that thing!’ It was a nice find,” Blewett said. “My wife thinks it’s the best thing I’ve ever owned because it rides so nice. It just floats down the road because it’s so heavy. It’s got 46,000 miles on it and runs like a dream.”

His Buick Flxible is 19-1/2 feet long and weighs more than 6,000 pounds.

“I had to extend my garage three feet to fit it in.”

Blewett’s car is powered by a valve-in-head, 248ci Buick inline 8-cylinder Dynaflash engine. With a low compression ratio of 6.15:1, it delivers 107 horsepower at 3,400 rpm. A 3-speed manual transmission is mated to the engine. The original car sat on a 122-inch wheelbase and weighed about 3,700 pounds.

Blewett’s Buick is still in “as-found” condition.

“It’s a work in progress. I plan to restore it a little bit at time, but we like to get it out and drive it.”

The Buick shares garage space with a 1965 Mustang convertible.

“We do a lot of car shows with them,” Blewett said. “The Buick gets all the attention. People barely look at the Mustang; they are all over the Buick because it is so beautiful and so rare. I’ve only heard of about three in the country.”

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The Care and Feeding of Your Fire Engine Steamer: From a time when mechanized firefighting was in its infancy.

While exploring my passion for steam fire engines, I came across an American Fire Engine Co. handbook from 1897 for operating a steam fire engine. The manual is a fascinating and amusing time capsule, and it caused me to reflect on how the steam engine was a real game-changer for firefighters.

In the first part of the 19th century, fire departments still relied on the labor-intensive hand pumper. This accounts for the large memberships kept by volunteer fire companies in order to frequently rotate pumping crews on and off of the apparatus. Germantown, Ohio, still maintains its first hand pumper and lets the public use it during its fire muster every July. It is an exhausting, anaerobic activity that saps an able-bodied person’s energy in a matter of minutes. Having had the opportunity to operate this pumper a few years ago, I can understand the drive to find a more efficient, less exhausting way to deliver water to a fire.

Upon the invention of the first practical steam engine in 1789 by James Watt, inventors and entrepreneurs found new ways to use the exciting and groundbreaking technology. It also became just the advancement needed to revolutionize the fire service.

In 1852, the city council of Cincinnati, Ohio, had the foresight to see that one of these steam engines could potentially replace three volunteer hand-pumpers. In March of that year, $5,000 (a hefty sum at the time) was appropriated for Abel Shawk and Alexander Latta to build a steam fire engine for the city. Named the “Old Joe Ross,” it was self-propelled and could spray water 240 feet into the air. Best of all, as long as it had water and fuel (wood and coal), it would never get tired.

It was a vast improvement in the way fire companies operated. These new fire engine pumps, driven by steam boilers, became known as “steamers.” The early steamers required a complex balance between fire, steam, and pressure. On an 1897 steamer design, water is heated in the large black boiler at the rear of the engine by means of the fire box at the bottom. The engineer rides on the step behind the boiler and tends to it as the team of horses furiously pulls the apparatus to the fire.

The heated water creates steam, which is piped to a set of pistons directly in front of the boiler. The steam causes the upper pistons to move up and down, although a few manufacturers oriented the pistons horizontally. The upper pistons are connected to a second set of lower pistons. These pistons, with the help of a check valve, suck water in from a supply source (hydrant, river, or pond, for example) and send it through the fire hose to the nozzle, which the firefighters use to extinguish the fire.

The highly-recognizable, large, nickel-plated sphere in front of the pistons is the pressure dome. It is filled with air that is compressed by water from the pulsing pressure of the pistons. Without the pressure dome, the pulsing action of the pistons would cause a rapid increase and decrease of pressure in the hose. The firefighters would not be able to hold the fire hose for long. The air in the pressure dome evens out the spikes of pressure by absorbing them through the expansion and contraction of the air in the dome.

This revolution in firefighting did not come without some grave consequences. The steamer was essentially a portable boiler with all of the dangers associated with fire and pressurized steam. There is a long and sad history of steam boilers exploding and killing many people. Whether they are in buildings, ships, or locomotives, improper procedures in using a steam engine can be deadly. Just as it would be today, the steamer came with an essential operating manual. However, in today’s world of constant warnings and precautions, the simplistic and rather assuming language of this unearthed manual transports you back more than 100 years.

The following are intriguing excerpts from the 1897 American Fire Engine Co. manual for operating a steam fire engine. Contrary to the preface, a manual for operating a boiler is intrinsically vital, although it speaks to the general understanding of the typical firefighter of the late 19th century.

 

While some engineers of steamers may be of opinion that the greater part of the information contained in this book is needless, being of a very simple nature, it should be borne in mind that most men who run steam fire engines are not practical machinists and have but a superficial knowledge of the uses of steam and of hydraulics.

 

When a young firefighter today endeavors to become an engineer on a modern fire engine, the pump panel seems to be 20 feet wide and 15 feet high and appears to have a hundred gauges, all of which seem to need attention simultaneously. As the panel is mastered, these dimensions shrink to their actual size and become manageable, often second nature. How relatively simple a modern engineer’s job has become compared to those early engineers of the steamer. Today, switches are flipped, some valves are moved, and the fight with boredom begins for the remainder of the fire. Don’t misunderstand. When a modern engineer arrives on a fire, it is still terrifying and exhilarating. With everyone yelling, “Water, now!” it seems the water tank will never last long enough to hook up to a hydrant. It feels as if one cannot move fast enough. However, an engineer in 1897 had those same duties and much more. Before the engineer could even get pressure to the hoses, he first had to prepare and light the fire:

Lay on the grate some dry pine shavings—not too many—spread evenly over the grate, with a few hanging down between the bars; on the shavings, put some finely-split pine or hemlock wood, then some a little coarser, and finally a quantity coarser still. It is well to put on the top some finely-split hard wood. These kindlings must all be dry and split—not sawed—and should be put in loosely, in layers, the layers being crossed, so that there will be a free circulation of air between them.

Never start a fire unless a full gauge cock of water is in the boiler.

Always keep a good torch in the fuel pan, ready for use. This can be made by taking a stick about two feet long and tying some cotton waste on one end, and saturating the waste with kerosene.

 

While racing to the fire down a bumpy cobblestone street in tow behind a team of horses trying to hold on, those early engineers had to labor to get a working head of steam pressure. Despite the excitement, chaos, and difficult circumstances, the engineer was still responsible for maintaining the fire and monitoring the boiler and steam pressure:

 

The kindling should be carefully prepared, and the quantity carried sufficient to generate a working pressure in the boiler before coal is added to the fire.

When there is a pressure to 40 to 60 pounds of steam, begin throwing in coal, a little at a time, broken up in pieces about the size of a man’s fist. Bituminous coal should be used, the same as that from which illuminating gas is made. It should be of the very best quality, entirely free from slate or sulphur.

The mistake is frequently made of allowing most of the wood to burn out before putting in any coal. This should be avoided, as the kindling must be burning nicely in order to start the coal. If the supply of wood should become exhausted, always begin throwing in coal while there is still enough wood in the fire box to ignite it, even if the gauge does not indicate any steam whatever.

Do not put the wood or coal all close to the fire door, but scatter it about and spread it evenly over the grate.

 

Once on scene, the engineer had the same sense of urgency that a modern-day firefighter feels. Perhaps all firefighters have struggled with controlling excitement sometime in their careers:

 

After the engine is fairly started, do not stand too close, but let your position be a step back; and, with your face towards the machine, endeavor to train your eyes and hands to command the entire situation. While it is perfectly proper to be near the throttle, in order to promptly close it in case of bursting hose or failure of the water supply, do not acquire the habit of constantly clinging to the same, for there are other duties equally as important that require your attention.

In the general hurry and rush, avoid all excitement, and let your duties be attended to in a calm and collected manner.

 

Although it thoroughly explains the important operations of a typical steam fire engine, it is strange to a modern engineer that the rather important safety warnings about boiler operations are glossed over. From the following excerpt, one does not even get the idea that a mistake at this point would be disastrous and life-threatening:

 

In case of low water, and it is found impossible to feed the boiler in any of the different ways provided, the fire must be drawn instantly. Don’t turn on the feed, start or stop the engine, nor open the safety valve; let the steam outlets remain as they are, and allow the boiler to cool down.

 

In a modern manual, there would be lengthy amounts of text in large, red, bold, and underlined warnings. Today’s manuals would explain, at length, that if the boiler is not fed proper amounts of water, or if it overheats, it could explode. The manuals would explain that relief valves could fail or become overpowered. Perhaps this is indicative of the fact that boiler explosions were common enough that the authors felt it unnecessary to expound.

Although the modern engineer has the benefit of almost 120 years of fire engine innovation since this manual, certain constants remain. A fire engine’s ability to pump water is not limitless. It must operate within the laws of hydraulics:

From this brief explanation, it must be plain that the capacity of any engine is diminished as the length of the line is increased; and although the source of supply may be abundant, the amount of water actually available at the nozzle is greatly reduced. Since it is necessary to keep within the limits of the strength of the hose, it is essential that the velocity of flow be diminished; to accomplish this end, and also retain the discharging pressure necessary at the pipe, a nozzle of smaller bore is demanded.

The cause and effect of the different conditions met in actual practice should be carefully observed and studied. The evils of many unalterable obstacles may be frequently modified, if not entirely overcome, by an intelligent disposition of the factors in the case.

 

Other guidelines in this manual also remain as true today as they did more than a hundred years ago. While we no longer tend to fire boxes and kindling, the habits of constant care, maintenance, and remaining “at the ready” still ring true. The traditions of proper upkeep to promote pride, maintain equipment longevity and function, and decrease response time have been passed down through generations of firefighters:

All things about the house should be kept in good order and neat condition, particularly the engine, which ought always to be clean and bright. Avoid neglect, which tends to waste and decay, as dirt often covers unsuspected faults.

While standing in the house, the engine should at all times be kept ready for immediate service, with plenty of shavings and kindlings, in the fire box, and as much kindlings and coal in the fuel pan as can be conveniently carried.

 

The above excerpts are just a sample from the “Handbook of the Steam Fire Engine, with Instructions for the Running, Care, and Management of the Machine and Directions for Operating Heater, Also Suggestions for the Care of Hose, and other Useful Information.” The manual is excellent for comparing and contrasting modern-day fire engine operation with that of steam engine operation, and for taking a brief journey back in time.

Surprisingly, the 117-year-old manual shows more similarities to modern firefighting than it shows differences. As someone living in the 21st century, the manual reveals vast and intriguing differences. As a 21st century fire fighter, however, it is easy to immediately connect with our brothers from the past and to recognize all that remains the same. We must still keep our house and engine clean. We must polish the brass and keep it shiny. We must lubricate the valves and ensure all couplings are airtight. We must learn the pump well and know its limitations. We must remain calm and collected, even in the face of grave calamity. Although many technological advancements have been made, the essence of firefighting has not changed. We have only traded the “starting torch” and coal for an ignition switch and diesel fuel.

The above excerpts, as well as the steamer manual in its entirety, are available online or in the book “Those Magnificent Old Steam Fire Engines,” by Fred Conway.

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1955 GMC Pumper: Chip Lytle brings a veteran fire truck back to factory condition!

Chip Lytle epitomizes the term “aficionado” when it comes to vintage fire apparatus. Working at his garage in Middletown, Ohio, where I interviewed him for this story, his passion for everything related to vintage fire apparatus is evident. Chip always has a smile on his face and a story to tell about firefighting or fire apparatus. He lives to love old fire trucks.

Numerous engines and hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces and parts—along with fire-related tools and equipment—cover every shelf, wall, and corner of the garage. In one corner of the shop sit the chassis, frame, engine, and original fenders from a 1938 Seagrave Safety Sedan. Originally used by the City of Oakwood, Ohio, this rare piece is one of many awaiting restoration.

His lifelong passion with fire apparatus began as a young boy in and around Oakwood, a Dayton suburb. Born John H. Lytle, III, he was known as “Chip” to everyone. Young Chip followed the Public Safety Officers of Oakwood around town and, in 1963, joined the Kettering Fire Dept. as a volunteer. He would go on to become the longest-serving active volunteer in the department’s history, serving 45 years.

It was early in his volunteer career that he purchased his first piece of vintage fire apparatus—a 1928 Ahrens-Fox. He paid $555.95 for it, and it ignited a passion that still burns today. Over the years, his interest in old fire engines grew and the collection steadily multiplied. At its peak, Chip’s collection held nearly 60 vintage fire pieces, including engines, ladder trucks, and specialized equipment that ranged from a unique 1918 American LaFrance to several pieces from the 1980s and everything in between.

Through the years, Chip has sold some of his prized possessions to other collectors and fellow members of the Miami Valley Antique Fire Apparatus Assoc. (MVAFAA) and the Society for the Preservation & Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America (SPAAMFAA). He knows every owner and keeps in touch with them through the apparatus-collecting brother- and sisterhood. These folks dedicate much of their free time to preservation and restoration of apparatus and firefighting history in America. Today, his collection stands at 50 vehicles in various stages of restoration. Time, help, and funding remain the biggest challenges to restoring much of his current collection.

Among his remaining prize possessions are several pieces from the Kettering and Oakwood Fire Departments. One of these is a restored classic 1955 GMC “Jimmy” pumper, manufactured by General Motors Truck Corp. in Pontiac, Michigan. The Jimmy was powered by an inline 6-cylinder engine, which provided the rig with a rated 181hp at 2,800 rpm. The American Fire Apparatus Co. of Battle Creek, Michigan, completed the final assembly, including compartments, hose bed, lighting, and 750gpm pump with booster tank. Final assembly GVW stood at 28,000 pounds when delivered for service.

The engine originally went into service at Fire Station No. 4, located at Woodman Drive and Patterson Road in Kettering. The city, named after famous inventor Charles F. Kettering, became incorporated as Ohio’s newest city in June of 1955. The city needed to purchase modern apparatus and bought several new GMC engines to serve the growing fire protection needs of the expanding community.

The new GMC was a looker, with its shiny white paint, bright red fenders, and gold leaf lettering. Mounted on top was a 40-foot extension ladder, known in the fire service as a “Bangor ladder” because of its origin with the Bangor (Maine) Extension Ladder Company. Kettering did not purchase its first aerial ladder until 1959, so the large Bangor ladders were used to access rooftops and upper levels of taller commercial buildings under construction in the city. Carried atop the new rig were two large distinctive floodlights, mounted in front of the hose bed. The polished chrome grille, Federal Signal Q-Siren, and bright silver diamond-plate running boards all set this engine apart from many traditional engines of its day.

The original 1955 GMC engine can be viewed upon its initial arrival at Station 4 in a narrated YouTube video. This nostalgic eight-minute video shows original 1955 apparatus being inspected by department members and includes firefighting methods of the Kettering Fire Dept. in the mid-1950s.

The 1955 GMC served the City of Kettering until being placed in reserve status in the late 1960s, where it remained until removed from service and sold as surplus in the 1970s. Chip Lytle purchased old “Jimmy” no. 4. The engine was still in operating condition when purchased, but in need of restoration and detailing work that would include new paint, lettering, bodywork, and upholstery to restore its original luster.

Through the 1980s, Chip obtained much of the original equipment assigned to the engine during its service life. The final restoration work was contracted through the B&G Truck Body Shop in Moraine, Ohio.

“They handled the new paint, body restoration work, and custom gold-leaf lettering,” he said. He estimates the initial restoration cost at $12,000. The newly restored engine returned to Fire Station No. 4 four as part of the station’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1994.

Today, the engine remains one of the most eye-catching pieces in Chip’s collection. It has travelled as far as Frankenmuth, Michigan, to attend the Great Lakes Antique Fire Apparatus Muster. It appears annually at the Germantown, Ohio, Firemen’s Association Muster and has appeared in numerous parades and other antique fire apparatus musters regionally. The engine is always a crowd-pleaser wherever it goes.

When I asked Chip why a man has more than 50 fire engines, he paused and said, “I just enjoy it. Some people collect matchbook covers; I collect fire engines.”

And boy, does he do that!

Randy Baldridge’s background includes 34 years in public safety service. He spent 13 years as a volunteer with the Kettering Fire Dept. He recently retired as Assistant Director of Public Safety for the City of Oakwood, Ohio. Randy served five years at Kettering Station 4 in the 1980s.

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