It all started in the fall of 2004 with a call from my friend Tommy Herman.
“Hey, do you remember the 1931 Reading Buffalo in your book?” he asked. “If someone doesn’t buy it, it is going to be sold for parts.”
The truck was one of two engines that ran out of Reading, Pennsylvania, Liberty Hose Co. No. 5. I had seen pictures of it—in fact a very nice picture was included in my book Buffalo Fire Appliance Corp.: An Illustrated History. I could not bear for it to be destroyed, and so began a seven-year project that is nearing completion.
Here are a few highlights from that long restoration process. If I were to include everything we did to bring the Reading Buffalo back to life, it would more than fill this issue of Vintage Fire Truck & Equipment.
Fall 2004 After exchanging information with owner Paul Batasini, my cohort Rick Pearsall and I drove to Vineland, New Jersey, to look at the Buffalo. It was about 70 percent disassembled. Body parts were stored in a garage, and the chassis was about four miles away under a tarp in a backyard. We brought everything together in a driveway to assess whether the truck could be saved.
The Buffalo’s original Waukesha engine had been destroyed when a connecting rod went through the side of the block. The replacement engine, from a 1935 Walter snow plow, was wearing its previous bellhousing, which we could tell would not easily attach to the Buffalo’s transmission. Batasini told me the plow engine had been reconditioned, and it turned out to be in good shape with only minor issues. Following a very serious discussion about the difficulty of mating the Walter’s 6-cylinder and its incorrect bellhousing to the Buffalo transmission, we bought the truck.
Most of the Buffalo’s parts were in the boxes we took home. It was missing some railings, a siren, two gears for the spark advance linkage. The most amazing part included was the bell with the 14-inch bronze statue of Liberty on top. We were also provided with many excellent pictures of the truck during its life with Liberty Hose Co. No. 5.
I immediately addressed our concerns about a successful transmission-to-engine marriage by taking the chassis and engine to a local fire truck repair service firm. The crew removed the oversized bellhousing and flywheel, reinstalled the original flywheel, then connected the engine to the transmission in the truck. Success!
During the next two years, I had all the engine accessories repaired or restored.
November 2008 The 6-cylinder fired and ran on its first try. We quickly fixed a few leaks, but soon, a loud grinding sound came from the front of the engine. We removed the radiator and timing cover but did not see the source of the problem. Upon reassembly, we noticed the gear-driven generator was not installed correctly, which caused the gears to line up wrong. After fixing that minor, but scary, problem, we ran the engine several more times, pleased that it was smooth and had a lot of power.
We took everything off the chassis except the pump and power plant (because of their size). We lifted the hose body with the help of a tractor front-end loader and removed other accessories such as brake lines, wiring, and the hand brake. It was a cold day, but we pressure-washed the chassis outdoors to remove the grease.
Spring 2009 I built a chart with all the truck parts and indicated whether each needed to be painted, repaired, or chromed. This let me assess which items would need early attention.
December 2009 I got a lump of coal this Christmas! The only guidance I had for the Buffalo’s pump was one very basic cutaway drawing in a sales brochure and a Hale Pump Co. manual. Two of the pump’s four thrust bearings on the main impellor shafts were rusted, and there were other broken parts around. My parts searches were successful, but while dismantling the pump, I found a 2-inch lump of coal stuck in and completely blocking a 2-1/2-inch intake pipe. My guess is it was sucked in when the company pumped someone’s basement where there was a coal furnace.
2010 In January, I trailered the chassis to Antietam Fire Apparatus Inc. in Hagerstown, Maryland, to be painted. That April, we made a trip to Clyde, New York, to strip a 1929 Buffalo from Wolcott, New York, that had been sitting behind a barn for 30 years. We brought back key items, including a copper water tank, radiator, hose reel, valves, bumper, steering gear, brass rails, boot rails, headlights, spot light, grab handles, and cowl lights.
By June we were sandblasting and painting the white body parts—a job that took more than a month. Everything got blasted, primed twice, wet sanded, sealed, base-coated twice, clear-coated twice, polished, and buffed.
That September, while cleaning the engine in preparation for painting, I removed one of the valve covers and found one valve lifter cracked! I pulled the 6-cylinder so it could be internally checked by a machine shop. The shop polished the crankshaft, replaced the valve seats with hardened seats, repaired the cracked valve lifter, and resurfaced the exhaust manifold.
January 2011 We installed the power train, water pump, generator, starter, carburetor, and radiator. We spent the next several months doing the engine parts, radiator, heat exchanger, pump plumbing, seat, gas tank, and rear step compartment. In February, we painted the gas tank and the seat frame white, then sent the seat out for its new black upholstery. We overhauled the pump’s 2-1/2-inch discharge valves.
March 2011 Someone had lengthened the ladder brackets to accommodate a 35-foot ladder, so we sawed them apart and re-welded them to the original configuration. We cleaned, painted, and installed the exhaust pipe and drove a batch of parts and rails to Ohio for chrome plating. In April, we restored, painted, and installed the rear tailboard supports. We tested and painted the radiator before mounting it, with its polished aluminum shell and firewall cowl. At this point, the chassis started to resemble a real truck.
September 2011 We filled the crankcase (all 14 quarts of it), transmission, and radiator. Then we pulled the Buffalo outside the garage and hit the starter. As soon as gas made it through the system, the 6-cylinder caught with a roar. After only about 10 seconds, liquid spurted out of the engine, and the fan blew it at me in the operator’s seat. After a little exploration, we found that the oil filter gasket had blown out because it did not seat properly, and oil was blowing out under pressure. Two to three quarts of motor oil covered the engine, me, the seat, and everything. It took two hours to clean up the mess!
Fall 2011 We received the four hood sections from the metal shop that were being straightened. We purchased new running board and rear hose bed lumber, and we assembled and sanded the rear deck sections for decking under the water tank and hose bed.
Even though we took photos of the gold leaf on the truck when we got it, none of it was original, so we had to start over and do some research. I started talking to Ken Soderbeck of Hand in Hand Restoration in Jackson, Michigan, about what type of gold leaf to use to keep the truck authentic. Using builders’ photos, we determined that Buffalo used gold leaf transfers on the corners of the body and hood. Ken has the old patterns and made the corners for the body that are absolutely authentic. Then we had to determine what color accent stripe to use next to the gold stripe. The decision was to use red to tie into the lower body red.
February–April 2012 The truck was lettered and striped in Pennsylvania using real gold leaf. Gold leaf decals were added, according to the original photos of the truck.
June 2012 By summer, the truck was finished and prepped for its first outing—the summer Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America (SPAAMFAA) National Muster in Frankenmuth, Michigan.
One of the more interesting discoveries made during the process of this restoration occurred recently when we put on the hood. I have been researching Buffalos for 30 years and always understood that the company built different models based on available chassis and pump sizes. My truck has a 1,000gpm pump, which is large for that era. To power that pump, Buffalo used the largest motor Waukesha Motor Co. offered at that time—a 677ci 6RB model. To support the weight of this size motor and pump, Buffalo had to use a larger chassis; I would guess seven tons or greater. I found that the top of the hood of my truck is about 12 inches taller than the 500gpm model of the same year. This truck is comparable in size to the full-size Seagrave and American LaFrance trucks of that year and weighs 12,000 pounds.
What a learning experience it has been! Cleaning, painting, wiring, locating period parts, installing, and figuring out how the truck parts were originally put together has taken more than 1,400 hours to date and just a little money. Lots of people have helped me with photographs and their restoration expertise toward my goal of restoring the truck to its Reading condition.
Peter D. West is the executive secretary of SPAAMFAA and has spent 35 years researching the Buffalo Fire Appliance Corp., which is the subject of his book Buffalo Fire Appliance Corp.: An Illustrated History. He has also created a registry/delivery list of most of the Buffalos ever built. West was the fire chief in Philomont, Virginia, for four years after having served 19 years as fire chief and battalion chief in Fairfax County, Virginia, where he was also a founding member of the Fairfax County FEMA Urban Search & Rescue team. He owns three pre-war Buffalos and has restored four Buffalos.