Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, is named for British Parliamentarians John Wilkes and Isaac Barre—supporters of colonial America prior to and during the Revolutionary War—and its “Diamond City” nickname is a nod to the region’s abundant deposits of anthracite coal. Mining created an economic and population boom in the region during the 19th century that continued until the conclusion of World War II and the Knox Mine disaster in 1959.
The Wilkes-Barre (pronounced like “wilks bear” or “wilks berry”) Bureau of Fire had very humble beginnings. In 1818, the city appropriated $300 to purchase a used hand pumper, called the “Davy Crockett,” from the City of Philadelphia. As the city grew, so did the Wilkes-Barre Bureau of Fire. Gradually, over the decades, the bureau grew into the motorized and modern firefighting force that it is today.
On October 18, 1962, the Wilkes-Barre city council approved $47,726 to purchase a 1963 Mack B—an 85-foot tillered ladder truck that would become Truck 6. The total was offset by the $4,000 trade-in value of the city’s aging 1936 Pirsch wooden aerial tiller truck. The new tiller’s serial number was B85F1481. (The fact that the aerial ladder is 85 feet long and the model number is B85F, is merely a coincidence. “B85” refers to a whole series of Mack truck specifications, including engine size, horsepower, and transmission.)
Mack Trucks Inc. made approximately 127,000 copies of its ubiquitous model B from 1953 to 1966, and 900 of those became fire apparatus for municipal, industrial, and federal fire departments. Of those 900 Mack B trucks produced, 455 were model number B85F, the “F” designating the fire apparatus model. The B model was designed as a replacement for the A and L models of trucks and was manufactured at its Allentown, Pennsylvania, plant.
While the Mack B hides many of its improvements over the previous models, it did not hide its greater width and more rounded, voluptuous front end. Another hard-to-miss feature of the B85F is the open-cab. Contrary to popular belief, open-cab Macks were not closed-cab Macks with their roofs cut off. According to Don Schumaker, of The Mack Trucks Historical Museum in Allentown, Pennsylvania, they were built as open-cabs from the beginning. Cabs meant for departments that were not concerned with rain, snow, or bitter cold did not have the roof and rear sheetmetal welded in place. Deputy Chief Alan Klapat, of the Wilkes-Barre Bureau of Fire, reported that the open-cab was selected because it was cheaper than the enclosed cab. It is worth noting that Wilkes-Barre is in Pennsylvania, and as such, is subject to 39 inches of rain and 32 inches of snow, annually.
Under the hood, Truck 6 came with the Mack EN707C engine—a 707ci, inline 6-cylinder, carbureted, gasoline-powered Thermodyne powerplant that produced 205 horsepower. Ignition came from dual distributors, while fuel was fed from a carburetor situated on the driver-side-mounted manifold. The Mack could generate a load pulling 615 ft-lb of torque at 1,200 rpm without the aid of any turbo- or supercharging. Power is transferred to the rear axle using a Mack TR671 5-speed manual transmission. The front-loaded rear differential had a 5.57:1 gear ratio and could propel the truck up to 45 mph, sufficient for city emergency driving.
In tow behind the iconic tractor is the 40-foot tiller section, which was also manufactured by Mack. The union between the tractor and the trailer is not a typical fifth-wheel arrangement like you might find connecting a commercial over-the-road semi-truck to a trailer. On a tiller truck, there is no need to quickly and easily separate the tractor from the trailer, so a more permanent union was utilized. Maxim Motor Co., of Middleboro, Massachusetts, provided Mack with the specialized fifth-wheel mechanism (part no. 0112B2760). Maxim also provided many other parts to Mack for the completion of Truck 6, including the four-section, 85-foot steel aerial ladder.
Once the entire rig was complete, minus the ladder, Mack was responsible for shipping the truck to Middleboro—300 miles away—for the ladder to be installed and also to retrieve it, once complete. The collaboration and coordination between competitors Mack and Maxim seemed to work well. For instance, Mack produced and installed the power take-off (pto) shaft, while Maxim produced and installed the vertical shaft from the pto to the ladder’s hydraulic pump. Maxim produced the specialized fifth-wheel mechanism and sent it to Mack for installation. Mack built the truck and trailer and sent them to Maxim for the ladder. Once this manufacturing dance was finished, the tractor/trailer was painted Mack “Medium Red,” while Maxim had already painted the ladder “Aluminum.”
Sitting atop the aft end of the trailer is what differentiates this type of tractor/trailer rig from all others—a tiller. One lucky firefighter gets to steer the rear wheels to allow the truck to snake through narrow city streets. Like on a small boat, the tiller sits at the back of the truck and allows the trailer to rotate independent of the tractor. The “tillerman” has a large steering wheel that is linked by means of a shaft, which passes down through the floor to a gearbox that translates inputs to the rear wheels. What is interesting to note is that, while the driver is turning his steering wheel to the right to turn the tractor to the right, the tillerman is turning his steering wheel to the left to complete the right-hand turn.
The need for tillers grew out of the ever-increasing heights of buildings and the structural limitations of extension ladders. Taller buildings created the need for longer ladders. Early wooden ladders were not strong enough to stack up several fly sections and usually only had a bed section and a fly section. A straight frame truck (not articulated) could only get to a certain length before it would not be able to turn a corner on a city street. As the truck turns a corner, the side of the truck on the inside of the turn shifts in that direction. Without a tiller to control that swing, the truck would wipe clean the street corners of its light poles, hydrants, and pedestrians. (Having tillered this truck myself, I can tell you that I tried to keep the trailer inline with the tractor while simultaneously avoiding collisions between my rear bumper and other vehicles.)
Wilkes-Barre Truck 6 was in frontline service until 1972, when it was placed into reserve. Its successor was a 1972 Hahn tower ladder truck. The Hahn purportedly had many problems and was down for repairs frequently. Deputy Chief Klapat said that the Hahn’s many problems were due to heavy use, rather than poor quality and workmanship. This meant that old Truck 6 was regularly mustered back into service, even in its semi-retired status.
Klapat stated, “I am grateful that it was still in service when I got on the job. I wish we still had it!”
Along with the scores of fires that the Mack fought, it was also damaged in a partial collapse during a fire at the Central United Methodist Church and parsonage on Academy Street, in January 1975.
The last fire where Truck 6 flowed water was in 1991 when Tony Perugino’s Italian Restaurant caught on fire. In 2000, the once-new, powerful, and gleaming Mack tiller truck was an obsolete and faded hulk, consigned to an undignified retirement in a city storage lot. In 2005, Wilkes-Barre opted to sell the truck for scrap to the John W. Bonk Trucking Co. for $500. The trucking company wisely listed the Mack on eBay with an opening price of $500; a bidding war between two prospective buyers drove the final price to $9,000.
Brian Reed placed the winning bid for the 50-foot-long tiller truck. The disparity of the prices between what the city sold the truck for and what the eBay sale garnered caused great controversy in Wilkes-Barre. Some called for Chief Lisman to resign or pay the difference.
Reed hails from Flushing, Michigan, which is northwest of Flint. He is a master electrician with General Motors and a farmer who tends corn, soybeans, and wheat. Ten years ago, Reed decided he wanted to own a ladder truck. His friends, Bill and Jan Rausch, had been the proud owners of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s, Allison Hook & Ladder 2, a Mack B with a Maxim tiller. The Rausches have since sold their truck to Harrisburg Fire Dept. Lieutenant Jason Lloyd, who has lovingly restored it and returned it to the firehouse to which it was originally delivered in 1957.
Now, what to do with a broken 50-foot-long hunk of steel? Reed paid professional truck driver Phil Moelker $1,400 to haul the tiller on a flatbed from Wilkes-Barre to Flushing. Moelker specializes in hauling fire trucks around the country for collectors. In January 2005, Reed’s new project was delivered to his farm.
The first order of business was to get the truck running. A detailed survey of the engine revealed the head gasket was blown. Further investigations found cracks in the block around the cylinder sleeves. Unfortunately, this meant the engine needed to be replaced.
To the Internet!
Reed was able to find a 1967 Mack C model pumper from Marion, Ohio, on eBay and won the day with a $1,300 bid. The Mack C was drivable and made the trip to Flushing under its own power. The reason Reed needed the Mack C is that it had a Mack ENDTF673 turbocharged diesel engine. Mack engine nomenclature translates as: EN=engine, D=diesel, T=turbocharged, F=fire apparatus, 673=672 actual cubic inches of displacement. It is interesting to note that the EN707C, which Truck 6 came with, is the same engine block as the ENDTF673 of the Mack C. The 673, however, is a diesel and has smaller displacement, due to thicker cylinder sleeves, and puts out 220 horsepower at 2,100 rpm instead of 205 horsepower at 3,000 rpm.
Reed had several challenges while swapping the engines. First, the 707 had the carburetor on the driver’s side of the engine, while the 673 had the intake jets on the passenger side. Second, the 673 had a large air cleaner and high-flow oil filter on the driver’s side of the engine, both of which would have protruded through the engine cowl on the Mack B.
Reed was able to overcome the problems by changing to a Fleetguard full-flow, spin-on oil filter mount, which bolts onto the side of the engine. He was able to install a smaller air cleaner and move it to the inside of the engine compartment. After trimming the height of the oil-filler tube, the 673 turbodiesel fit. Reed also replaced the gasoline fuel tank with the diesel fuel tank from the Mack C. The gasoline tanks have a tendency to rust out on older rigs, and the diesel engine needs a return line to the tank. One item Reed did not have to replace was the muffler.
The next problem to address was the differential gear ratio. Reed wanted to take his new tiller on the highway to show it off around the area. The original 707 gasoline engine was designed to run at 3,000 rpm, with a 5.57:1 gear ratio, and travel at 45 mph. By changing over to the 673 diesel, revolutions per minute dropped to 2,100. Reed had to put in a differential ring-and-pinion gear, which changed the gear ratio to a highway-friendly 4.50:1.
The final tasks to complete were mainly cosmetic, except for the wiring harness, which had deteriorated beyond repair. Reed, being the master electrician, built a new one. He also sandblasted the body, which was in reasonably good condition. It was then repainted with 1988 Ford “Medium Scarlet” red paint two-part epoxy.
The chrome was in fair-to-good condition and was left as is. Reed had the upholstery replaced by a local craftsman. The siren, bell, and most of the tools were gone except for the Browder Life Safety Net. Reed replaced much of the equipment, but had to have the bronze bell recast. The final touch to the restoration was gold leaf. Reed had expert fire engine restorer Ken Soderbeck replace the gold leaf and lettering, returning Wilkes-Barre Truck 6 to her former glory.
The thorough restoration lasted about a year with something being done on the truck almost every day. Reed and his family enjoy taking Truck 6 to truck shows and fire musters. The farthest Reed has taken his rig is to South Bend, Indiana, to the ATHS truck show. On one occasion, Reed took the tiller to St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada. When he and his family went through the border crossing, the Canadian Border Service agent checked documentation of everyone sitting in the cab and directed the truck to proceed into Canada. However, the agent was unaware that Reed’s son was in the tiller seat until it was too late. It was obvious that the border agent was surprised and shocked as the “undocumented tillerman” passed in front of him.